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Sunday, March 25, 2012

/ Published by Simon L Infimate
~Zacharia Varte

Feminist writings or movements barely exist in the history of our tribe. A deeper analysis of some Hmar literature may reveal hidden messages on women’s right and empowerment but an explicit movement or literature is hardly to be found. It may be safer to say that feminism has never been a part of our history. A few articles that I have read with a women centric theme dwell more on the duty of women as a mother, caregiver and homemaker.

I would like to stretch the border of this article to include all Mizo women, but even a brief research (if one can call it) on the position of Hmar women proved to be quite a task for me. This article however is not a research paper or a dissertation, it is what it is: an article.

Though the issue of status of women in our society is something that has always intrigued me, what prompted me to write this article were the discussions that were going on in the various groups/discussion forums (in Hmar) on facebook. The subsequent chat that I had with a self proclaimed anti-feminist made me think that this could be the right time to put my thought into words.

What is Feminism?

Feminism, in simple terms, can be called an ideology or movement that strives to achieve political, social and economical equality for women vis a vis men. It can be also said that a feminist is a person who sees women as a subordinated group and thus works (or ideologically supports) for women emancipation.

Any text on gender issues will tell you that there are different varieties of feminist theories like liberal feminist theories, radical feminist theories, Marxist and so on. To dwell on these theories will only make us deviate from our main theme.

Women of our Society

A brief glance at the status of women in our society shows a very pretty utopian picture. Women are as free as men and there is hardly any evidence to say that women lack behind in the economic, social or political fields. However, a closer look is a must to really comprehend the position of women. Our situation is tricky in the sense that we live in a modern liberal-democratic nation where women enjoy as much freedom as men legally but are subjected to various social prejudices.

Women have equal access to education but are they given the same quality of education as their brothers? Do our women have equal property rights under our customary laws? How often does a woman win the child custody rights in case of divorce? Alimony! What’s that?

The above rhetorical questions clearly show that women are not seen as equal. What has caused this inequality? Is it natural or manmade? To look for all the answers to these questions in the western feminist ideology would be, in my opinion, naïve. The western feminism thought had begun since Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 maybe even before that. We must look for a way to interpret these thoughts to suit our society. In other words, feminists of our society must start from the very beginning.

Basics: End and Beginning

In everyday usage gender denotes the biological sex of individuals. To a feminist there is a huge difference between sex and gender. While sex denotes a human male and female depending on biological features, gender indicates man and woman depending on social and cultural factors. Long story short, one maybe born as a male or female biologically but a woman or man is socially produced. One maybe born a female but society and culture make sure she turns into a woman. Society then attaches a particular set of characteristics to a specific gender.

Characteristics such as power, rationality, courage, are associated with men and masculinity (pa), while weakness, timidity and the likes are applied to women and femininity (nu). There is no debate that it is the male gender that gets associated with the more ‘favorable’ set of characters. Feminists therefore argue that females are not born with these women characteristics but it is society that makes sure that female sex is the weaker sex.

How did this happen in our society? How did we start to associate a particular character to a specific sex? There can be two main reasons for this phenomenon. One, we were a nomadic tribe who depended largely on hunting animals for food and two, we were more often than not engaged in inter tribe wars. Male, being physically stronger, became the bread earner and protector while the female was mainly confined to her home. Didn’t Christianity change that? It certainly did to a large extent, but it also brought another form of subjugation: religious subjugation.

The blessings of Christianity were first enjoyed by the men. They were the first ones to get education, white collar jobs etc. One needs to look no further than the various books published to commemorate the Gospel centenary year (2010) to make this conclusion. The blessings gradually trickled down to women but were also alongside subjugated by Bible-thumping fundamentalists who saw/see all women as the cursed Satan’s helper Eve. So women may have been relatively free as compared to the hunting-warring days but the new faith demolishes any hope of them becoming equal with men.

The discussion can end here if we think we should go back to those ages when Rih Dil was thought to be the gateway to pielral. The argument for women emancipation has no validity if we are willing to go back to the time when slavery was justified, democracy a distant dream, where one should obey the ruler no matter what, where everything white was gold.

For many the debate does stop here. To many, feminism is a pseudo-ideology, something that shall never be attained because it’s not meant to be. But for some, this is where the debate really begins.

Feminists are not those who blatantly shout that men and women are equal. Feminists acknowledge that women and men are not equal and also believe that this inequality is manmade. Social constructions of gender can be deconstructed and then reconstructed. Given a chance, women are as capable as men.

However, in my opinion, the new spokespeople of women’s right in our society leap too far and too soon. As mentioned before, western feminist movement began from a time when our forefathers and of course our foremothers were still ‘undiscovered’ (for want of a better word).  So although the cry for a woman pastor or church elder may be a very plausible one, the whole debate needs to stem from the base. Having a woman pastor will not automatically improve the status of women in the society.

Where Do We Start?

The way gender is defined and the implication of the definition has already been mentioned. I believe that to remove any kind of social inequalities it is paramount to acknowledge that both the sexes are biologically equal. Courage, wisdom, strength and capabilities are formed according to the environment where one is brought up. Males are physically stronger but females procreate, this should be viewed as different capabilities. It should not be used as a means of suppression of either of the sexes.

Now that it is established that gender inequality exists and that it’s also manmade, the next step is to identity and remove the barriers that obstruct the march to equality. The chief causes for subordination today are the Bible verses that explicitly state that women are inferior to men. The argument can be attacked on two grounds.

First, we can start by simply asking why the Bible especially Apostle Paul kept women beneath men. Has it ever occurred to these Bible thumpers it could simply be because women, as mentioned many times, were unequal to men because of social circumstances? Did not the Bible say almost the same thing about new converts? What if men and women had the same social status at that point of time? Would the Bible still say the same things about women? Isn’t the Bible just reflecting the cultural settings of those times?

Of course, the Eve factor comes to light again. She was cursed by God to be subservient to her husband. The last time I checked that curse was broken on Calvary by Jesus who said that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’.

The second argument against this belief can be made on secular ground or simply put, the separation of state and church. Whether we want to believe or not there will be a day in our evolution as a society when religion and state shall be seen as two different institutions, the day when society cannot be ruled from the Bible. And at that day, the argument that women are inferior to men because the Bible says so, may not be so plausible.

Before I myself leap too far too soon, there is a need to mention some pressing issues that needs to be tackled immediately. These issues do not even reach the level of women empowerment; they need to be first removed to start any form of gender empowerment possible. The issues are domestic violence, rape, marital rape, sexual harassment etc. Sure there are laws that deal with these issues, but how many women are actually aware of these laws? Even if they are aware, most of the above mentioned crimes that happen within the society are judged according to the customary laws which are highly unfavorable to women to say the least.

The issue of gender inequality is a complex one. The condition of Hmar women in Delhi will be different at all levels to that of those say, in Senvon. Similarly, the social status and freedom of an economically independent woman will differ from that of a housewife. The task now is to remove the biases of the society and strive towards equality for all including women. How a society thinks it can prosper when half of the population is subjugated is beyond my intelligence and knowledge.

Note: I personally do not give much weight to the term sex and gender as in male-female vs. men-women. I give more importance to characterization of a particular sex which makes one sex inferior to the other. Therefore, I specifically used male-female in lieu of men-women only when I feel it is of absolute necessity. 

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