Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Subaltern (Woman) Studies

*This paper was written for my Literary Theory class; it is about three different works that have similar context; the treatment of subaltern women.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian literary critic, and also refers to herself as a “practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist.”  She was born in India, which is where she first observed the oppression people face, specifically women.  Spivak uses her observations as subject matter: “In her work, she combines passionate denunciations of the harm done to women, non-Europeans, and the poor by the privileged West with a persistent questioning of the grounds on which radical critique takes it stand” (Spivak 2193).  Spivak poses a crucial question which she addresses in her works: “On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?” (2199).
The subaltern is a person or a group of people that have been excluded from society.  They do not have a voice, and are lost in the world due to assimilation and colonialism.  In Deconstructing Historiography, Spivak expresses her opposition to colonialism, and describes it as “a change from semi-feudalism into capitalist subjection” (Spivak 197).  When India was colonized, the British treated Indians like inferiors.  The cultures and religions did not matter, and, according to Spivak, “the most functional change is from religious to militant” (197).  In Can the Subaltern Speak, Spivak mentions how Britain thought they were “saving” Indians, and while some lives were saved, Hindu practices were outlawed.  “While this intervention saved some lives and may have given the women a modicum of free choice, it also served to secure British power in India and to underscore the asserted difference between British ‘civilization’ and Indian ‘barbarism’” (2193).  Under British rule, women, and the subaltern may have been given freedom, but is it really freedom when assimilating is what it takes to be given a voice?  “The most significant outcome of this revision or shift in perspective is that the agency of change is located in the insurgent or the ‘subaltern’ (197).  When Spivak talks about “change” here, she is referring to British colonization, and how in order for the subaltern to be saved, it needs to change, as in, assimilate.  Culture and religious practices are sacred.  No one, especially people who do not understand the significance of certain rules, should have the authority to revoke the right people have of practicing their culture or religion; it is immoral, and in no way justified.
“If, in the contest of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (Spivak 2203).  According to Spivak, subaltern women are subjected to oppression more than subaltern men.  They do not have proper representation, and therefore, are not able to voice their opinions or share their stories.  No one is aware of the daily struggles they face; subaltern women are ghosts in society.  “I think it is important to acknowledge our complicity in the muting, in order precisely to be more effective in the long run” (2207).
It is not only colonialism that silences the subaltern, but also those of us who are watching the oppression taking place around the world, and not doing anything about it.  Taslima Nasrin, a feminist writer who was exiled from Bangladesh in 1994, defended the subaltern group in her writing, especially women.  She was exiled because of her extreme ideas and blaspheming the Quran.  Saiyeda Khatun talks about Nasrin in her article”A Site of Subaltern Articulation: The Ecstatic Female Body in the Contemporary Bangladeshi Novels of Taslima Nasrin.”  This article is basically based on how Nasrin empowers Subaltern women, focusing on Bangladeshi women.  “A poor woman is subject to extreme subalternization since her lack of education severely limits her access to power; male violence is also relatively more common among the poor. A middle class woman, on the other hand, might enjoy above-subsistence life style and in some cases might be highly educated (but not necessarily) and decently employed. However, in a patriarchal society, she is vulnerable to subalternity in terms of property, marriage, and divorce laws of which an expanded account will be given later. A Bangladeshi woman cannot prove any entitlement to her income since, as we shall see, there are no legal guidelines protecting her. If divorced or widowed without a son to support her financially, she may become a poor woman herself, especially if she is not educated. Socially the upper class woman may be above the norm to a certain degree” (Khatun 1).  Despite the social class a woman is in, the treatment she is subject to is what dictates whether or no she is a subaltern.  In Can the Subaltern Speak? however, Ranajit Guha (from Spivak’s notes), seems to refute this: “[t]he social groups and elements included in [the terms ‘people’ and ‘subaltern classes’] representing the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the ‘elite’” (2201).  In Spivak’s notes, it seems that Guha is saying that people who are elite are not subaltern, whereas Khatun argues that the term “subaltern” is subjective.
 As Khatun mentions, a middle-class woman can potentially be subject to subalternity, and this is depicted in Spivak’s narration about Bhubaneswari Bhaduri in Can the Subaltern Speak?  Technically Bhaduri was not a “true subaltern woman” as Spivak puts it, because she was a middle-class woman with access to the Independence movement.  This however, did not give her the right to have a voice that could actually be heard.  Therefore, “Bhubaneswari attempted to ‘speak’ by turning her body into a text of woman/writing” and she hanged herself to make a statement (Spivak 2206). The status of women in India was not very high in the late 1900’s.  Education was not prominent amongst women because most girls were trained to be domesticated at a young age in preparation for marriage.  Bhubaneswar’s suicide came as a shock to the family, and the reasoning behind her action was unknown until a little less than 10 years later: “… it was discovered, in a letter she had left for her elder sister, that she was a member of one of the many groups involved in the armed struggle for Indian independence.  She had been entrusted with a political assassination.  Unable to confront the task and yet aware of the practical need for trust, she killed herself” (2205).  Of course the first idea that came to her family’s mind was an illegitimate pregnancy, but in fact, Bhubaneswar was involved in a struggle that most Indians were too afraid to join.  She was not given the opportunity to speak, and never had the chance to share her story.
“The ‘subaltern’ always stands in an ambiguous relation to power- subordinate to it but never fully consenting to its rule, never adopting the dominant point of view or vocabulary as expressive of its own identity.  ‘One must nevertheless insist that the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogenous’” (Spivak 2194).  Assimilation is required for survival, especially after colonization.  It is not always voluntary, but it is necessary to get somewhere in life.  Despite all efforts to colonize a place, and eradicate the culture, some things remain the same, such as dowry.  In “A Site of Subaltern Articulation: The Ecstatic Female Body in the Contemporary Bangladeshi Novels of Taslima Nasrin,” Khatun explains a cultural practice that degrades women: “The system of dowry encompassing all classes very effectively sums up the different degrees of subalternity devaluing all women. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980 outlaws dowry. But the custom has survived with extraordinary might and resilience. Although nobody calls it dowry, a bride's status in the in-law family is directly related to what she brings from the natal family in terms of money and goods. The value of dowry may vary across classes ranging from a watch and a bicycle to a television and refrigerator, to a car. Despite the dowry Prohibition Act, dowry has been the cause of gender violence” (Khatun 1).  Dowry is strictly cultural, and is still sometimes practiced today.  It disgraces women, and puts them in a position of inferiority to men.  Spivak’s saying that “White men are saving brown women from brown men,” actually applies to the practice of dowry (2195).   Colonization can remove some of the culture of an area, but some aspects will always remain.
“On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of epistemic violence or imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?” (Spivak 2199).  Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak and Deconstructing Historiography talks about how people oppressed by colonialism are not allowed a voice because they do not have importance to be heard.  Women act out in acts of violence to make a point, and no one understands or does anything to change the way the subaltern is being treated today.  Khatun in “A Site of Subaltern Articulation: The Ecstatic Female Body in the Contemporary Bangladeshi Novels of Taslima Nasrin” talks about Taslima Nasrin, a feminist writer, and how she is against Bangladeshi women being mistreated.  According to Khatun’s article, women are objectified by society and men, and because of their “culture” it is considered acceptable.  Women, the oppressed, the uneducated, the poor, and the subaltern group as a whole are treated unfairly, and need to be heard.  They have stories that should not be considered trivial just because of their gender or socioeconomic status.  These people need to be heard, but are they heard, can the subaltern speak?  The answer is no, the subaltern cannot speak.