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Economic & Political Weekly EPW april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17
Maithreyi Krishnaraj ( has been
researching issues relating to gender for many years and is currently
adjunct faculty, Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai.
Womens Citizenship and the
Private-Public Dichotomy
Maithreyi Krishnaraj
In what way does gender mute the acquisition of
citizenship? The papers in this edition of the Review of
Womens Studies deal with issues of gender and political
power: the power for women to live and have rights as a
free citizen; the power and opportunity to participate in
the public realm by loosening the fetters of tradition that
bind them in the private domain. The articles also bring
into focus the fact that groups of women cannot claim
citizenship rights as free individuals exercising autonomy
and choice in their exercise of sexuality or enter the
public space, and if they do so it is within the bounds of
family or as rendering service as subjects of a
constructed Hindu nation.
istorically, citizenship is linked to the privileges of mem-
bership of a particular kind of political community one
in which those who enjoy a certain status are entitled to
participate on an equal basis with fellow citizens in making those col-
lective decisions that regulate social life (Bellamy 2008). It got associ-
ated with political participation in some form of democracy begin-
ning with, rst of all, the right to vote. Traditionally, citizenship meant
a particular set of political practices involving specic rights and
d uties with respect to a given political community. D emocracy became
an effective mechanism to promote collective interests and to enforce
on the rulers a mandate to pursue the public good. To ensure a stable
political framework and i mplement activities, some regulators were
necessary such as the bureaucracy, legal system and judiciary.
Democracy was expected to offer the potential for citizen to
debate issues on equal terms and to give respect to other peoples
interests. Liberal democracy as a political system is marked not
only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a
s eparation of powers and the protection of basic liberties such as
freedom of speech, assembly and religion and right to property.
Citizenship implies a capacity to participate in the political and the
socio-economic life of the community. Yet, these capacities are not
uniform over time or over different groups in society. A working demo-
cracy presumes some degree of trust and solidarity and a common
language for political debates. There is always the danger of some
free riders like those who abstain from voting or participating in
these debates but benet from the work of others. Our recent dismay
at the performance of our elected politicians lack of active participa-
tion in Parliament as well as the apathy of the middle class in not tak-
ing part in voting or civic matters is a case in point. Far more signi-
cant, however, is the way the membership of the political community
excludes many women, immigrants, ethnic groups, etc. The pre-
sumed sharing of identity in the political community is today a con-
tested domain. In the era of globalisation new concerns have emerged.
Many public goods from security against crime to monetary stability
can only be o btained through international mechanisms. In this
s cenario, the concept of nation has become blurred. Leaving aside
these current predicaments, we can go back a little to trace the history
of the emergence of the nation state and its corollary, nationalism.
T H Marshall (1989) saw three stages in the growth of the concept
of the nation: (1) state building with administrative, military, cultural
unication and territorial consolidation, bureaucratic and legal struc-
ture which created a strong political body possessing authority over
all activities within given territorial space with those residing within it
becoming its legitimate subjects; (2) emergence of commercial, in-
dustrial economies leading to creation of infrastructural public goods;
and (3) socialisation of the masses into a national consciousness.
april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, but
constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the proce-
dures of selecting government but rather deals with the goals of the
government. Its roots lie in the western tradition of protecting indi-
vidual autonomy and dignity against coercion of people by state,
church and society.
Constitutional liberalism developed in western Europe and the US
as a defence of the individuals right to life and liberty and freedom
of religion and speech. To ensure these rights, it emphasised checks
on the power of the government, equality under the law, impartial
courts and tribunals and the separation of church and state (Zakaria
2003). In economic terms, it implied a preference for the market to
allocate resources; individuals should be able to exercise choice,
and property rights should be protected. The belief that the market
would allocate resources efciently ignores the fact that the neutral-
ity of the market is based on ignoring inequalities in society. The
communitarian alternative propounded by socialist societies ex-
presses a concern for social solidarity. However, despite the strong
commitment to equality and social benets, the communitarian
a lternative privileged over the civil, political and property rights of
conservatives, the socialist societies that existed continued to share
the conservatives endorsement of charismatic leadership to articu-
late and enforce an ambitious vision of society (Elliot 2008). Femi-
nism grasped the reality that politically, liberal citizenship was
d erived from a basic distinction drawn between the private and the
public, thereby intrinsically excluding women from public life and
leaving them unprotected from abuse within the family. Even today
as documentation of domestic violence r eveals to us, the arms of the
state (police, law) dismiss abuse of women as the private concern
of families. We cannot see politics and its preconditions as resting on
a pre-political private sphere because politics and its preconditions
are themselves p olitically constructed.
While we recognise how markets promote individualism, e xclusion
and inequality, communitarianism has its dangers. The protection
o ffered is at the cost of autonomy for women often restricting and
controlling womens mobility and sexuality. The rights-based citizen-
ship is in conict with identity-based communities. Women, in
p articular, face a dilemma: neither community support nor liberal
i ndividualism offers them a true political identity. The philosophy of
empowerment of the individual may sound attractive but it cannot
pursue its own goals without regard to the claims and needs of o thers.
We need a denition of empowerment that can travel into the worlds
of community as well as that of individualism (Elliot 2008). The
ideal ought to be what rights one has should be independent of the
community and gender to which one belongs. Because we tend to see
rights as only individual entitlements, we forget the collective dimen-
sion. Rights depend on the existence of some from of political
c ommunity in which citizens seek fair terms of association to secure
those goods necessary to pursue their lives on equal terms (minimally
food, shelter, health, education and mobility).
Unfortunately, today liberal values as enshrined in the original
concept have b ecome attenuated and liberalism has come to be
associated e xclusively with the market under capitalism, and
n eoliberalism is identied with the withdrawal of the state in
critical areas. A strong government is not the same as effective
government. As society opens up and politicians scramble for
power, appeal for votes becomes the most direct language to
e spouse the cause of some groups against that of other.
The history of the drive for womens human rights indicates that only
when women can become literate, articulate their view of life, when
they can organise and demand equality and when they can think of
themselves as citizens as well as wives and mothers and when men
take more responsibility for care of children and the home, can women
be full and equal citizens (Fraser 2003, p 58).
India has a long way to go for citizenship in practice, where
womens entitlements will be linked to citizenship.
An Overview
In what way does gender mute the acquisition of citizenship? The
lead paper by Anurekha Chari in this issue of Review of Womens
Studies quotes Indian political theorists to draw the difference
bet ween active and passive categories of citizenship. The passive
citizen receives benets from the state, which include the right to
protection, access to basic necessities and liberties, without play-
ing any role in the public sphere, while she has a private space
protected by the state and granted to her as a citizen. The active
citizen, on the other hand, does not merely receive certain rights
from the state but actively participates in deciding how benets
and burdens, rights and obligations are to be distributed, and
how collective benets and burdens are to be shared. A vibrant
public sphere depends on active citizenship. Ones location within
the social structures based on class, caste, gender, ethnicity,
r egion and language limits the possibility of engaging actively in
the public sphere and for accessing ones rights. Citizens thus
e xperience differentiated citizenship rights. The absence of a
pro active state that would enforce the constitutionally given
right of citizenship, and the inhibiting set of factors like sharp
economic and social inequalities, prevent the emergence of full
citizenship for many.
The set of papers that follow deals with issues of gender and
political power: power for women to live and have rights as a free
citizen; the power and opportunity to participate in the public
realm by loosening the fetters of tradition that bind them in the
private domain. This struggle is fraught with antagonisms from
men reluctant to let go their supremacy.
There is an inherent ambiguity in the position of women within
the constitutionally granted equality. In the debates around
womens entry into the public sphere, in literature and cinema,
from the pre-independence period to the present day, notions of
the rightful place for women, as the domestic and femininity as
their naturally given character echo repeatedly.
Shobha Venkatesh Ghosh in her critque of the lm Jab We Met
locates it in the emerging middle class womens consciousness.
Bollywood has been a hybrid genre where the ideologies of
woman, nation and the pubic sphere are cast in a kind of time-
lessness. One can add, just as the village belle in Hindi lms
has no identiable location, cultural or geographic; she just dons
an imagined rustic costume. She is supposedly innocent but
displays considerable coquetry. Small town or real rural realities
are usually erased in a mythical conguration in mainstream
cinema. Ghosh sees a departure in Jab We Met in its bringing in the
small town cartography. A second departure is its appropriation
Economic & Political Weekly EPW april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17
of contemporary discourse of feminism in espousing freedom
from patriarchy as opposed to the earlier emphasis on duty and
desirability. Mainstream cinema retains the feudal relationships
of family and kinship. It asks the right questions but does not give
the right answers. I recall, as an example, an earlier lm. The
protagonist is victimised by rape by a man who seeks revenge for
being rejected. The victim les a case against the man. The
l awyer speaks eloquently of womens bodily integrity but the lm
ends by the judge asking the man to marry the woman, a denoue-
ment that totally wipes out the earlier assertion of the bodily
i ntegrity. Unlike mainstream cinema where the female body is
eroticised, the feminist demand is to treat the body as one that is
lived in and owned by the woman.
According to Ghosh, even while drawing on the discourse of wom-
ens rights, the lm appears to suggest that familial matters are best
left outside the scrutiny of the state and law and can be resolved
through benecence and good conscience of right thinking men. I
recall, how in the era of the Shetkari Sanghatnas heyday in Mahar-
ashtra, men offered to grant some land for their women called Seeta
Sheti out of goodwill not as the right to land for women who par-
ticipate in farming the family land, most often, on their own with
men migrating to cities. There is a difference between something as a
gift bestowed as a largesse and something obtained as a right.
In the context of aspirations and anxieties of a new middle
class, that is now shaping a new national subject and the impact
of the womens movement laying claim for womens full citizen-
ship, the right to choice and a new conjugality based on mutual-
ity is emerging. There is, argues, Ghosh, a semantic shift in the
notion of the nation in Jab We Met, by its engagement with ques-
tions of the personal, community and national identity.
The hero, despite his professional acumen as a successful
e ntrepreneur under global capitalism, is anchored in indigenous
cultural identity, and lays a legitimate claim to both nation and
world. Jab We Met tries to capture the new woman, economically
e mpowered, who demands the right to choice in her life includ-
ing the free expression of her sexuality.
For Vaishali Diwakar, the construction of the public and the pri-
vate as two distinct spheres is largely responsible for creating bar-
riers to womens public presence. Interestingly, these boundaries
are drawn differently over time (for instance, middle class em-
ployment for women outside the home is now not only permitted,
but actively sought in matrimonial advertisements). Ironically, this
also varies by class and caste. While the upper class upper caste
male had an automatic right to citizenship, the right to citizenship
for women had to be fought for, starting with the right to vote agi-
tation of the 1920s and 1930s. In the story of S audamani, a woman
pirate, who is fearless and autonomous, she is made to succumb to
the pressure to forego her power by the appeal to her natural
feminine qualities that are not t for political life. A woman who
intrudes into the public arena is donning a masculine mask to the
detriment of her true destiny as mother and family carer.
Swati Dyahadroys article gives an interesting analysis of a move-
ment launched by an institution called Dnyana Prabodhini, which
tried to create a Hindu nation, and at the same time, distanced itself
from the Hindu right wing Sangh parivar. Its project ostensibly, was
not an innocuous educational endeavour, but a conscious political
strategy to reclaim the lost pre-eminence of the Pune brahmin m iddle
class and to challenge the emerging anti-caste, dalit and secular
forces. It also sought to counter the new middle class womens pub-
lic identity and their new self- image generated by education and
employment, by providing an a lternative interpretation of the ideal
Indian (Hindu) womanhood. It was not in favour of Nehruvian
s ocialism. Its empowerment of women was a kind of paramilitarised,
Hindu nationalist feminist space through bodily participation of
women in public participating in festivals, exhibition of their skill
in martial arts and so on. There were separate courses for college
girls and for mothers. Sex education and gender awareness were
part of such courses. Youth were exhorted to channelise their sex-
ual energies into socially useful activities. Womens duty was to do
social service. Family and conjugality was an essential theme in
all discussions. Swati Dyahadroy demonstrates the strange and
contradictory combination of feminist theories of womens subor-
dination along with an emphasis on inner transformation.
Anagha Tambe explores the absence of agency for women in
ritualised prostitution. Tracing the continuity and discontinuity in
the debates about prostitution in general, she queries whether
these practices can be treated as sexual violence and objectication
of women, or, whether they enable women to command a space to
exercise sexual autonomy and pleasure. Analysing Marathi texts
that engage with the non-conjugal monetary exchange of sexual
services i ntertwined with ritual and cultural sanctions, she demon-
strates the alliance of brahmanical patriarchy with caste-based
d ivision of labour and sexual division of labour, to create not a di-
chotomy of chaste wives and unchaste women but a regime of hier-
archised and graded honour status. A zulva is a stable ritually sanc-
tioned patron of a devadasi who provides for her subsistence. The
ritually anointed lower caste woman, dedicated to god as the wife
of god, on the one hand, does not suffer the encomium of being
unchaste but nevertheless invites ridicule and humiliation as the
wife of the village. Likewise, the jogta (the male dedicated) is avail-
able to other men. The genius of the Hindu caste system concedes
legitimacy to the non-conjugal sexual labour of lower caste women.
Gender and caste-based division of labour makes women the
p roperty of men.
These well-researched articles poignantly bring into focus the fact
that groups of women cannot claim citizenship rights as free indi-
viduals exercising autonomy and choice in their exercise of sexuality
or enter the public space, and if they do so it is within the bounds of
family or as rendering service as subjects of a c onstructed Hindu na-
tion. Women whose sexual labour is sacralised, become the property
of the village community and cannot claim any autonomy.
Bellamy, Richard (2008): A Very Short Introduction to Citizenship (New York: OUP),
Elliot, M Carolyne (2008): Global Empowerment of Women: Responses to Globalized
and Politicized Religion (New York: Routledge).
Fraser, S Avonne (2003): Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of
Womens Human Rights in Marjori Agosin (ed.), Women, Gender and Human
Rights: A Global Perspective (New Delhi/Jaipur: Rawat Publication).
Marshall, T H (1989): Citizenship and Social Class in Terence Ball, James Farr
and R L Hanson (ed.), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change Series: Ideas
in Context, No 11, Cambridge University.
Zakaria, Fareed (2003): The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and
Abroad (New Delhi: Viking/Penguin).
april 25, 2009 vol xliv no 17 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
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