Women’s Identity in psychological theory and the Indian cultural context

Kavita Kishore & Girishwar Misra

More than three decades after the radical activism of the women’s movement of the 1970s we are still standing at a point in psychological discourse where a variety of questions related to women’s experiences, their identities and notions of agency and politics remain unarticulated. While most feminist criticism in India during this period in disciplines like history, literature, anthropology or political science has produced a rich and diverse scholarship being strongly influenced by the poststructuralist and postmodern critiques developed by French intellectuals (particularly Foucault, 1970, 1972; Derrida, 1981), psychological research has not fully exploited the radical rethinking of these powerful currents. Even though there has been a qualitative turn, which has challenged the dominant paradigms of traditional scientific research, it has only marginally touched upon the issues of gender. There is no denial of the fact that advances have been made towards studying women’s experiences, but most of them have fallen short of recognizing the diversity of these experiences within a dynamic and complex cultural context like in India.

Situating women’s identity in relation to the developments in psychological research on gender we need to guard against their shortcomings so as to be able to achieve a more contextualized and meaningful understanding. The fact that of the five ICSSR surveys of research in psychology, wherein the fifth is still underway, the last two have included reviews on gender research from the period 1983 – 1995/96 and 1993 – 2003 respectively, is itself seen as indicative of a greater visibility of work on gender and that gender issues are increasingly being brought to the fore of scholarly debate and inquiry. The first review of research on gender in psychology in India (Bharat, 2001) covering the major research trends of more than a decade (1983 – 1995/96) indicates that beginning with efforts aimed at increasing the visibility of women, highlighting problems specific to women, redressing inequality, injustice and oppression, and identifying the sources of powerlessness of women(Krishna Raj, 1998), the focus has gradually shifted towards examining the superstructure and ideology that led to the formation of values and norms underlying women’s suppression and discrimination (Desai, 1994; Saradamoni, 1994; Krishna Raj, 1998). Yet it was felt that to a large extent research failed to integrate women’s question into psychological inquiry in meaningful ways, remaining content mainly with establishing sex differences.

Although early research on gender presents a rather dismal picture, the trends have been changing and Vindhya (2004) has highlighted that in the last decade there has been a significant amount of work on issues related to women’s mental health, violence against women, paid employment, martial status, identity, and reproductive health. Particularly, in relation to the mental health of women path breaking work has been done by Davar (1995, 1999, 2001) who looks at a range of dimensions like socialization practices, gender discrimination, violence, physical and sexual abuse, employment, reproductive processes and the ways in which they define women’s personality and links them with experiences of distress and illness in women.

Even in terms of women’s identity there have been studies (Prasad, 2003; Sahoo, 2004; Thomas & Vindhya, 1994) which look at aspects of gender role orientation and the qualities like relatedness, emotionality and cooperation that are instilled early in the socialization process. Yet again it has been noted that though the direction of research has shifted towards a focus on women’s lived experiences there is still a need to study the multiple aspects of women’s lives in relation to family, workplace, caste politics etc. particularly against the backdrop of changes in relation to globalization, consumerism, fundamentalism, migration and so on.

Apart from the insistence on studying gender role differences and stereotyping, and a heavy reliance on western tools for inquiry, it has also been observed that the academic isolation of most of these studies, with their reluctance to initiate and engage in cross-disciplinary inquiry, and their unwillingness to transgress one’s disciplinary boundaries has resulted in a serious shortcoming in terms of being unable to formulate a strong theoretical framework which can integrate the social, political, historical, and economic aspects that have a great bearing on individual and social life.

The strength of psychology as a discipline lies in the fact that it focuses on all the aspects of human life in totality but despite this we have been unable to grapple with the vast array of processes that crisscross everyday life practices. This is so because the focus has mainly been on studying human behaviour under controlled laboratory conditions, not in recognition of their social embeddedness. Due to this reason we have also failed to create a far-reaching impact on analytic discourses outside our own domain. The next step that we urgently need to take now, keeping in mind the drawbacks of the past, is to shift our agenda from this self-absorbed closure, towards a more interactive multidisciplinary approach that looks at human worlds as constructed through historical and political processes and not as absolute, timeless facts of nature.

Rethinking gender

With this sort of reorientation if we look at psychological research on gender in India in the past few years we see that attempts have been made to study “women’s identity” and the specific issues that confront them, but these have mostly been based on the relational models. Since in our context the individual is seen as constantly being transformed by its transactions with others, and conveys the essence of its nature and receives the essence of others by entering into relationships of transactions (Marriott and Inden, 1974; Roland, 1988), psychological research that has turned away from the empirical models has greatly been influenced by them. In general areas like psychological development in terms of women’s construction of self and relationships and the complexities of their experiences have been largely ignored.

Within psychological research a significant body of work on identity and the aspects of femininity has been influenced by the psychoanalytic perspective, of which Erikson’s (1968) study of identity across the entire life span has been central. He has given a sequence of predetermined stages each of which has a turning point, a crisis, whose resolution is the source of psychosocial growth. In conceptualizing this he emphasizes on ‘identity formation’ as the most important stage since it is through this that one is able to integrate the diversity of changes in physical growth and social awareness to move towards choices and decisions which make a unique and reasonably coherent whole for the person leading to commitments for life ahead. He has outlined this entire process along masculine and feminine roles, which makes his work doubly important for us.

Apart from this, other studies on femininity of relevance are those by Chodorow and Gilligan. Though both theorists have focused on womanhood in terms of a relational model, Chodorow (1978) has explained the structures of inequality and women’s sense of self around the theory of motherhood. Gilligan (1982), on the other hand, has identified women as ‘different’ from men and has sketched through these differences the notions of femininity. Following these theorists, research in the Indian context also reveals that the relational perspective and gendered morality are predominant (Vasudev and Hummel, 1987; Gupta, 1994; Vasantha, 1995). Specifically employing these theories because of the importance of the relational model for our context, this paper is mainly an attempt to assess the efficacy of these theories against the light of the postmodern perspectives on gender studies.

Psychoanalysis, feminism and the feminine personality

With the emerging significance of the role of environmental factors and culture, psychological analysis too began to rework the understanding of human development. Quite strategically categories like ethnicity or gender were invoked within analysis. Against this backdrop and also against that of the strong feminist movements in the West, Erikson (1968) too in his theorization reconfigured identity and outlined a new model, which emphasized socioculturalfactors as well as sexual differentiation.

Womanhood and inner space: Erikson’s perspective

In charting out identity development through a series of predetermined stages Erikson delineated the differences between the sexes arising along specific social roles. According to him, the achievement of masculinity or femininity signified identity and was grounded in the different social roles of production and reproduction. In his view a child begins to recognize itself as male or female as early as it begins to develop autonomous movement and a sense of initiative. With this the child not only begins to make comparisons and develops an untiring cognitive curiosity about size and kind in general, but also about sexual and age differences in particular. This is when one begins to comprehend future roles and develops sexual self-images which become essential for future identity.

Although, Erikson’s main focus was on the entire life span and the concomitant achievements of each stage, with specific focus he charted out femininity as identity and elaborated how it was anchored in the ground plan of the body. Based on the play patterns of children he noted that boys and girls used space differently, and girls consistently configured scenes of interior harmony consonant with their future reproductive roles. They preferred closed spaces and domestic settings, whereas, boys anticipated their activities in the competitive market, built high towers and imagined scenes of peril and danger. Doing away with the Freudian notions of penis envy and the so-called genital trauma he premised the existence of an inner bodily space safely set in the center of the female form and carriage, which he thought had greater actuality than the missing organ. Suggesting a shift regarding the theory of feminine development from sexuality to biology, he emphasized the early dominance of the productive interior which he believed provided vital inner potential to women.

The notions of femininity built upon ‘trauma’ appeared to him to be subordinate as compared to the significance of ‘inner space’ which led to the feeling of feminine potential instead of a feeling of lack or deprivation. Similarly, the inner space also gave them a sense of solidarity with other women instead of hateful contempt. It provided the willingness to pursue activities consonant with the possession of ovaries, a uterus, and a vagina instead of there being any passive renunciation of male activity. And, the ability to withstand pain was a meaningful aspect of human experience in general and of the feminine role in particular as opposed to there being any masochistic pleasure in pain.

Apart from all these aspects being built into the schema of feminine identity, he says that women’s life very importantly also contains an adolescent stage, a stage of psychosocial moratorium, a sanctioned period of delay of adult functioning. Here the maturing girl is relatively freer from the tyranny of inner space wherein she may venture into outer space with a bearing and a curiosity, which often appears hermaphroditic if not outright masculine. This, he specifies adds a special ambulatory dimension to the inventory of her spatial behaviour, which many societies counteract with special rules of virginal restraint. On growing up when she moves beyond her biological role, which is defined, by her productive interior, it is because human society and technology have transcended evolutionary arrangements making room for cultural triumphs of adaptation. But he insists that in this sphere too, women would not be fully actualized unless it reflects the inner space and the potentialities and needs of the feminine psyche. Thus, the larger implications of his treatise is that the feminine psyche is bound to its anatomy and can competently deal with outer space not by merely adapting to male roles but by working in areas specifically suited for them.

Mothering and inequality in social relations: Chodorow’s perspective

Considering the insights provided by Erikson’s psychoanalytic theories on identity, despite his misogynist notions on femininity, there was a retrieval of interest in defining femininity along psychoanalytic lines. But in this return to psychoanalysis the individual was no longer viewed as driven primarily by physically based urges such as sex and aggression, instead relationships with others or attachment to ‘objects’ became the principal motivating factor (Buhle, 1998). Of the theorists that emerged Chodorow (1978) has been vastly influential for her investigations about the reasons for women’s oppression and the nature of femininity.

With emphasis on mothering, she said that the focus on the relationship between mother and infant could open a window, not merely in the processes of sexual differentiation, but into the structures of inequality itself. Transposing post-Freudian theories into feminist terms she explored the developmental dynamic of self-and-other as a source of not just gender identity, but woman’s subordination to man and in the process highlighted the disparities for boys and girls in the formation of specific character traits designated as masculine or feminine (Eisenstein, 1983). For her, the sweeping historical changes, which had brought about fundamental transformation in the social relations of production, were not enough, as they did not assure concomitant changes in the domestic relations of reproduction. Instead, she thought it was important to analyze how sexual asymmetry and inequality are constituted, reproduced and can be changed.

Her contribution was towards the analysis of the ‘reproduction of mothering’ as a central and constituting element in the social organization and reproduction or gender. In underlining female and male personality development, she pointed out that mothering is not merely a product of female biology but is built into the woman and grows through the mother-daughter relationship. The fact that women mother was the extraordinarily significant reality in the development of not only a differentiated sense of self but also of a gendered identity.

Sketching the developmental paths of identity she noted that boys face a unique psychological situation. By age three the boy must separate from his mother and identify with a father whom he rarely sees. But because the breadwinning father of Western society is so remote, the boy achieves his masculine identity only indirectly, mainly by rejecting and devaluing that which is m/other. Masculinity therefore remains unstable, forcing a continuous reaffirmation of its integrity by rejecting the mother and defining  femininity as both different and inferior.

Drawing extensively from Winnicott (1965) to stress the interactions of mother and child in the developmental process she emphasized the conflicts between attachment and separation. In defining feminine identity, she located its source in the primary object love of early infancy. Since women experience selfsameness with their primary love object, the mother, they do not need to pull away from their primary attachment as boys need to in order to identify with the father as male. Due to this reason there is no need for drastic separation from the mother in girls and remaining always connected they never completely individuate. As a result they experience themselves as being more continuous with others, their boundaries of separateness are never as rigid, and the basic sense of self remains connected. Since they never completely individuate as adults they seek to reestablish the beneficial relationship of the mother and to reproduce primary love they achieve emotional satisfaction by giving birth to their own children.

Thus, women’s connectedness and identity is rooted in becoming mothers not because nature suited them for this role or sex-role stereotyping forces them but this capacity and desire is built developmentally into their psyche and becomes the most significant part of their identity structure. For Chodorow, the important fact was that the totality of women’s experiences was not just different from but superior to that of men. Although the aim of outlining women’s personality structure was more to rediscover the emancipatory potential of maternity and restore sexual symmetry with getting men to be equally involved in childrearing, she revivified the realm of reproduction and glorified motherhood as the most significant feminine potential for women.

The ethics of responsibility: Gilligan’s perspective

In a similar vein another attempt to define femininity was made by Gilligan (1982), who explained this by comparing the different styles of moral reasoning of men and women. Rejecting Kohlberg’s interpretation of difference between men and women in moral development she said that the capacity to respond sensitively to a situation rather than sticking to absolute rules did not denote inferiority. Kohlberg had ranked women as inferior in moral development as compared to men and has equated the autonomous masculine self, with the capacity for abstract judgment, as superior. Gilligan instead pitted this masculine morality of rights against the feminine ethic of responsibility and charted out women’s development along entirely different lines.

Gilligan noted that the failure of women to fit existing models of human growth did not signify inferiority but pointed to a problem in their representation in psychological literature and an omission of certain truths about their life. She highlighted that women had different modes of thought, judgment and action because of the social context wherein factors of social status and power combined with reproductive biology went in to shape their experiences and relationships. She criticized the depictions of identity and transition to adulthood for their focus on the development of self and aptitude for work because it threw very little light on intimate and generative relationships. There was a line of development missing from these depictions, which recognized the truth of separation but failed to emphasize on the reality of continuing connection in terms of women.

In her work Gilligan focused mainly on the divergent construction of identity in women, whose selfdescriptions, she noted, spoke typically of the ongoing process of attachment, an important feature that creates and sustains the human community. Emphasizing on the dynamics of separation and attachment in gender identity formation, she said that there was a fusion of identity and intimacy in women because they always described their identity in connection to someone as for instance, future mother, present wife, adopted child or past lover. Their standard of moral judgment that informed their assessment of self is that of relationship, ethic of nurturance, responsibility and care.

According to Erikson too, identity is forged in relation to the world it comes to be identified with separation, wherein attachments become developmental impediments because intimacy and generativity proceed identity. It is so Gilligan says because in the world of work and achievement his focus on individuation for adulthood was equated with personal autonomy. Such understanding makes the concerns with relationships appear as weaknesses even though it is an essential human strength. The difference is that women’s transition from childhood to adulthood is not exactly marked by separation but witnesses a redefinition of attachment and care. For them identity is marked by the moment when the activity of taking care distinguishes itself from helping and pleasing or the wish for approval from others. It then takes on as the ethics of responsibility which becomes a self-chosen anchor of personal integrity and strength. Thus, like Chodorow for Gilligan too, women do not essentially separate from the mother, and it is implied that their identity is merely a maturation of relational capacities towards care and responsibility, a uniqueness of womanhood that must get its due.

Recovering femininity

In spite of the valuable insights provided by these psychological perspectives on identity, the fact remains that in the face of cultural and historical relativity within which we live our own reality becomes much more relevant in forming our meanings. The cultural essentialism of many of these findings has often been criticized for universalizing experiences along homogeneous categories of behaviour. Due to the contextuality of all behaviours none of these concepts can be assumed to have identical connotations in all cultures. Even though Erikson (1979) had noted that after years of work with his scheme across cultures one aspect remained fixed: the order and sequence of the stages of development; and the length of any stage, its age of onset or the intensity of conflict experienced could be dramatically different from one culture to another.

In this way it still remains important for us to identify not merely the stages as they occur in our culture but the uniqueness of experiences which define these. History suggests about the dynamics of the relationship between men and women, and how it is markedly different for women whose upbringing and socialization has always been based largely on the identities they are expected to assume as adults. Keeping this in mind, identities can not be merely understood by essentializing anatomical or mother-child relationships but more importantly we need to see that it comes into being also through social determination, wherein most significant becomes the complex process of gendering which defines and demarcates identity. No doubt the sequence of stages marked out by Erikson remains fairly unaltered within our culture also, as has been noted by Kakar (1979) in terms of the Hindu ashrama (stages of life) theory. But, firstly this theory is based on the functional life cycle of men and secondly, even within Erikson’s framework explanations of femininity cannot be based entirely on the configurations of physiology where the concomitants of history and personality only combine to shape identity. In attempting to define the uniqueness of womanhood he sees in it the potential to safeguard the species but the basic modalities of personality remain attached to the ground plan of a woman’s body. Similar are the other theorists who have essentialized motherhood as the biological destiny of women. None of these views have escaped criticism despite the developmental insights provided by them.

The fact that Erikson stated that the female body predisposes women to a unique biological, psychological, and moral determination to care for human life, drew the strongest criticism from Millet (1970). She countered Erikson by saying that what he does not recognize is that the traits of each group are culturally conditioned and depend upon their political relationship. She said that he mixed two kinds of reasoning about femininity: Freud’s chauvinism and his own chivalry. The two march arm inarm according to her. In this case, in the first version women lived as unequals under the ruthless law of the missing phallus; in the second version chivalric men made enormous concessions to women’s desires and needs. And the survival of the world depended upon this chivalry. Moreover, Erikson made women so content with their maternal status and higher values that they could easily yield all aspirations of “outer space” to men. In conclusion, she said that if this is so there is really very little hope for us. In this light his theories can be seen to have worked only in perpetuating patriarchal modes of knowledge in a different fashion.

Apart from this, Erikson’s own observations regarding the notion of women’s inner space are based on the play patterns of children. Here the observation proceeds directly to the symbolic interpretation of play and negates the role of social processes which work upon the individual since birth because of which such play patterns emerge. It has been noted in a fairly large number of studies (Brody, 1956; Jacobson, 1964; Rophie and Galenson, 1981) and has been given particularly in detail by Mahler (1975) who observed that boys and girls confront sexual differences much earlier than Freud imagined. And that it is during the first year of life that a child, in achieving a sense of self, distinct from the mother, also gains a sense of gender.

In a much more recent work Butler (1990) too has strongly argued that the construction of gender proceeds right from birth and since then one is subjected to gender. She says that the midwife’s cry, “It’s a girl” itself puts one within the matrix of gender relations and the “I” neither precedes nor follows the process of gendering but emerges within it. Thus, the body and within it sexual differentiation only becomes a stable referent which demarcates one as male or female, on which the process of gendering proceeds. In light of these arguments we cannot assume that it is as late as early play stage that the child begins to identify with the self-same parent in anticipation of its future role. Nor can it be assumed that it is only then that the child develops the prerequisites for masculine or feminine initiative based on sex role stereotypes. Instead, it becomes clearer that since there is no pre-social self our identities are constituted as gendered much earlier into structures which shape our identities.

On the other hand, even the analysis of both Chodorow and Gilligan has not escaped criticism. They depict motherhood and relationality in such a positive way as to regard them as inherent aspects of women’s identity. They too, have been charged with propagating a new cultural essentialism within which not biology, not anatomy, but the seemingly invariable processes of early development produce the dramatic difference between the sexes (Moi, 1989). Their analysis has onerous consequences as Moi says: it reintroduces the age-old patriarchal dichotomy, that is, a specific female nature pitted against an equally specific male nature.

In charting out womanhood as a unique quality these theorists have tried to give an apparent continuity to the stages of development in case of women. They have failed to recognize several earlier findings which suggest that until adolescence there are no differences between boys and girls in either muscle strength or intellect, and as adults despite physiological differences women have shown a sameness of intellectual orientation, and capacity for work and leadership (Beauvoir, 1952). Anthropological findings, like those by Mead (1935), based on her extensive fieldwork in diverse societies also suggests the need to recognize that beneath the superficial classifications of sex, the same potentialities exist between men and women, recurring generation after generation, only to perish because society has no place for them. In spite of these findings, any notion that stresses on inherent differences between the sexes in terms of relationality or that womanhood is destined in its anatomy runs the risk of putting us into a space where there seems to be no possibility of emancipation.

Beyond biological destiny

Another drawback of the relational model is that it implies that women experience continuity in development with their primary love object, the mother, because the girl perceives a selfsameness with her. Here too, there is no recognition of the conflicts and contradictions that come along in the course of development particularly those during adolescence. In our context, the efficacy of these concepts becomes all the more questionable because there is a fairly different kind of emphasis on the upbringing and socialization of girls. It is radically different from that of boys who are given a preferential treatment. Even though during very early years there are no significant differences in their upbringing, there are several restrictions placed on the freedom of movement of girls after the age of eight or nine years, whereon they are confined to the company of their own sex (Saraswathi & Dutta, 1990). After this stage, the onset of puberty is marked by the enforcement of several rituals and taboos. This stage is largely seen all over India as signaling the physiological maturity of the girl and since girls are considered to be the repositories of their family honour their socialization is based entirely on the future roles they are expected to take up. Due to these reasons this stage is marked by confusion and bewilderment for the young girl who is unable to clearly comprehend her adult role (Das, 1979). Keeping this stage of conflict in mind we cannot assume that the girl painlessly slips into her adult role by identifying with her mother.

Moreover, the girl does not have any tangible reasons in terms of physiological development to feel like her primary love object, the mother. In fact, the maternal desires reflected by her in play or fantasy are a desire to overcome this inadequacy, a lack not of not being like a boy, but a lack of not being like the mother. Because of this, adolescence is definitely marked by crisis and a search for one’s identity, and it is only the physical changes that follow puberty that may later provide reassurance to the budding sense of identity of the girl. Thus, the girl does not experience any continuity in development simply because of being of the same sex as the mother. Her feelings of inadequacy lead to separation and individuation in the girl as well because this crisis determines the emotional stability which enable her to achieve self integrity and a sense of self and identity. The feeling of selfsameness with the mother is then only a stage which she reaches at young adulthood when she can identify herself with the mother and with her future role as wife and mother. In the present times when role relationships have changed considerably and adolescence has become a much longer than it was in more traditional times, it becomes all the more important to focus on the conflicts and crises that mark the passage to adulthood, and on the ways in which they have created newer modes to represent their self and identity.

On the other hand, propounding the relational model Chodorow (1978) and Gilligan (1982) suggest that mothering and a feeling of continuity and selfsameness with the mother, the primary love object, determines the distinctive modes of thought, judgment and action of women, and shapes their experiences, relationships and identities. If this is true femininity is something that comes from within, as an innate and inextricable part of women and hence should be a universal, unchangeable reality of all women’s lives. Yet depending upon the possibility of the social situation and self-expression, women have created ways of speaking about themselves in ways that either negate or do not prioritize these as the only aspects of their identities.

Often personal ambition too can outweigh a woman’s sense of responsibility towards both her husband and children. Not only a sense of relationality but motherhood too cannot be seen as the only most significant aspect of women’s identity. With other possibilities and opportunities of self-expression available women are seen to find greater fulfillment and satisfaction in pursuing their ambitions as compared to their nurturant roles. In fact, even despite close familial bonding, and love and affection some women forego these attachments without any resultant feelings of lack or inadequacy.

Though it is true that motherhood is a very positive life experience because of the total engulfment of the mother and child in a common physical and experiential environment, as well as the mental absorption that it generates in the mother, but there are a range of sociocultural and personal factors which can smother over the intimacy and its positive aspects (Davar, 1999). Motherhood should not be seen merely as a biological relationality but a consciously worked upon compassionate emotional connection with much larger personal political overtones, that cannot be presumed to be naturally originating aspects of the mother-child bond.

And though motherhood grants an enhanced status to a woman in the Indian cultural context, particularly being mother of a son (Kakar, 1979), it is also very stress inducing as it builds in them considerable pressure to prove themselves and a fear about the outcome of their pregnancy (Patel, 1992). Motherhood is also highly devalued because our society gives a heightened moral responsibility to the mother without necessarily giving her any positive power or authority over her children (Bhattacharji, 1990). The mother is reduced to a passive biological object, contributing nothing to the development of subjectivity in her children, wherein only the father does that because he represents agency and autonomy (Vindhya, 1995). Nonetheless, the responsibility of socialization rests a great deal on the mother and they are blamed for the developmental problems of both sons and daughters (Kakar, 1978, 1997). Even a majority of abusive words used for men are actually directed towards their mothers and question the sexual mores of their mothers or women related to them (Garg, 2000).

With such a social devaluation of motherhood prevalent it becomes all the more difficult to accept that it is one of the only significant ways in which women define their identities. Understandably, it is the most significant way in which a society constricts women’s identity which they often do not realize because it in itself often turns out to be pleasurable and gratifying for the mother. But it cannot be assumed that this is the only way women define their identities. Motherhood is a complex emotional and psychological experience, which cannot be understood to be meaningful due to any psychobiological, unconscious drive, because its meaningfulness rests entirely on the mutual empathic, compassionate bond that develops between the mother and the child, and hence, it cannot be a universal feature in defining identity.

Dealing with discrimination

Another significant difference that marks the lives of women in our context is the differential socialization of girls, their segregation and the enforcement of rituals and taboos on them at the onset of puberty (Saraswathi & Dutta, 1990). The girl’s life from this age is then largely restricted to the domestic sphere and to household chores. Since it has been observed that until adolescence there are no significant differences between boys and girls (Beauvoir, 1952), it is from here that the crystallization of identity takes place in specifically feminine ways. Restricted to the household the girl’s identification is based on mainly female figures and gets absorbed in relationships. Hence, the development of relationality is also largely due to being constricted within the women’s sphere wherein the basic responsibility is that of caregiving and nurturance. But with changing times, increased freedom of movement and changing expectations (Roland, 1988) girls strongly identify with their fathers and other significant and important figures outside the household.

With these changes women may not foresee themselves only in their nurturant roles and hence, we can see that relationality develops as a significant socialization pattern and not as an inherent quality. The continuity that girls experience with their mothers is also because of their restricted involvement with the mother. In instances where the father is the most significant person a girl identifies with, there emerges a very different understanding of a sense of relationality.

Besides, the asymmetry in the socialization processes of boys and girls and the confinement within the domestic sphere has much more far reaching consequences on women’s personality than the development of relationality. It also creates a debilitating inadequacy and a culturally conditioned timidity which makes them dependent on men. This dependence is carried further in marriage where again they remain dependent. The sense of inferiorization that is built in them has to be often labouriously fought against and the fact that women are able to come out of it to redefine their identities suggests that their inadequacy is socially constructed and not an inherent trait.

Moreover, this discrimination is not merely about restriction of movement, it has been noted that of everything that economics measures women get less (Datta and Sinha, 1997), and in terms of socialization the society facilitates a self effacing mode of human engagement for women and the social reality is one of deprivation (Davar, 1999). This discrimination is with respect to both material and psychological resources and benefits. Even marriage, with its stressful effects requiring a young girl to adjust to a demanding and completely new sexual and social life is incomparable to anything that happens in a man’s life. For acceptance in her new home it requires her to forsake the cognitive schemas learned from childhood to adolescence, with all the memories, object-attachments, affective ties, role models, habits and behaviour, and learn a new set of cognitive schemas for her marital home. With these expectations, there are hardly if any cultural practices that can help her to adjust and cope up with these changes. After marriage one’s own family often becomes emotionally and physically unavailable to the daughter, who is expected to adjust and go back to her marital home in spite of any dissatisfaction that may arise.

Even in terms of morality, chastity and sexuality, it is women who are seen as the guardians of virtue and purity of the family and community whereas no such expectations impinge on men. Some of the main reasons for early marriages of girls in very traditional and orthodox communities is also because of the perceived vulnerability of female sexuality which can then be regulated and controlled through marriage. In marriage her sexuality is regulated by the pleasures and demands of her husband and is expected to comply uncomplaining without showing too much pleasure or resentment. Some of these culturally sanctioned male prerogatives also see sexual transgression on the part of men as a sign of virility and manhood, whereas on the part of women as a moral deficiency and inferiority of character.

Besides, female morality and sexuality are also regulated by caste discourses, wherein women are seen as intrinsically less pure due to bodily functions like menstruation, and if they are from the lower caste their vulnerability to sexual abuse becomes greater as they are seen as already impure (Dube, 1996 Moreover, sexual abuse is also often seen as a punishment for not complying with gendered norms, which is then possibly justified with the argument prevalent within cultural discourse that she called for it, blaming the victim as the one who provokes (Krishnaraj, 1991) and hence, is responsible for what happens. Hence, most sexual norms are also structured in ways that legitimize violence against women.

Redefining the field

Keeping all this in mind, it becomes important for us to recognize that in terms of identity politics, as long as the relation between individuality and relatedness remains one of superiority and inferiority, it becomes more important to understand the structural politics that demarcates the two spheres, wherein one gains at the cost of the other. As long as conditions of inequality prevail in terms of gender relations, it is more important to address the regulative practices through which gendered identities are constructed, in forms that are most often debilitating for women’s sense of self. To look at identity merely in terms of relationality and nurturance limits the significance of several other spheres of their lives that are now open to them. Moreover, the availability of various roles and role relationships has made the issue of identity very complex in present times. With an excessive insistence on relatedness and connectedness, these perspectives completely overlook individuality and such a total neglect of one aspect of personality can never help in realizing human potential to the fullest. Since both men and women have the capacities for relatedness and individuality neither can be assumed to be intrinsic aspects of any particular gender. Both individuality and relatedness are aspects of personality that develop in an interrelated, transactional and dialectical manner and hence, self-containment of either within any one sphere would only lead to increasing hostility between the two.

We also need to recognize that even though demanding for women’s traits to be respected the relational approaches have been unable to bring about effective change as they have failed to explain the emergence of stereotypical sex roles and how they are culturally constructed. Moreover, they presuppose that men and women have innate and distinct characteristics, which remain fundamentally unchanged and unchangeable throughout history and across cultures, but if this were the case there would remain very little room for altering the conditions of gender inequality.

The radical changes brought about by the women’s movements in various parts of the world during the 1960s also exemplify the fact that gender is not a static category, and gender relations are endlessly adaptable and inventive, particular constructions of gender are the products of particular cultural circumstances and they change as rapidly as cultures do. What it means to be a woman or a man varies significantly from one culture to another and from one historical moment to another, and this also makes gender susceptible to political intervention and change (Greer, 1971). To understand the deeper nuances of the cultural construction of gender, and why men and women behave in a gendered fashion and to see how social, racial, ethnic, physical ability, educational, and several other contextual differences problematize the meaning of gender, there has been a shift towards a deconstructive approach. This approach sees the binary opposition between male and female as reductive and restrictive because it polarizes plurality, complexity and nuance into a simple question of either/or, collapsing a multiplicity of variations into a single opposition (Tripp, 2000). It emphasizes on studying gender identity through the heterogeneity of experience and the specificity of context and on a formulation of the processes through which cultural structures, signifying practices, customs and conventions define the ways of thinking and behaving in gendered ways and the processes through which acquisitions are made by individuals to be integrated into a particular type of culture.

Moving in this direction it becomes evident that for any study on women’s identity to be contextually relevant, it must attend to the diversity of cultural meanings, with a realization that even within a culture, gender cannot be seen as a homogenous category which suppresses the unfolding interplay of political struggles, social inequalities and cultural differences of different sets of people. The analysis should not aim towards a unified master narrative but for more complex understandings of ever changing, multifaceted social realities. Instead of limiting the understanding of gender identity to the definition of the female subject, completely bypassing social class and ethnic identities, there should be a stress on understanding how each of these affect different groups of women in different ways. Above all, there should be an understanding that a variety of social practices which define women’s status and roles vary according to their class and also through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion, and other ideological institutions and frameworks. Unless we are able to concentrate on the specifics of daily existence, the complexities of interests which women of different social classes and cultures represent and mobilize, and illustrate a variety of categories that exist simultaneously, we will not in any way be able to explain women’s identity and will continue to perpetuate gender hierarchies which will only end up being self destructive.


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