In a BBC article titled “Women lead Indian families as men migrate,” Usha Devi, one of these women, states, “Identity is not a small thing.” Understandably, for someone that belongs to a group that has continually been subordinated to their hierarchical superiors and has had to define themselves according to the rules of the Other, “identity” indeed emerges as something to be earned and then fiercely protected. One could define identity in various ways, but my favourite description of this term, and by far the most relevant one in this context, is the one of “self-consciousness”.
German idealist and philosopher G. W. F. Hegel theorises on identity as self-consciousness through his famous Master-Slave Dialectic that also happens to form the basis of Karl Marx’s groundbreaking materialist philosophy. In simple terms, Hegel emphasises the impossibility of a solitary existence. Human beings and all their social creations are necessarily dependent on the Other to be able to define and validate themselves. The same way the slave depends on his master to earn a living, the master too is dependent on the slave as it is the slave’s subordination that proves the master’s authority. The slave realises his dependence, he is self-conscious.
He has managed to define himself, complete with strengths and limitations, with respect to the master. The master however falls short. Instead of realising the true nature of his power that only emerges from the slave’s subservience, he considers himself the almighty, the victor. This failure of the master to acknowledge the fragility of his identity thus leaves him without self-consciousness, rendering the dialectical relationship incomplete.
It is not likely that Usha Devi has chanced upon The Phenomenology of Spirit in the years of educating herself, but her actions seem reminiscent of Hegel’s hypotheses. In her interaction with her interviewer, she humbly states her achievements — completing her education, collecting surveys for non-governmental organisations and finally starting a self-help group that supports many women like herself. She is now the principle earning member of her family and has ensured that none of her children have had to drop out of school. Usha Devi and others in her league have had to overcome many hurdles placed in their path by their very own family and the space they inhabit – rural north India, in order to seize back the freedom that was rightfully theirs to begin with. However, these women show no defiance. The interview repeatedly mentions the support of their husbands and families without which they would never have succeeded. Like Hegel’s slave, the self-conscious rural woman asserts her freedom alongside and in relation to the very master that oppresses her.
This is perhaps indicative of a wisdom that most of us are incapable of. A philosophy of shared understanding between rural women whose lives are yet to be infiltrated by the dictates of corporate and first world feminism. Independence was not fed to them lovingly from silver spoons. Within the confines of their social limitations, these women have fought tooth and nail to proudly own the freedom and respect that was due to them all along. It is for this reason then that Usha Devi feels the need to fiercely guard her new-found life against the persistent threat of negation.
Hiding behind the language of a “good woman”, a dutiful wife and mother, she thus ensures that she does not draw any undue attention to her pride. She says to the interviewer, “I am not great, it’s him. If he hadn’t supported me, I would have never moved ahead,” — making sure she fits neatly into the box manufactured for women who stay subservient to their family whilst also having a life outside their home.
However, Usha Devi is not alone. This safekeeping of their truest emotions, desires and power seems to be a little secret passed down through generations of women across various cultures, age groups and timelines. Despite being secluded within barriers of their home and a plethora of culture-imposed rules, these womenfolk were always communicating their deepest feelings with each other through their songs. Be it marriages, childbirth, or religious festivities, the women of North India found the secret code of folk music to form a communion with each other — one that would necessarily escape and transcend the patriarchal minds reinforced by their societies. From galis to lokgeets and kathakatas, these women have shaped rhythmic verses to sing in togetherness, in empathy and compassion for the troubles of womanhood, and perhaps an assurance that they are not alone.
What has aided to the persistence of these folk songs, largely untarnished in essence over thousands of years, is this very camouflaging, if I may. North Indian women’s folk songs have never been in the limelight of public inquiry. While their male counterparts have long been studied and theorised upon (the gatha song tradition that maintains vitality by virtue of upper caste patronage and repeated performance), the feminine songs have long been shunned and deemed inappropriate and unworthy of attention. The Bhadramahila (gentlewoman) of educated, respectable households was forbidden to engage in the same. It was not until the 20th century that these songs expressing the joys and qualms of folk women piqued the interest of academic ventures. The question that most often begs asking, by the ones singing these songs and those scrutinising them, is one of “agency”.
It is to be noted that the parameters of agency do not and cannot remain the same for judging the rural folk woman and the quasi-privileged bhadramahila. The focus on uncovering women’s agency in written forms such as biographies, diaries, and poems has overshadowed the significance of the voices of uneducated women, who make up the majority. By predominantly highlighting the experiences of educated women from privileged backgrounds, we have missed out on the differential insights and perspectives that unlettered women can offer. It is crucial to recognize the inherent worth in the narratives of these women who have traditionally been marginalised and overlooked. As social anthropologist Smita Tewari Jassal explains in her book Unearthing Gender: Folksongs of North India, folk songs provide insight into the dynamics between men, women, and their society, which are influenced not only by biological factors but also by social and cultural influences. They allow us to comprehend how masculinity and femininity are structured within a specific society. Additionally, songs reveal that prevailing ideologies are not solely accepted and reinforced but also challenged and questioned, thereby offering an opportunity to explore the concept of agency and individuals’ ability to exert their own will and actions. Usha Devi seems to be aware of this and waits for her chance to sing her own song in code, using her marginalisation as a boon that protects her from men waiting to set right the power imbalance created by their wives.
The intersectionality of being a woman seems lost on many professing the right way to be a feminist. of a commendable increase of 15% in the number of women that are more educated than their husbands since the 1980s, seems ignorant of this very slippery idea of agency that hundreds of women have to negotiate with every day. This reminds me of another Hegelian scholar and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek and his popular communist joke. It goes something like this:
After migrating from East Germany to Siberia, a man anticipates strict censorship of his letters. To overcome this obstacle, he devises a clever code with his friends: messages written in blue ink will be sincere and truthful, while those in red ink will contain falsehoods meant to deceive the censors. Time passes, and his friends eventually receive a letter inked in blue. Its contents proclaim the wonders of his new surroundings: abundant stores teeming with delectable food, movie theatres screening high-quality Western films, and spacious, opulent apartments. However, there is an intriguing twist: the man reveals that the one item he cannot procure is red ink.
The subversive nature of the joke lies in the fact that despite the absence of red ink — the language or the tool to articulate his lack of liberty — the man ultimately figures out a way to convey the true nature of his condition. His freedom, like that of these women is undoubtedly an illusion but it is also up to them to devise their own gambits to momentarily surpass their restraints.
The BBC article on women who become heads of their own families once the men of the house migrate away for better economic and career opportunities, is no doubt written in the best of spirits. Despite all its praise of women taking matters into their own hands, it steers clear of the dubious questions of identity and agency that beg answering in a scenario like this. An empirical study of women’s freedom in the North Indian rural space can hardly be expected to achieve that. Thus, when I imagine Usha and her friends, it is never an image of a woman standing happily next to her family, beaming with pride over her achievements. Instead, she is sitting in a circle with other women like her, all educated and empowered in their own right, inhabiting this cohort of mutual triumph. They are singing songs of communion that their husbands cannot hear. They have always had the language to articulate their shackles. It is perhaps for this reason that they cling to this language of unsung notes so vehemently — in which they can fully celebrate their victories.
About the author …
Arunima Sengupta is an Undergraduate student of English and Cultural Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. Her love for city spaces extends to her research interest which includes Spatiality and Urban Studies from the perspective of literary and cultural theory. Besides being an avid reader, she likes taking long walks and indulging in amateur photography.