From the biology of the sexes to the social construction of gender
“Sexual attributes are a biological given, but gender is a product of historical process. The fact that women bear children is due to sex; that women nurture children is due to gender, a cultural construct. It is gender which has been chiefly responsible for fixing women’s place in society” (Lerner, 1986, p. 21).
What is being crucial in Lerner’s work is that she does not ignore the biological factor in the evolutionary process of patriarchy, although she establishes from the very beginning that women’s subordination in the male dominance did not occur due to biological determinism. Primitive groups during the Paleolithic and Neolithic period – the period of the archaic state – rested upon the reproductive and nurturing capacity of the female body for their group survival due to the lack of any other option at that time. Infants were very much dependant on their mother’s breast milk, bodily warmth and interaction. Taking into consideration the short life span of both men and women, one can assume that the survival into adulthood was rather a rough road and for that, the most nubile women needed to devote their adulthood on many pregnancies, procreating and infant – nurturing. It might seem that the first sexual division of labor – men as big animal hunters and warriors, women as child – bearers and food gatherers – derives from the biological difference of reproduction and the necessity and dependency on the female’s body procreating and nursing abilities.
But, “while this was an evolutionary necessity at the time, it cannot be treated as an ontological truth for all times” (Gangoli, 2017, p. 128). Since the female body is able not only to ‘produce’ life (in pregnancy and giving birth) but also to sustain it (by breast feeding and nursing), it would be rational to assume that women would be treated with divinity as superior creatures. This did not happen, as Lerner explains, since families’ evolutionary ability to animal domestication, to produce harvest surpluses and own land, lead to the formation of the patriarchal family, in which men controlled and subordinated female’s sexuality and reproduction, so that to establish the continuation of ownership through their heirs. Apparently, it is the social construction of gender that doomed women to their biology and interpreted their natural procreative functions as inferior than the male’s ones. As Ortner depicts in her essay (1972) women’s absolute physiology places her closer to nature, a symbolism which, for many, if not all, cultures, places women “in social roles that in turn are considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than man’s” (p. 73). The traditional social roles imposed to women was reasoned in a biological determination of the female body and its functions.
The reification of women’s sexuality is specifically apparent in the historic development of Ancient Mesopotamia. One crucial example is the enslavement of women and their sexual subordination to the household’s husband, to whom a concubine owns sexual services. Consequently, the concubine’s sexual abilities are of great importance to the couple, especially in case of a wife’s infertile body (see, for example, the biblical narratives of Genesis and the case of Sarai and Abraham). The captive woman serves a dual role; not only to satisfy the husband’s sexual desires and procreative in favor of the wive, but also to “enhance his property and status”, which “is assumed to be a routine matter” (Lerner, 1986, p. 71). This control of women’s reproductive abilities and sexuality is later on “legitimized through social norms, the law, the state and religion, and therefore appears impervious to change, and seemingly eternal” (Gangoli, 2017, p. 133). The wife’s cooperation is not questioned and this internalization of inferiority is furthermore depicted in the subordination of women by other women, like in the case of the concubine’s reproductive devotion to her mistress, the subordination of the second – wives to the first in polygamy and the subjugation of the young girl to the mother – in – law in exogamy.
In this “set of concrete constrains . . . the patriarchal bargains” (Kandiyoti, 1988, p. 275) women are complicit in the entrenchment of patriarchy, since their honor and subsequently quality of life is dependant on their king/ husband/ male kinship. “These patriarchal bargains exert a powerful influence on the shaping of women’s gendered subjectivity” (ibid) and bounds them to the patriarchal system. In the model of classic patriarchy (in North Africa, the Muslim Middle East and in South and East Asia), in which exogamy is practiced, the young bride has to establish her place in her husband’s kin group by producing male offspring. The female body is seen as inferior and dispossessed of its value, which can only be inducted by procreating and secondly by coming through deprivation and hardship by the mother – in – law, as a subservient daughter – in – law. The internalization of this form of patriarchy is being adumbrated in this cyclical nature of women’s veiled power inside the household and “their anticipation of inheriting the authority of senior women” (Kandiyoti, 1988, p. 279). The importance of having male offsprings is ‘transmitted’ to the young bride, whom her power will be finally reviled through her married sons, in her own daughter – in – law. “Since sons are a woman’s most critical resource, ensuring their life-long loyalty is an enduring preoccupation” (ibid).
In the model of Sub – Saharan Africa, where polygyny is practiced, the notion of a united, corporate family entity does not exist, while both men and women are obliged to stay loyal to their own kin. This creates a condition, in which, women take the responsibility to take care of their selves and their children, with or without the husbands’ assistance. This situation creates a space of uncertainty and women bargain their spheres of autonomy trying to escape this precarious patriarchal condition. In Gambia, for instance, men had to provide a wage or lend some plots to women in order to benefit from women’s labor in the irrigated rice plots, while in Nigeria women devote more energy to trading activities, negotiating the time spent in the farm. In this model of patriarchy, Kandiyoti described an agricultural condition in which the female body is capable of bargaining some of the men’s privileges (i.e.: to have access to free labor by women), because it can provide an activity which is considered to belong within an androcentric sphere; that is the agricultural economic sphere. Patriarchy is well established, that negotiating within a ‘female sphere’ (usually related to the women’s bodily abilities, like childbearing) seems like a mockery; in Zambia, men deny “the more modern ordinance marriage, as opposed to customary marriage, because it burdens them with greater obligations for their wives and children” (Munachonga 1982 in Kandiyoti, 1988, p. 277).
The menstrual body in West Nepal; the case of Chhaupadi
Chhaupadi is a compound word, which literally means ‘menstruating woman’; Chhau means menstruation and Padi means woman (Khadka, 2014). Under the tradition of Chhaupadi in West Nepal, which is a Hindu society, the menstrual body is encompassed with taboos that consider women impure, polluted and therefore untouchable. Menstruation and childbirth have as a consequence the exclusion of women, who are prohibited to live inside their own house and socialize with their family and society members. “Menstruating females cannot enter or reside inside houses, are prohibited to enter kitchen, temple, touch other person, livestock, green vegetables and plants, or fruits” (Upadhyay, 2018).
There is not enough literature for this practice and among the bibliography that exists, some facts vary; for example, Upadhyay (2018) states that for an adolescent girl in her first menstruation, she must reside outside the house for nine days, while Khadka (2014) mentions that these days are eleven to fifteen. In general, for older women, it is five days that they are sequestrated from their families and have to reside in Chhaupadi huts, which are mud – walled buildings, in the size of a doghouse, far away from their homes in the hills where the cow/bufallo sheds are. Menstruating bodies are considered so dirty and polluted that they are prohibited to touch anything that is considered sacred (cows, milk, water taps and wells, ascetic persons). If women violate this customary law, it is believed that big disaster will be imposed to the community by the Gods (Subedi and Parker, 2021). A contradictory element of this practice is that menstruating women are expected to continue doing their daily hard labor chores, such as working in the fields or washing clothes etc (Sharma, 2010 in Khadka, 2014).
Chhaupadi has many sanitary consequences that caused many deaths along the years (Amatya, Ghimire, Callahan, Baral and Poudel, 2018). Besides these consequences, such discriminatory traditions poses numerous restrictions on the female bodies, stigmatizing a natural function as impure. The female body is socially attached to its ‘nature’ and biology and that creates a double standard; from one hand the female body and its virginity must be protected by the patriarchal family, since it is attached to the father’s and husband’s honor and it has the ability to deliver male offspring. On the other hand, other natural functions of the female body, such as menstruation or childbirth, are considered impure and polluted.
It is important to highlight that this dichotomy of pureness and impurity is deep buried in the Hindu religion and women are forced to follow this tradition because they fear their local deity (Dhami/Deota). In the Hindu religion it is believed that these menstrual restrictions are imposed to women due to Lord Indra’s (King of Gods) sin for killing another deity named Vishwaroopacharya. The murder haunted him and the guilt was devastating that Indra had to divide it into three parts; one third to the trees, one third to the land and “one third to women, who from then on began to menstruate and bear children” (Diamant, 2021, p. 11). So, the King of Gods in Hinduism “cursed” women with his guilt and this guilt, deriving from a horrible sin, “polluted” their menstrual and childbearing bodies to the core of their existence. Menstruation, from then on, is considered a curse: “ ‘In our community, when girls start to menstruate, we do not send them to the school because they are cursed’ ” (Diamant, 2021, p. 12).
Women have internalized the inferiority of their menstrual bodies and they feel that their polluted bodies will cause harmful consequences for their families and themselves, if they do not practice Chhaupadi. This patriarchal belief about women’s impurity is entangled with the religion, a social structure that is impossible to resist (Khadka, 2020). We could say that women, in this patriarchal bargain, are connected to the family structures, which they must protect from their polluted bodies and the Gods’ and Goddesses’ wrath. Therefore, their menstrual bodies must be docile and adhere the Chhaupadi tradition, in order to secure their place inside the family and the community. In this “set of concrete constrains . . . the patriarchal bargains” (Kandiyoti, 1988, p. 275) women are complicit in the entrenchment of patriarchy, since their honor and subsequently quality of life is dependant on their male kinship. “These patriarchal bargains exert a powerful influence on the shaping of women’s gendered subjectivity” (ibid) and bounds them to the patriarchal system. In West Nepal menstruating women need to be excluded in order to be included, thus creating a gender segregated society and a patriarchal oxymoron.
On purity and danger
Although religious rituals can be associated with hygiene protection, we cannot feel satisfied with this kind of collateral interpretation of primitive, religious, ritualistic rules. Prevention of infectious diseases, by cleaning and segregating the unclean, is just one by – product and not the initial purpose of the rituals. For instance, in West Nepal the segregation of menstruating women due to period poverty, serves as a symbolic act lined with Hinduistic mythology. In Hinduism there are three levels of religious chastity:
“The highest is necessary for performing an act of worship; a middle degree is the expected normal condition, and finally there is a state of impurity (muttuchettu). Contact with a person in the middle state will cause a person in the highest state to become impure, and contact with anyone in an impure state will make either higher categories impure. The highest state is only gained by a rite of bathing” (Douglas, 2001, p.33).
In Hinduism, and particular in “orthopax” Brahmanism, a menstruating woman is a potent source of impurity and that’s why knowing who is menstruating and talking about it is very common. A menstruating woman is considered of a high level of defiling and for that she needs to remain outside the house. In the first days of her period, she is polluted in that degree that she is not allowed to touch even the water. After the third night being muttu (outside) she can take her first bath and regain some ritual status. “During this bath, she must wash her menstrual cloth as well as the cloth that she wore over her genitals during the preceding month” (Harper, 1964, p. 160). Any adult touching a menstruating woman or an object of hers, they instantly become impure and, for the muttuchettu to be removed, they need to “bathe, change clothes, and eat panchagavya” (Harper, 1964, p. 161).
Douglas (2001) argues that, in order to better understand and analyze the ritual pollution, a re – examination of the ideas of dirt must be obtained. According to her, “dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (p.36) and thus, dirt is transferring into the realm of symbolism. It is difficult to separate the notion of dirt of our concrete culturally determined framework, that provides a cognitive understanding of objects, events and situations (Goffman, 1974). Inside this social frameworks, intellectual schemes are constructed for each and every one of us, in order to feel the world in a stable way, organize and name the external stimuli in a recognizable form, that will stick to our future interactions with each other and the outer world. Stability is the key and any kind of ambiguity and anomaly must be either rationalized or controlled in a physical level. For instance, in some tribal in West Africa, it is believed that a female uterus is not possible to deliver two human beings at the same. When this happen, a situation of ambiguity and anomaly challenges the existing schemes and the twins are executed (Douglas, 2004).
Essentially, rituals are important to a culture because they set some well defined boundaries around aberrations and purity, assuring that the external world is stable, certain and under control, and they provide sets of interpretational tools and lenses. In this systematic classification of matter whatever lies outside is an anomaly, an ambiguity, that dangers the existence of the social moral code and threatens with bad consequences for whomever breaks this code.
The female body is imposed on the patriarchal system. In West Nepal, the case study of Chhaupadi shows that although menstruation is a natural function, it is treated as a cultural construction. The menstrual body is framed with impurity and is isolated from its ‘pure’ patriarchal family and community, in order for women not to be excluded from their family and society. In Hinduism, perceptions on purity and pollution are central. Natural functions of the body, such as bodily excretions, are considered to be polluting, as are the bodies that produce them. The female body is a source of defilement, no matter of which caste it comes from, and its natural functions of menstruation and childbirth are stigmatized with taboos and superstitions, which lead girls and women to associate themselves with impurity and curse.
The notions of purity and impurity that were core to the examined case study of Chhaupadi, lead to the theoretical framework of Douglas about purity and danger. “Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas” (Douglas, 2001, p. 41). The Hindu religion is one such systematic ordering of ideas, which segregates the gendered bodies on its purity and proposes cathartic rituals to maintain this ideology. Whenever an ambiguity or an anomaly takes place, cathartic behaviors are being into force, and the dangerous objects are labeled as dangerous. In West Nepal, it is believed that the menstruating body is impure and dangerous. When a woman has her period, a situation of ambiguity and anomaly challenges this existing schema and the woman is ostracized outside the village.
The body becomes a place of intervention and control. The body becomes the place of application of the social schemes that shape the intellectual reality. On the body, there are engraved the social norms, the rituals, the religious moral code that segregate, categorize and ostracize the bodily experience and whomever carries it. It is very crucial to understand this intersection of the physical experience and the different repressive systems, in order to move forward to bodies that show resistance and follow different alternatives than the vested social command.
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