Both men and women are victims as well as perpetrators of the male gaze. Resolutions will not turn to revolutions till the male gaze is deconstructed and decommissioned for life
R Swaminathan | January 8, 2013
Editor’s note: This was written days after the December 16, 2012 gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in south Delhi. Eight months on, we revisit the article since the setting may have changed – a 22-year-old Mumbai, photojournalist this time – but the circumstances and the situation remain eerily similar.
True-blue Marathi manoos Salil Deshpande is an honorary Manipuri. He is also a frequent partner-in-crime in unleashing practical jokes on unsuspecting friends. On August 13, 2005 as he was taking a stroll in the Gateway of India a man with a chopper in his hand attacked two Manipuri girls. He first stabbed 23-year-old Leisha Choan repeatedly in the throat. As Choan crumpled to the ground, her friend Ngakuimi Ralang, just 20 years of age, rushed to protect her. The crazed man then turned his attention towards Ralang and started slashing wildly at her body. A severely bloodied Ralang cried to the assembled crowd of mostly men for help. She pleaded, “Please save us. We are not foreigners, we are Manipuris. We are Indians.” No one stepped forward. Only Salil did. He bravely went to Ralang, used whatever was at hand to stop the bleeding, took her and Choan to a taxi and rushed to the hospital. Choan died. Ralang made a slow and painful recovery. Her family, friends and the extended Manipuri community adopted Salil. The Maharashtra government awarded him for his bravery. But Salil still cannot understand why no one else responded.
It’s a gruesome tale. In Ralang’s heartrending cry for help to be recognised as ‘one of them’ and the collective inaction that followed it, lies a worldview that informs the male gaze. In fact male gaze is not a look. It’s a worldview in itself. It is such an all-encompassing eye that its presence is not even recognised most of the times. Even when a young girl is brutally gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi, her friend pulverised and both thrown off on the roadside like rag dolls. The boiler room that powers the male gaze constitutes complex dynamics of relationships of power that are more socio-psychological in nature than individual. To mix it up with a man’s sexual impulses, urges and sexuality, which is often the case, focuses undue attention on the final outcome – to what happened – while obfuscating the real reasons behind the outcome – to why it happened. Sex and gender are as different as apples are from oranges. Sex is a biological reality marked by physical distinctions. Gender, however, is a socio-psychological construct. It retains the physicality of sex as its foundation, but architects a sociological discourse of relationships of power. It’s in this transitional space between biology and sociology that the male gaze safely resides, ensconced from prying eyes.
Constructing power: A step-by-step manual
Power is all about first establishing and then maintaining control. And control is all about having the ability to channelise and moderate the access of people and institutions to social, economic and political resources. Social power, also referred to as social capital in literature of certain orientations, often intersects and overlaps with economic and political power. But social power can also exist independently of both. Social power is the ability to mould the public discourse in such a manner that a collective logic for social life is constructed. It’s through this logic, which acquires the contours of commonsense – never questioned, never debated – that relationships of power are architected. Those relationships are then operationalised through specific mechanisms of control.
Men and women have physical advantages as well as limitations. For instance, women have relatively smaller dimensions than men due to certain muscle groups being less defined. It’s a genetic and biological reality. Yet they have a proven superior ability to withstand pain than men. The pain experienced by women during childbirth touches the absolute threshold of human pain barrier. That also is a genetic and biological reality. But the public discourse on gender is mostly shaped by the perceived weakness of women as a result of their smaller physical dimensions. Smaller is equated with weaker, ergo the term ‘weaker sex’. The male gaze is a representation of this specific logic. Every other social relationship mediated by caste, class, religion, community, language and region is imbued with the same logic, of course with minor variations, which determine the social frameworks of exclusion and inclusion.
The extension of this logic into the sphere of social action and daily life leads to a polarised, and rather permanent, demarcation of ‘us and them’. That demarcation transforms itself into a complex framework of ‘dos and don’ts’ and ‘freedoms and restrictions’. When this logic meshes with gender, a polarised framework of understanding social reality is created. It’s a relatively easier polarisation, as the physical distinctions between men and women make it easier to construct a public discourse that crystallises the societal roles and responsibilities of both. Hence, women are ‘socially expected’ to take charge of the activities of provisioning for a home, while the men are ‘expected’ to take charge of the activities for providing for a home. These expectations are layered by a complicated system of ‘dos, don’ts as well as freedoms and restrictions’, all oriented towards producing the ‘correct’ social behaviour. Spread over a few generations, they morph into collective values of family and community, a sort of an overarching pedagogic framework for society. To put it simply, social expectations acquire institutional overtones and the rigid finality of traditions.
Maverick Marxist social scientist and philosopher Louis Pierre Althusser in a different time, era and context had stumbled upon a pertinent insight. He said that State and its institutions has at its disposal various means and mechanisms through which it enforces its authority and power. He classified those tools under two broad heads. He called all visible and overt tools of enforcement, like the police, military and bureaucracy, as Regressive State Apparatuses (RSA) and referred to all the invisible and covert tools of enforcement, like media, social relationships, public and private networks as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). As an aside, Althusser had his own inner demons and suffered from intense bouts of mental illnesses. During one such bout he strangled and killed his wife. Despite his not-so spotless personal history, Althusser’s insight is more relevant in today’s time and age than it was during that tumultuous era. Society is a meta-institution composed of several smaller institutions and sub-institutions. Every institution has its own set of mechanisms, often overlapping with other institutions, by which its power and authority is enforced. Some of these mechanisms are coercive in nature – think ex-communication of women who marry out of caste or the bar on the entry of menstruating women into temples. Other mechanisms are covert and more in the nature of suggestive counselling – think about the various ways through which women are advised to dress appropriately, be shy and retiring. To paraphrase Althusser, each institution, then, has its regressive and ideological apparatuses. But none of these apparatuses can work unless there are enforcers for both. Let’s us take three institutions of an Indian family, a traditional and informal community network and a secular and formal, workplace and run it through the lens of gender.
The power of male gaze and how it’s enforced
Family is squarely placed in the realm of private space. Yet it is governed by a set of collective values – derived from the larger community within which the family is placed – that are flexible enough to construct customised life frameworks for each family. Think of these collective values as Lego blocks. Just like these building blocks, each collective value is attuned for customisation of an existing conceptual structure – like building a fire truck in a various ways, but a fire truck nevertheless – but inadequate for a creating a new one. So the girls in a typical Tamil Brahmin family, in comparison to the girls in a typical North Indian Marwari family, will be highly educated, many in the best of institutions, and several will even reach the higher echelons of institutional power structures – like the civil services – but will always be expected to keep their professional and intellectual achievements subservient to the ‘larger interests’ of family life, like rearing children and provisioning for the household.
There are the very same ‘collective family values’ that would have been inculcated in the Marwari girls too. These collective values are derived from an unequal power structure and contribute towards strengthening it in a simultaneous manner. In a way it enforces inequality and by every single act of imposition further deepens the unequal power relationships. In every family there is a dominant force or set of forces that are considered as repositories of these collective values. Typically, this would be a male – a father, a grandfather or an uncle. Think of them, as Althusser would, as the Regressive Apparatuses. They are the ones who would be asked to crack the whip when the ‘balance of power’ is threatened. Every family also has its set of enforcers. Typically, this would be a female member – a mother, a grandmother or an aunt – who have been made a believer through years and decades of indoctrination. Think of them, as Althusser would, as the Ideological Apparatuses. Their modus operandi to achieve the ‘desired behaviour’ and to carry out ‘necessary modifications’ would be a disapproving look, emotional appeals, a systematic inclusion of ‘collective values’ in daily life – for instance the almost forced inculcation of rituals in Tamil Brahmin girls to first find and then protect their future husbands or the concessions given to the male members of the family in terms of disassociating them from household work – and, quite often, a suggestion of a threat of violence from the dominant male member/s. Ironically, the enforcement of the male gaze and the underlying unequal power relationships that accompany it is prominently done by women.
A traditional and informal community network, a khap panchayat for example, is squarely placed in the realm of public space. Yet by the domain that they seek to control – creation and maintenance of collective values – they neatly erase the boundaries between private space and public space. Such informal networks are essentially composed of the same repositories of collective values that dominate the supposedly private space of family – the uncles, fathers and grandfathers. They are a curious mixture of ideological and regressive apparatuses. In a sense, they create social meaning and at the same time enforce them through subtle means, like ‘advising’ women not to carry cell-phones, and through brutal methods, like hunting down young couples who marry out of caste. While the men dominate the regressive apparatuses and are at the forefront of its use, like the brother who beheaded his sister in Kolkata recently for having an affair, the women dominate the ideological apparatuses. The processes by which women, wittingly or unwittingly, become an integral part of the system of enforcement of the male gaze are exactly the same processes that they encounter in the supposedly private space of family. So at the moderate end of the spectrum a mother will mould the girl to behave appropriately as per her ‘secondary’ stature, while at the extreme end a mother will publicly ‘disown’ her daughter who runs away with her lover and also justify her killing by her brothers and uncles for bringing dishonour to her community, as was evident in the brutal killing of an upper caste girl who had run away with her Dalit lover in Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. Informal and traditional community networks spread out the collective values – read the male gaze – in such an extensive manner that they blur the distinction private space and public space. The impact of this concentrated acidic logic squeezed out of the collective values is so deep – literally burning its way into the collective memory – that it gets reflected in the formal public space irrespective of political and ideological leanings.
So when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat says that ‘rapes happen in India and not Bharat’ it’s an implicit acknowledgement and approval of the coercive methods of control practised in rural India and the explicit construction of a myth. Similarly when BJP leader and Madhya Pradesh industry minister Kailash Vijayvargaya brazenly proclaims that women who cross their limits, like the proverbial Laxman Rekha, will be punished like Sita, he is reinforcing an implicit notion that Sita’s independence caused her ‘downfall’. And when a supposedly liberal Congress member of parliament, and president Pranab Mukherjee’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee snidely calls women protestors ‘dented and painted’, he is echoing an aspect of the male gaze that perceives women who are independent enough to be comfortable with their bodies and inherent womanhood, as opposed to the one constructed by the male gaze where the women is never made comfortable of her body, as ‘easy and available’. Ironically, as with the family and the khap panchayat, several women play the role of enforcers. So when Vibha Rao, chairperson of the Chhattisgarh state women commission, says that ‘women inculcated in Western culture send wrong signals’ and are responsible for ‘what befalls them’, she is essentially arguing that women have to necessarily mould themselves to fit neatly into the male construction of womanhood. All of these statements are reflective of the anxiety of men who have seen their male gaze, and consequently their power structures, being probed, questioned and revealed.
One could be forgiven for thinking that a secular and formal workplace would be different. After all work is, at least theoretically, gender neutral. It is a place where merit is supposed to hold supreme. The workplace, whether in the corporate, public, civil society or institutional sector, does have clearly demarcated regressive and ideological apparatuses. Even though the terms ‘regressive and ideological’ may not be appropriate here, it is still being used to main the continuity of understanding. For instance, when the administrative systems of a workplace deduct the salary of an employee who swipes in late, it’s one of the ‘regressive’ apparatuses in operation. Similarly, when the human resources department of a workplace organises an off-shore team building exercise for its employees for inculcating the organisational culture, it’s one of the ‘ideological’ apparatuses at work. Both of them are critically required in the workplace, where efficiency, productivity and teamwork are paramount. Yet every workplace also develops an informal network through which perceptions and thought processes are created and maintained. It’s this informal network that nullifies the theory of gender neutrality by introducing massive doses subjectivity, derived from the same collective values that we have encountered earlier, in the daily operations of the workplace. Often it’s this through this informal network that the male gaze, and its shadowy power, gets enforced.
The formal symbols of power in the workplace are a derivative of a specific manner of construction of authority and responsibility. It’s usually in the form of salaries, designations, perks and privileges like a cabin, or a larger cabin, a peon or even something as simple as a larger and a different coffee mug. It’s an interesting aside that larger and bigger, exactly the same attributes that led to the construction of the ‘weaker sex’, from larger cabins to bigger cars, is seen to be the superior symbols of power with a capability to enforce and project power better. The informal network more often than not works towards enhancing the power projection of this formal network. At one end of this spectrum it could be a whisper campaign against an extremely intelligent, ambitious and aggressive woman – all good qualities when it comes from a man but somehow bad when it emanates from a woman. At another end it could be a blanket overarching philosophy infused in regular small doses that aims at achieving specific sets of behaviours and outcomes. For instance, in one organisation an intelligent and ambitious woman was subject to a whisper campaign, ironically by her female colleagues, accusing her of being ‘too aggressive and not appropriate for the organisational culture’. In another, the thought leaders of the informal network, women again, harassed a female colleague to release her work without proper scrutiny and review so that certain points of view and issues, which could have benefitted the organisation but would have weakened the power structure of the informal network, would not be represented properly. In both cases, the formal power structure was dominated by men, while the informal network, aka enforcers, was dominated by women.
Of empty resolutions, morchas and press conferences
The violence of the Delhi gang rape and the subsequent painful death of the victim brought out genuine anger, frustration and raw emotions of people into the open. It was a spontaneous uprising. The brutality of the deed shook individuals and institutions alike; for all her faults Jaya Bachchan’s grief was genuine and palpable as was the general reaction of the people from ‘boil the rapists in hot oil’ to ‘cut off their genitals in pieces’. One may have a quibble or three with the violent nature of the reactions and the words exchanged, but one cannot but accept the genuineness of the upheaval.
Out of this sea of raw horror and anger, individuals and institutions, some well-meaning and some downright opportunistic, could only churn out resolutions of empty platitudes. Some were well-worn and dog-eared like ‘Make Delhi Safe for All’, as if the issue at stake was only one of law and order, and some were slightly more innovative like ‘Teach Women Karate’, as if the responsibility for their physical safety rests only with them. It was the same with morchas and press conferences. Some were well-meaning, no doubt, but others were clearly an afterthought to ride and milk the popular anger. Yet all the resolutions, morchas and press conferences did not touch upon the male gaze or the inherent power structure that it has so rigidly imposed on the fabric of social life. Several people, unfortunately, are not even aware of how their thought processes have already been shaped by the male gaze.
Take the concept of domestic violence. The premise is that violence that takes place within the four walls of the house, an apparently watertight private space, between a husband and a wife is domestic. By implication, the concept assumes that domestic violence is structurally, physically and socio-psychologically different from the violence that’s non-domestic. This is when the problematic of gender violence gets even more complicated as non-domestic violence has not been defined at all. In fact, it cannot be defined. By defining domestic violence in strict legal terms and by not defining non-domestic violence, a certain narrow legalistic definition with a liberal sprinkling of sociology and psychology has taken roots. Any study that accepts this fundamental premise ends up tinkering with the legal base and increasing or decreasing the seasoning of sociology and psychology. Much like how different cooks would prepare the same dish.
Gender violence starts with the male gaze and the wheels-within-wheels power structure that it constructs, refines and reconstructs continuously. The male gaze is a continuing evolution. Much like a strident virus, it keeps morphing and changing its form, constantly mutating existing meanings and constructing new ones. Yes stronger laws are required. Yes, courts have to deliver speedier justice. Yes, sex education must be made mandatory in schools. Yes, police must follow a zero tolerance policy against any form of gender violence. Yes, women should have the freedom and liberty to choose how they want to dress, what they want to watch and who they want to move around with. Yes, there should be sensitisation campaigns. Yes, women, children and senior citizens must be safe 24x7 and 365 days a year. To all these yeses, let me also add one more yes. Yes, I want to grow wings, don a cape and fly. All these well-meaning statements will remain as ridiculous as my last one, till the time the male gaze is not acknowledged, understood, deconstructed and decommissioned. For life and forever. When that happens, Ralang’s heartrending cry would be answered by thousands and Salil would be happy.
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