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From Chains to Wings: The Saga of the Indian Woman

Categories: IndiaOppression

Chris Weedon(1987) opines in her Feminist practice and Poststructuralist Theory that the close connection between the social location of women and the themes of their writing, which have led much recent feminist criticism to turn exclusively to women’s writing as a field of study, are crucial to our understanding of Patriarchy. She adds that the socially and historically produced concerns of women writers as depicted in fiction help to form a map of the possible subject positions open to women, what they could or could not say from within the discursive field of femininity in which they were located.

This paper is developed in the light of the above statements.

The evolution of the Indian woman has not been uniform. Different phases of this evolution, as evident in the works of contemporary works of Indian Writing in English, can be categorized as: Patriarchal oppression, rebellion against the oppression, and the subsequent evolution of the Indian women. Fraught with suffering in every stage the struggle has been recorded poignantly in the texts under consideration, with revealing insights into the mechanics of subjugation inbuilt in patriarchy.

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The texts under consideration are The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013) and Witness the Night (2010) by Kishwar Desai.

Kolmar and Bartowski (2000) believe that according to liberal-feminists domestic labour and childcare do not offer much scope for self-development or self-realization as the nature of the same restricts choices and ensures economic dependency of women. The radical -feminist theorists see the patriarchal social set up as a structure that identifies the familial unit as a key instrument of oppression in the form of sexual slavery and forced motherhood.

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The situation thus compels a vision of a family structure that is separatist in nature and independent of men so as to reclaim from them their lost possession, right over their own bodies. The socialist feminists extend the Marxist assumption of human nature as contingent to social and historical circumstances where family is a site reflecting the social forces requiring transformation (Weedon 1987). These theories require a critical analysis of the happenings in the social world from multiple contexts providing strategies to ameliorate the condition of women. P.Collins (1991) equally believes that the individual transformation requires an understanding of the historical structure of institutions of domination resulting in a changed consciousness necessary for social change. It is with this understanding of the aim of feminist theories that I begin with this paper.

The reason I dwell on Witness the Night first is for the fetters/chains that it focuses its attention on, drawing attention to the patriarchal structures of Indian social system that believe in stifling its women through either a complete lack of liberty or liberty doled out in measly doses. In Kishwar Desai writes of a state in northern part of India, Punjab. Of the twenty eight states and seven union territories of India, Punjab she reports is “known for murdering its daughters” (55). The sex ratio of the state is the lowest in the country with 850 girls per 1000 men, reason being that girls are considered inauspicious, and a burden; taking into account the custom of dowry at the time of wedding thus, it was not unusual for midwives killing newborn babies by putting them in earthen pots, sealing the pots and rolling them till the child inside suffocated to death, or to simply suffocate them effortlessly, or burying them after giving them opium.

At one point in Witness the Night , Sharda shows to her sister Durga “a tiny skeletal hand” (138) she had found “buried deep in the vegetable plot” (138) along with a tiny skull and other limb that had been crushed by a tractor. Singh and Gahlawat comment, “For an Indian family the girl has always been an unwelcome issue and so even after all possible attempts if that unwanted unwelcomed soul is born on this part of the globe in the form of a girl a mystery is to be revealed for the male patriarchy [sic]” (19).

According to the 2002 report of National Commission for Women in India, for the years 1998 and 1999, 62 and 61 number of female foeticide respectively have been registered. Historically Punjab and Haryana have had the most adverse sex ratio in the country with the most adverse child sex ratio in 2001. According to 2001 census every 5th girl child in Punjab is missing because of her gender, her right to life grievously compromised. The adverse sex ratio in Punjab according to the 1901 census has had the dubious distinction of being the Indian state with the most negative sex ratio. The declining sex ratio, especially in the 0 to 6 years age group, from 875 in 1991 to 793 in 2001 shows that the female gender is perceived as a liability and the male gender as an asset. It is the lack of a male child that is considered a curse rather than female foeticide which is taken to be the remedy (

It is in such a society that Sharda dares to take birth as a girl and refuses to die even after numerous attempts are made to kill her. Little did she realize the gravity of her ‘crime’ in taking the liberty of falling in love with her tutor-Harpreet Singh, a man much lower to her in terms of class and caste. When Sharda’s pregnancy, a result of her affair, is discovered she is sent away to a secret place where she gives birth to a child. Being a product of an unapproved union the child is taken away from her, and not long after she is conveniently sent to a mental hospital. Sharda’s plight is worth consideration as she is not only unsupported by her family but falls a victim to them. Confined to the asylum she loses all holds on sanity and is reduced to a vegetative state. Her state of mental ruin is so complete that it is difficult for her to come back to any semblance of normalcy. For the Patriarchal forces, social institutions become a convenient haven to deal with rebels.

Sex, it is seen becomes a point of control in the patriarchal system. It depends on the patriarchal structure in general and the family patriarch in particular to decide such issues in the family, Foucault observes, “The centrality of sexuality as a locus of power in the modern age has meant that sex has become a focal point in subjective identity, Indeed, it is often found to be explanation for everything to do with the individual” (115).

If we consider the changes that have come about with the evolution of Indian woman Gauri Mitra of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, becomes a character worth reflecting upon as the very novelty of her state invites deliberation. It is true that historically Gauri is much behind Sharda but her circumstances allow her quantum leaps from the miserable condition she finds herself in, situating her much ahead of the ordinary Indian woman struggling for her rights. The emergence of Gauri as an out and out professional, repudiating familial obligations to follow her heart has been a breakthrough from all what the Indian woman has been/ is characterized by until now. This is why Gauri stands apart from the other Indian women, unable to remain confined to the role that her second husband had chalked out for her, as the “perfect”, “devoted” mother of his brother’s child, a child he loved and considered as his own.

Gauri’s character goes several stages of metamorphosis, from that of a student to a lover, to a wife to that of an accomplice, only to give in to a second marriage- that can be considered deviant to an extent ( as she marries her brother-in-law), to a mother, to a deserter of her child, to become a full-fledged professional, an academician. It will not be wrong to say that with Gauri the evolution of the Indian woman enters a new phase. The phase of subjugation and rebellion seems to end at this point when women find themselves liberated from a land that is home to such stifling conditions, in a more liberal environment that the West has to offer .

Women’s emancipation finds a new level of development in Gauri as she suddenly finds herself released from the harsh circumstances that she had been thrown into by the unexpected developments in her life, magically crossing the seven seas, entering a world of freedom so far denied to her. This occasion in life, paradoxically, is offered to her through a man and Gauri gives into her passion of earning knowledge, qualification and a career, in the field of teaching and academics at the higher education level in America.

Things begin to change for Gauri when her elder unmarried brother-in-law flies home from the States in the wake of the family tragedy and proposes marriage to the pregnant Gauri. For Gauri the proposal opens up the path to freedom that her love marriage to her first husband had so sadly closed. Realizing fully well that her marriage was against the wishes of her family and the subsequent severing of ties with them, after Udayan’s death Gauri has nobody to rely on except her in-laws with narrow views regarding the position of women in the family. Thus, it is not surprising when Gauri, accepts the marriage proposal and flies to the U.S with her second husband, giving birth to her daughter in his care, away from the disapproving eyes of her in-laws.

It is interesting to note that Gauri’s character evolves through the novel. She is not what she was when she met her first husband Udayan. She was content to play the second fiddle to him in his fight against social injustice against the downtrodden; but once Udayan dies, her world comes to a halt. Gauri accepts her role of a young widow in the conventional Bengali family of the capital of the state of West Bengal, India- Calcutta (now Kolkata). She wears the traditional attire of white sarees and survives on the simple food of the conventional widows, foregoing all non-vegetarian preparations other members of the family have, as expected of her widow status, finding solace only in her books.

However, Gauri’s acceptance of her second husband is not easy, though he tries his best to be a caring companion. During the days of her pregnancy Subhash cooks for her and himself, hoping someday Gauri will accept him. When the baby comes, it is the center of their attention, characteristic of conventional Indian families. Problems arise when without any familial support, Gauri finds herself completely drained out, with no time for herself or to pursue her studies. When her husband finds out she left the child at home, locked, and went to libraries, he strongly disapproves of her conduct; his disapproval further widening the distance between them. Subhash’s disapproval and the consequent rebellion of Gauri are important in her evolution signifying the struggle of an individual against the patriarchal framework. It is also a turning point in her life for Gauri perceives in Subhash, her second husband, a competitor for the love and attention of their daughter. It is then that she decides to leave them.

Genz and Brabon (2009) draw attention to the ‘happy housewife myth’ as exposed by Friedan (1963) who maintains that the passivity and the non-identity as incorporated in the role of a housewife had a dehumanizing effect on women as entity (53). Through her rebellion Gauri is successful in breaking the bondage of Patriarchy that threatens to subsume her existence even in a foreign country, bombarding the ‘happy housewife myth’.

Works Cited:

  • Desai, Kishwar. Witness the Night. New Delhi: Harper Collins & India Today Group. 2010. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1981. The History of Sexuality, Volume One. An Introduction. Harmondsworth: Viking as quoted by Chris Weedon op.cit.
  • Genz and Brabon.2009.New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2011. Print
  • Kolmar, W.K, &Bartowlski, F. (Feminist Theory: A Reader. Mt. View, C.: Mansfield publishing Company. 2000. As cited by Lay and Daley. Op.cit.
  • Lay, Kathy & Daley, James. ‘A Critique of Feminist Theory’. advances in social work/article·/131/122 as accessed on 14/12/13
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. 2013.The Lowland Noida: Random House India Ltd. Print.
  •, ”Extent of Female Foeticide’ ‘ as accessed on 18/4/14.
  • Singh, Sudhir Narayan and Gahlawat, Dalvir Singh.2013. Post-Feminism in India: Myth or Reality. New Delhi: Adhyayan Publishers and Distributors. Print.
  • Weedon, Chris. 1987. Feminist practice and Poststructuralist Theory, 2008.USA: Blackwell Publishing. Print.

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From Chains to Wings: The Saga of the Indian Woman. (2019, Nov 25). Retrieved from

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