History of Feminine Space

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One of the most remarkable sections in Devaki Nilayamgode’s memoir pertains to an unspoken domestic rebellion. Every month on the advent of their periods, women in Nilayamgode’s family–as in households around Kerala in the early 20th century–sequestered themselves in a specific room. During that time they were deemed ritually impure, prohibited even from entering the kitchen. The period room, however, also served as a space where these women were, for once, completely unsupervised by their men.

Such moments were a rare privilege. As Brahmins, Nilayamgode and her sisters were denied many freedoms, and nothing more than basic literacy and a rudimentary education. They were, for instance, not permitted to read. Books were contraband for girls and newspapers, with all their scandalous news about social reform and change, were even more “dangerous” for female eyes and minds. But in the very heart of their Brahmin household and the strict patriarchy it represented, these girls found ways to rebel, transforming that period room into the hub of illegal intellectual activity and quiet dissent.

It was here, for instance, that their maids brought them books and papers, which these girls devoured right under the noses of their orthodox fathers. It was to this place that sympathetic and progressive brothers smuggled in news of the world for the benefit of these young girls. That time of the month when they were “impure” became also the time when they enlightened themselves with knowledge beyond what was prescribed in their familial prison. And in the process not only did they take the period room outside its intended purpose, they veritably reclaimed that space and made it their own.

Across the ages, women have always found ways to resist attempts to stifle their voices, and even in the most oppressive conditions, succeeded in thwarting rules of the patriarchy. It was not easy and the price was always high. A mere glance at Bhakti literature tells us about the challenges they faced. Mirabai is seen, for example, as a great devotee of Krishna, but she was also a woman who stood up to Rajput society. “I will not become a sati,” she declared, when asked to burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Told by her in-laws to conform to patriarchal norms, she refused to obey–she went to public gatherings, met wise men and fellow devotees, and when pressure became so intense as to culminate in threats to her life, simply walked out of her palace, becoming a wandering saint.

So too with Mahadevi of the Lingayat tradition in Karnataka, who abandoned a palatial home, and refused even to cover herself with clothes–she was vulnerable and often alone, but continued undaunted. Her poetry tells us as much about god as it does about a woman’s intellectual journey, achieved almost entirely in opposition to scandalised male sensibilities. The Maharashtrian poet-saints Bahinabai–a Brahmin–and Janabai–a maid–convey their frustrations with domestic drudgery, using the vocabulary of faith to voice resistance. These were all women who could not break the shackles placed around them. But they yet challenged those ideas and made themselves heard.

We now live in a time where, for the first time, women are equal partners and constituents of society. Or at least this is what is possible in theory. In practice, it remains easier said than done. A mere glance at social media will reveal the disproportionate violence in words and online targeting that women endure. This is true particularly of women in the public eye, but increasingly also in the case of private citizens. As long as a woman appears non-controversial, conformist, and in line with a dominant mindset, she is safe. When, however, a woman expresses an idea that stands up to existing mores, which challenges narratives, or asks even a simple question, the mood shifts.

Almost every woman online experiences this–a student mansplained by someone much older, or a film critic receiving rape threats for calling out misogyny in a leading movie star’s latest film. It is a manifestation of our worst impulses where on a 21st century invention such as social media, we have imported the accumulated filth of every previous age alongside barely concealed sexual violence. Social media, as scholars are increasingly arguing, is changing even democracy and painstakingly constructed institutions. But if we are to address these issues, we must first address the toxic environment it tolerates for women. Till women are safe on social media, there can be no broader reform.

Of course, this does not mean women will wait quietly in the interim. As we witness everyday, no matter how much they are abused and trolled online, women are here to stay and to fight back in unison. A Mirabai may have been compelled to walk out, and a Devaki Nilayamgode may have resisted in silence in her own way. But that was then–today the world has changed, and women will not only fight for their space and claim it for themselves, it will be the men who will have to acknowledge this and grow up. That is the way it should be, and that will be the culmination of battles waged for generations and centuries by remarkable women who refused to give up.

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