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Gender and the Contestations of the Public

This module discusses the gendered contestations over the public, both in
theoretical and in historical terms. It primarily focuses upon the distinction of the public
and the private which is mobilised in the ordering of gender. The last part of the module
is a longish activity linked to the emerging work on urban space and gender, where the
questions of the public and the private seem to be played out in complex forms.
We can identify the significant role played by notion of the public along with its
binary opposite private, if we consider this as an everyday issue – one that organises the
everyday. Let us consider this: We live at a time when a number of middle class women
are out of their houses to work or to study or just hanging out. As far as women from
lower classes and lower castes are concerned, they have been occupying the spaces
outsides the domestic for a long time. Even then it is evident that there is a difference in
the way men and women occupy the space of the public. To begin with, this module,
following from the discussions of gender in earlier modules, will suggest that there is
nothing ‘natural’ about this difference. It is not that there is something innate in men
that allow them to occupy the public more comfortably than women. Surely, the
incidents of violence that women face in the public are well documented. But we need to
note that when we are discussing the difference in the way women occupy the public, it
is not just violence that is at issue as we know for a fact that violence on women happens
in the private sphere too. At one level, there is an experiential tangibility to this
difference and on the other it remains something elusive as far as language is concerned.
It is also important to note that the experiences of both men and women in the public are
not uniform among them, nor is it historically constant. The module is an attempt to
think of the ways in which one can understand this difference. It is possible that we may
arrive at tentative reasons for the absence of a language to talk about this difference in
the course of this discussion.
When we talk about the contests over the public, the first question to ask is of the
notion of the public itself. How do we understand this concept? In attempting to
understand the concept of the public, we need to keep in mind an important issue. This
is the fact that the idea of a public, often but not exclusively in opposition to the private
is used by us in everyday speech.
Activity 1:
a. The students should use their various language competencies to list out the word(s) used
in their own languages (i.e. other than English) to denote the idea of the public.
b. The students could think of objects, ideas, institutions that they think form the public in
our contexts. What are the spaces of the private, then?
It can be argued that the notion of the public is used mainly in two different ways.
1. When we discusses institutions as public spaces.
2. When we discuss how individuals organise their lives in terms of the public and
the private.
Let us discuss these ideas one by one before we discuss the relationship between the
public and notions of gender.

The spatial understanding of the public:

List out the institutions that were identified as the public in the exercise.
This idea of the public is derived from the history of modern Europe where in the late
18th century or so, it has been argued, developed a domain that negotiated between the
sphere of the private and the emerging democratic (or sometimes other forms) states.
The German theorist Jurgen Habermas calls it the ‘bourgeoisie public sphere’. In his
formulation it was the possibility of modern forms of associations like the debating
clubs, literary forums, and coffee clubs and so on where the public sphere emerged. He
argues that it was the development of print culture, especially the rise of magazines that
was instrumental in the development of the public sphere. The magazine culture
allowed for individuals to directly respond to state policies and to intervene in the
functioning of the emerging polity. Unlike an earlier period where the monarch ruled
his subjects in a unidirectional manner, the development of the public sphere allowed
for an active ‘public’ participation in matters of governance. This argument, presented
here in a simplified manner, has been a matter of debate for a while now. Even while
this is the case, there are ways in which our understanding of the public sphere often
goes to this formulation. Like Habermas, we imagine the public sphere to be a domain
where the entry is guaranteed to all, irrespective of his class, caste gender or other
identities. Do note that we have underlined the word ‘guaranteed’ in the above sentence.
This is because the idea is not that people of all classes and both the genders were
actually participants of the deliberations of the public sphere in the context that is
analysed by Habermas. The idea is that universal participation is a guarantee, an ideal
not necessarily one that is realised. It was indeed the case that working class populations
and women were excluded from the ‘bourgeoisie public sphere’.
What is the use of the arguments put forth by Habermas for the discussion of our
context? For one we need to recognise that most understanding of the public sphere in
India (as wit other contexts) still work with this premise. Thus for example, the
discussion of politics in Kerala will take the role played by libraries and reading rooms
in producing a political public. Examples like that of the beedi workers in North Kerala
where one of the workers in a group is compensated by the others for reading
newspapers aloud for their benefit is pointed out. We still think of the streets, coffee
houses, libraries, educational institutions, commercial establishments as the public
sphere. According to a number of scholars of cinema in India, cinema halls were
important spaces of the emerging public sphere from the early 20th century where caste
identities ceased to be definitive markers of difference. But as we know, like in the case
of the Habermasian public sphere, the cinema theatres did introduce a differentiation on
the basis of class.
During a riot situation, the media reports often talk about the destruction of public
property. Here public property, as opposed to private property, is understood as those
institutions and objects that are of common ownership, over which all citizens have a
claim. Another instance where this idea of the public emerges is when one talks about
someone as a ‘public’ person as opposed to others.
Activity 2:
Make lists of public spaces, things we name as public property and public persons. Think of
corresponding institutions, objects people who cannot be thought of as within an idea of the
A point to be noted here is that when we discuss the public, it is assumed within
the frame of the nation, the exemplar member of the public is imagined to be a citizen,
one who has left behind or erased his particular identities. These identities, in our
context, are those of caste, gender, religion, class etc. The democratic potential of the
public, as has been stated earlier, is that it is the domain of equals. Particular identities
are seen as bringing in already formed hierarchies into play. But like in the case of the
public sphere discussed by Habermas which was differentiated by class, the public
sphere in our context is founded on differentiations.
In the Indian context, as would be the case elsewhere, the public sphere is seen as
a male domain. When we say ‘seen’, we are talking about a certain common sense that
prevails among us which is derived from our own experiences and also the way
discussion with feminist and other critical circles have talked about it. An example for
the commonsensical recognition of the fact is the allotment of separate seats for women
in some forms of public transport. Rather than an imagined weakness of the part of
women, we could charitably read this structuring as pointing to the recognition of a
structural difference in the ways in which men and women can occupy public spaces.
Another example for a differential experience of occupying the public sphere could be
seen in discussion around cooking; the well known suggestion that men make better
chefs while women cook on a routine basis in their homes.
Activity 3:
Let’s take up the cooking example for discussion:
Is the argument that men are inherently better cooks than women and that the fact of a larger
number of male chefs in the hospitality industry points to this fact?
Is the argument that women make better cooks and that is why they are attributed the
responsibility of cooking at home.
Why are women understood as ‘home makers’ (when their cooking skills and so on are referred
One of the most significant aspects of the public sphere that has come for sustained
debate is the differential experiences of men and women in the work place. One the one
hand this has taken the shape of demands for better working conditions and parity in
pay, the latter especially in unorganised sectors. A case in point could be the world of
media where until recently men were preferred for jobs such as sub-editors as the work
times were seen to be not suitable for women.
Activity 4:
Collect media reports around the murder of Sowmya Viswanathan, a journalist who was working
with the news channel Headlines Today. Discuss how the issue of women and work place is
discussed within these reports.
A second aspect of the discussion around gender and the work place is that pertaining
to sexual harassment. This discussion was organised around the Guidelines on Sexual
Harassment put forward by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 in the context a case
titled Visakha vs. State of Rajasthan. The case was about the rape of Bhanwari Devi, a
community worker by upper caste men in the context of her work in organising her
community in gender and caste terms. The case brought to fore to the centrality of caste
in organising the public lives of men and women in our society. The Supreme Court
Guidelines translated a case that foregrounded the caste-gender linkages that structures
work spaces into a discussion of just gender. The court defined sexual harassment as
including such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by
implication) as: (a) physical contact and advances; (b) a demand or request for sexual
favours; (c) sexually-coloured remarks; (d) showing pornography; (e) any other
unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. All public and
private sector institutions, according to the guidelines, should constitute their own
guidelines and should have a committee headed by a woman to look into sexual
harassment cases.
It is imperative at this point to note that the guidelines, like many others, do not
recognise the difference among women into account. These differences, be it of caste,
class, sexuality or of disabilities of various kinds, need to be introduced into the
discussions not necessarily as addendums into an already existing narrative of gender
but as its constitutive elements. A number of spheres of daily life can be looked at to
discuss this fact. The example of the sexual harassment guidelines do point to this. Also,
it is important to add a cautionary note about the discussion of the work place earlier in
the module. If we look back into our history of a hundred and fifty or more years as will
be clearer as we go along in our discussion here, we will see that women who are new
entrants in the public sphere are those from a certain class-caste configuration. Women
from the working classes and from lower caste communities have had to be in the public
sphere doing work forever.
An extreme example would be of the sex worker for whom it is not the public sphere as we have
described it that is unavailable to them. They have been denied the private domain.
Excerpts from ‘Autobiography of a Sex Worker’ (Nalini Jameela)
It is in the context of a newly formed ‘modern’ work place which has historically been
gendered in favour of men that is under discussion when we talk about the upper caste/
upper and middle class women who are understood as the subject of ‘women’s rights’
but some of the dominant strands of feminism in India and by the legal apparatus.

Publicity and Privacy

We started by suggesting that there are two ways in which we can think of the
public. The first is that of a spatial ordering and the second is more conceptual in nature.
Discussing the emergence of nationalism in India the political theorist Partha
Chatterjee makes an observation about negotiations with gender in colonial Bengal that
has since become an important point of departure for gender studies in India. He
suggested that the nationalists of the late nineteenth century proceeded to mount an
anti-colonial rhetoric by a selective accommodation of the claims of modernity put forth
by the British. For this purpose, they discursively organised the society into an
understanding of the public and the private where the public would the domain of
western rationality and politics and the private the domain of the spiritual. He suggests
that a series of oppositions like the ones mentioned – public/private, rational/spiritual-
cultural – were mobilised. This included the world/home, outside/inside and most
importantly male/female. Women were deemed to the rightful owners of the private,
the home, the inside and the spiritual-cultural. This allowed the nationalists to clear the
space for the imagination of a sphere outside the governing gaze of the modern state.
Following on and modifying Chatterjee’s arguments, J Devika, a historian of colonial
Kerala has suggested that the division of the public and the private did not mean a strict
delineation of spaces and that it pertaining to modes of belonging. Discussing the social
reform debates among Nambothiri and Nair communities in Kerala, she suggests that
women were not confined to the privacy of their homes. Rather a series of modern
occupations which were seemed feminine were accorded to women. This was done by
reorganising aspects of individual dispositions like kindness, care etc. as feminine. This
allowed for women to be in public but as ‘private beings’. Following the issue of
difference that was introduced earlier, it needs to be noted that it has been upper caste
middle class women that has been the subjects of the discussion of both Chatterjee and
Devika. If it was the formation of the bhadramahila in the case of the Chatterjee, it is the
formation of the ‘Kerala woman’ – a construction that has come under rigorous scrutiny
by feminist scholars in the recent times – that is the focus of Devika’s writing.
“… the new woman was quite the reverse of the ‘common’ woman who
was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense,
sexually promiscuous, subjected to brutal physical oppression by males.
Alongside the parody of the westernised woman, this other construct is
repeatedly emphasised in the literature of the nineteenth century
through a host of lower caste female characters who make their
appearance in the social milieu of the new middle class – maidservants,
washerwomen, barbers, pedlars, procuresses, prostitutes.” (Chatterjee
1989: 244-245)
Moving along the lines of this discussion is the contribution of the feminist
scholar Mary E John, who has recently directed our attention to a curious but hugely
significant difference in the way gender is organised in western societies and in our
contexts – a difference marked by the very different historical experiences that the
erstwhile colonies faced in comparison to their colonial masters. Unlike the west where
it is the nature/culture distinction that has marked the formation of the female/male
distinction, John argues that it is a culture/politics opposition that is at play in our
context. Rather than note the constructed-ness of the ‘cultural’, she urges us to think
through the structural role played by the opposition itself in creating differential spaces
for group identities through “histories of naming, renaming or misnaming, intertwined
with processes of relative dominance or exclusion” (John ????: 11).
Of significance for our discussion of the public and the private is not only the fact
of exclusion of women from the public through a series of spatial and semiotic
structures. Rather it is the very constitutive nature of the public and the private in the
constitution of modern gendered identities that is at issue here. As it has been evident
from the above discussions, be in the form of the nationalist distinction between the
material and the spiritual or in the form of an opposition between culture and politics,
gender as we know it is founded on such a distinction. To that extent the question re-
imagining the public private distinction is as much about challenging notions of
masculinity and femininity.
Masculinity and femininity are normative forms which provide benchmarks for
the organization of a bi-polar gender system in specific historical and cultural contexts.
At this point the link between masculinity and the public and between femininity and
the private needs to be underscored. This will take us away from reproducing the bi-
polarity of modern gender and imagine self formation which in most cases exceeds or
falls short of such normative models creating more ambivalent gendered subjectivities.
The public then is not just the domain of the male but the domain of masculinity – a
notion which, as has been shown by a number of scholars, is not tied to the male body.
As Judith Halberstam (following the work of Judith Butler among others) shows,
imagination of the male body is tied to notions of masculinity.
Actitvity 5:
Compare the two images and discuss the link between masculinity and the male body (link to
the Halberstam photographs)
Following the link between masculinity and the public it could be suggested that self
abstraction – a necessary condition to become as exemplar occupants of the public –
allows men to affirm their masculinity while for women a similar move disallows
femininity (Warner 1999: 383).
Activity 6:
Discuss the clip from the Tamil film Padayappa in the light of the above statement (The clip
of Rajni’s entry. Compare the three characters – played by Rajni, Ramyakrishna
and Soundarya)
What is meant by the above statement is the fact that while for men, publicity has
always been an integral and constitutive part of masculinity for women, it has not been.
This will make women hyper-visible in the public unlike men. The discussion of
masculinity of women (“she is masculine”) is often attached to women in the public or
to those women who are seen to take ‘public’ male roles. Another example that one
could think about is the case of women who entered politics at the panchayat level in the
last decade or so. These women are often described in two diametrically opposite
modes: one, that of the victim where she is seen to be a proxy for her male relative or
husband or on the other as women who are less feminine. Often women who challenge
these binaries end up isolated and at times violently marginalsed.
Activity 7:
Think of well known women in history who have been described as masculine by the media and
other narratives. Think of the reasons why and try to map it on to the public/private, material/
spiritual, politics/culture binaries.

Activity 8:
Using the following discussion as a handle, do a short assignment on your neighbourhood,
mapping the ways in which notions of the public and the private are interwoven into our
gendered experiences:
An emerging field which seems to be directly addressing the question of the various
gendered contestations in the public is that of urban studies. By taking on a
conventionally understood public space like the city for analysis, this field encounters
gender as a question directly. Discussing the city of Bangalore, historian Janaki Nair
makes the following observations:
The general absence of women in most spatial representations is
insufficiently explained by the conventional distinction between
‘private’ and ‘public’ city spaces. Neither is the private merely a
woman’s domain nor are men the exclusive users of public space. The
rules of gender, nevertheless, do operate in assigning, physical, social,
and political space to men and women, although only for women is
temporality a so crucial a determinant. The zones of women’s visibility
and power, for instance, are coded according to a temporal as well as a
spatial logic, and their mobility – whether the movement of the
woman’s body through the space of the city or their circulation as
commodities – is governed by a set of rules that are neither forged nor
consulted by the town planner. To the extent that the town planner or
even real estate developer considers only the physical attributes of
space, the spatial practice of women remains invisible. The ‘temporal
neutrality’ of the town planning apparatus, moreover, is a form of
gender neutrality and does not reveal the operations of gendered power
in the city (Nair 2005: 300-301).

A complex matrix of gestures, markings, bodily controls, and language

enables the safe passage of the woman through the urban space.
Sometimes, when her movement is purposive – to the water pump,
near the temple, or with children in tow – she becomes safe as well as
invisible. At other times, or in other spaces – lingering at the street
corner, in a restaurant, or on the streets at night – her visibility as a
sexual being is heightened. Male control over the street is established
through cat-calls, unwelcome gestures and contact, or more brutal
molestations: thus the privileges of the flaneur, or one who strolls the
city streets, are uniquely male (Nair 2005: 302).

The sexualization of the visual space, reservations in the political

system, or feminist mobilization of women have not been
unequivocally empowering, since a complex and multi-layered
definition of private/public has still kept many zones of city life ‘out of
bounds’. The increased visibility has invited newer modes of control on
women in the workplace, home and on the streets (Nair 2005: 330).