Caption: The revered Indian novelist Anita Desai. Photo: THE TELEGRAPH.
By KAMALA NAIKER AND SANJALEEN PRASAD
For many centuries people have been expressing their views and opinions on certain issues with the help of literature. Literature acted as a medium of expression of thoughts and ideas which writers wanted others to gain insight of. The literary world was there to stay but there were many stereotyped ideas which the males had about the females. Women writers had been excluded from the literary canon and have been misinterpreted in the works of male writers.
European, American and Indian women in the nineteenth century lived in an era where gender inequality was at its highest peak. Women were deprived of many opportunities such as the right to vote, having control over personal property after marriage, having the rare chance to be granted legal custody of their children in case of divorce and not having the opportunity to be educated. Their uniqueness in writing, ballet dancing, theological preaching, was suppressed and also put into asylum declaring them as mad. The asylum physicians took advantage of these women’s vulnerability and would sexually abuse them. They were supposed to stay home, take care of the family, run the household, be smiling even in their suffering and please the Godhead husbands.
There were many females who inherited the talent or writing and were courageous enough to break free from the barriers that trapped them. They succeeded in establishing the stature which they truly deserved. Kate Chopin, an early 20th century writer, in her novel The Awakening, narrates a married woman’s sexual rebellion against the restrictions of a conventional marriage. Writers such as Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Griffen, Jully Sipolo, Konai Helu Thaman, Arlene Griffen, Prem Banfal, Mildred Sope and many other South Pacific women writers have explored and expressed the suffering of females in a myriad of ways.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, remembered for her short fiction “The Yellow Wallpaper”, emphasizes on the terrible effects that enforced isolation can have on women when they are entrapped in a room without simulation of any kind. The protagonist undergoes postpartum depression causing her to lose her mental stability. This masterpiece of Gilman’s has awakened the patriarchal society’s upheld ideologies with an intention to bring about a change in women. Though it is a fictional story, such treatments of women exist in reality in the world even today.
Men perpetrated an ideological prison that exposed and silenced women. This was called the “Cult of True Womanhood”. This conventional thought was further aggravated into two categories namely, “Cult of Domesticity” and “Cult of Purity”. Men had the freedom to fulfill their desires and interests whereas women were marginalized and expected to be submissive, subservient, self-sacrificing, ever smiling and pure in their marriage. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” created havoc in a patriarchal society and caused an alarm amongst the physicians who claimed that after reading this fiction, women will be driven to insanity. Gilman’s obvious intention was to prevent insanity amongst women.
Arlene Griffen’s essay “Women Speak Out in Poetry” details the treatment of women in a male dominated Pacific Society. Pacific women express their derogatory thoughts of their husbands about them, destroying their self respect and identity. She writes that through poems, women communicate the relationships of men and women in and out of marriage. Most of these Pacific poems arouse sympathy for Pacific women because they are denigrated by the men of the society, especially their husbands. The purpose of these poets is to pose serious questions not only for women, but for all Pacific people. These poems are significant because they verbalize issues the Pacific people are challenged with in their lives without total comprehension of what is actually happening. Many men accept the traditional conventions and their upbringing as their right, oppressing the women who are silenced because culture dictates so.
Pam Morris, a feminist writer is concerned with the unique experience of being a woman. She strongly states that women have suffered from a long tradition of what is called ‘Biological Essentialism’ which defines a belief that a woman’s ‘nature’ is an inevitable consequence of her reproductive role, rendering women to be submissive. This kind of essentialist argument has been used throughout history and in societies to justify women’s subordination.
A Bulgarian-French philosopher and a feminist, Julia Kristeva, states, “Women are one half of the sky”. Therefore, men are the other half of the sky but men are over-ruling women, setting certain limited boundaries for women. “The efforts of the contemporary feminist movement have put women on the path of self-liberation. However, it has also de-emphasized women’s individuality,” said Kristeva, “They treat women as one single homogeneous entity” (2012). Women are quite sensitive to their individuality and specificity; Women’s talents have to be exposed to emphasize their individuality.
Virginia Woolf’s essay “Profession for Women” shares her experiences on writing reviews on books written by male writers. She hesitated in writing the ultimate truth about male writers. A phantom (an imaginary figure) reminded her that she must write the truth about the writings by men as male writers were always right. This is the belief of the society and women were expected to conform to that. The stereotype images of women created by men as being weak, economically dependent, and with no mind of their own were not questioned till writers like Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Gilman, Konai Thaman, Vanessa Griffen and many others wrote to show the misconceptions of a male-dominated society. They overcame their fear of the phantom. Instead of writing reviews on writings by men, they wrote to become economically independent and to keep their sanity. In 1938, just before the outbreak of Second World War, Virginia Woolf wrote “…for centuries men have been ‘childishly’ intent upon scoring the floor”, saying that men dominate the women, making decisions and rules for women to follow blindly.
As modern day readers, this view of women in relation to men is unsettling because of the many ways in which the role of women in a society has changed over the years. In the Victorian era, a woman’s individuality was smashed to smithereens. Women had no freedom of expression or movement but there was dependence and desperateness. The belief that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” is a cliché in this 21st century as men can also be in the kitchen cooking up a storm. Gender equality is the topic of the day and gone are the prejudicial ideologies dictating women to be within the four walls of the house. These dense and naïve thoughts that women are men’s property and are to be dominated and domesticated by men have gone out of the window. If there still lurks these oppressive notions in men, then they definitely do not belong to this modern era. Writing by women, fiction and non-fiction, deliberate on such issues to free the women from baseless man-made dogmas.
(The writers of this article are staff of The University of Fiji).