Monday, August 20, 2007

Dancing Through The Minefield

Ann Kolodny: The minefield is the male fear of sharing power and significance with women. Once we deactivate its components, we can ‘dance through the minefield’.....

The essay through an anecdote from Mumbai, India:

This week’s Indian Independence Day celebrations in our building society:

The Chair’man’ of the society decides to make the announcements to those assembled – around 50 to 60 adults, more or less equally divided by gender. Also some 10 to 15 primary school-age kids in attendance - older children are away at school for a similar celebration.

He calls upon the women thus: ‘Now that the Pratibha effect has happened, I request one of you to come forward for the first time, and hoist the flag’… and urges Mrs. Khandelval as the eldest among all to come forward and do so. By all accounts, he is extremely pleased with himself, at making such a timely and what he sees as a popular statement. And he feels justified, when many of the present women giggle.

With the building society 7 years old, and with both Independence Day as well as Republic Day celebrated, this is the 14th occasion of flag hoisting, and I have just realized that in a residence of a 100 apartments, with an equal number of men and women, it is the first time a woman will hoist the flag - since she has been invited to. More so, it is being proffered as an honor. The men have deigned to bestow the honor and accept the presence of the women now that ‘Pratibha Patil’ is the new Indian female president. There are also a few snide comments among those present, on whether she as a person deserved to be the president, or whether she is just a ‘rubber-stamp’ president.

Later, some patriotic songs are sung lustily and loudly by all, men, women, children… Sare jahan se achcha; ai mere pyaare watan…. Chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat puraani….

And finally, the same Chairman continues, with a wide smile, ‘And also due to the Pratibha effect, we can assure you that the woman’s role will not be forgotten – we have some breakfast that is being served for the first time’, and everyone then makes a beeline for the free food served.

Let us look at this through the lens of Ann Kolodny’s essay Dancing through the Minefields :-)

As long as there was no such announcement of ‘let a woman hoist the flag’, we were all equal through the past few years. There was no history per se of an inequality of genders. Every flag-hoisting occasion, some person was called upon to do the needful: a visiting dignitary, an older resident, the building committee members, and it was never ever interpreted in terms of gender. But that just became sidelined, with the pronouncement of this ‘being the very first time a woman may please come forward’. The past was fictively imputed as a place where women did not have a place or a role (although the women had actually been actively present all through).

Ann Kolodny’s proposition number one: There is no ‘really was’ in history – it is what we impute it because we need it for now. We need to utilize the past for a better understanding of the present. (Thus there is a continual reinterpretation of the past to suit the present)… there is no way of proving or disproving the author’s intentions….

2. The songs that we sang so full of pride, make no sense to the younger generation born in a post-liberalized world. This is a gen that belongs to a globalized world, and has access to technology which knows no borders, speaks a common language (so which then is the ‘pyaare watan’?).

When we sang that most beautiful were your mornings and your sunset the most colorful (sabse pyaari subah teri, sabse rangeen teri sham), also our salaam to the winds that come from your heart (tere daman se jo aaye, un hawaon ko salam), we were harking back to a time when patriotic songs created a fervour that also had an implied ‘other’ – an unnamed enemy.

Instead of churning up emotions against some ‘enemy’ we are now happy enough to have the children imbibe feelings of nationhood. So that, as they grow, they unconsciously listen with pleasure to other such songs. We hope we have taught the how to of appreciating this genre, rather than the song by itself (that really by itself, makes no sense to a child belonging to the 21st century globalized world).

Proposition number two: The same text can lead to infinitely different meanings at different times… according to our own changing assumptions, circumstances and requirements. (it is often a fairly unconscious process – when we are young, we learn certain interpretative paradigms. And we actually delight in the interpretative strategy than in the text really)…. We are unable to distinguish what we read versus how we have learnt to read/ canonize.

3. When the chairman says ‘You ladies can bear testimony that now that the Pratibha effect is here, it means you are also served breakfast’, someone could point out that it is not the fact that breakfast was served due to the presence of the women which is to be noted, but that families have landed up in high numbers, due to the promise of a free breakfast, that is the important point!

In other words, we read the same point made, but from a different / perhaps even wider perspective. Even more of an indictment was the fact that in the home of the chairman, his wife has been unable to complete her MA degree, due to lack of support from the men in her family – her husband, her dad in spite of wanting to do her higher education some 15 years after marriage. Underlying feeling : ‘what need do you have for this degree anyway? You need to stay at home, stay safe (it’s an unsafe world out there) and look after the needs of the family…. And if women were being presented as the experts in ‘cooking’ roles – thus the served breakfast, it was something the men were seeking to perpetuate, to keep society intact, from their perspective.

Proposition Three: When we evaluate in a certain way, we need to be aware of the inherent biases and assumptions that way of reading entails. In other words, we need to question our context of judgment. This will not diminish our reading, but will enhance it via becoming part of an altered reading attentiveness.

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