AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 569

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Session 569: Strategies of Survival: Portraits of the Gendered Subaltern in Tamil Life

Organizer: Elizabeth R. Segran, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Over the last four decades, Tamil Studies has taken shape in the Western academy. Although it emerged at the same time as Women’s Studies crystalized as a field, there has not been a great deal of cross-pollination between these two spheres of study. In this panel, we are interested in taking up the figure of the Tamil woman in four expression of Tamil cultures: classical poetry, modern novels, films and social institutions. We aim to foster fruitful interdisciplinary discourse on how we may use feminist approaches to better understand the dynamics of gender and sexuality in various facets of Tamil life. In our investigations, we discover the many ways in which women navigate patriarchal oppression. Within the literary genre, Elizabeth Segran examines how wives cope with their husbands’ repeated infidelities. Kiran Keshavamurthy consider how Dalit women develop a sense of sexual agency even as they are constantly being turned into sexualized victims of patriarchy. Gita Pai analyzes women’s responses to scandalized men who refuse to accept their desire, articulated in the medium of film, to be treated as fully embodied, sexual beings. Amali Philips describes the ways that women in Sri Lankan tea plantations respond to the patriarchal expectations of the idealized Tamil woman: their strategies of survival involve a balance of conforming to and usurping social convention. Throughout these studies, women are always already subjects of patriarchal ideology: they can but react. Here, we explore their stories.

Wifely Jealousy: The Shifting Dynamics of Marital Relations in Classical Tamil Love Poetry
Elizabeth R. Segran, University of California, Berkeley, USA

In the classical Tamil love poems composed in the first three centuries CE, a large majority of the verses are written in the female voice. They offer insight into the world of female desire, sexuality, anger and jealousy as it is constructed within this corpus. Although female characters have a remarkable freedom of expression in these poems, their movement and behavior appear to be restricted. While husbands are commonly portrayed in extramarital relationships, there is not a single instance of wifely infidelity in the corpus. Was such a thing unheard of in early Tamil culture? Or were poems about female adultery considered morally reprehensible? While there are no obvious answers to these questions, the Tamil poems do reveal how female characters navigate their husband’s indiscretions. Jealous wives respond to their unfaithful husbands by being sullen, a particular expression of emotion described in Tamil as utal. This behavior has certain tangible consequences: husbands must placate their brooding wives or they will not be allowed back in the home. Utal is also construed as a way in which sexual tension is brought back into married life: a wife’s jealousy is imagined to be an aphrodisiac. In this paper, I examine utal, particularly as it relates to marital power dynamics. I make the argument that it is not based entirely on spontaneous emotion, but that it is a performative act that allows women to make small gains in the midst of an unequal gender relationships.

Caste, Gender and Sexuality:  On the Figure of The Dalit Woman in P.  Sivakami’s Fiction 
Kiran Keshavamurthy, University of California, Berkeley, USA

The narratives of P. Sivakami’s novels The Grip Of Change(1989) and Author’s Notes: Gowri (1999) critique the sexualized and supposedly violable caste body of the dalit woman. The dalit woman in these novels is doubly oppressed by caste and sexual forms of violence that beyond a certain extent are correlated and reinforce each other in complex ways. In Pazhaiyana Kazhithalum the battered body of the dalit woman frames the opening scene; her past is constituted by her widowhood that in some sense makes her a ‘surplus’ or ‘sexually available’  woman subject to sexploitation by her caste Hindu landlord and harassment by her in-laws; the assault on her by caste Hindu men owing to her apparent sexual/social misdemeanor and so on. Even her struggle for her husband’s share of land is linked to her body and fertility- she does not have children and so her brothers-in --law refuse to give her a share in the family land. When she is sheltered by Kathamuthu, a dalit patriarch and ex-panchayat leader, her vulnerability is exploited; she is forced to physically yield to his desires. Her oppressed and subjugated body, that she is unable to claim as her own is paradoxically the only available option for her to acquire the power to gain ascendancy in Kattamuthu’s house that gives her dominance over his wives. Gowri written a decade later assumes the form of a revisionary critique of the earlier novel that explores the disjuncture between the fictional world of the novel and the author’s  social circumstances that enabled the creation of the novel. In some sense Sivakami anticipates or echoes some of the questions that are left unasked in Pazhaiyana through her exploration of the politics of representing the ideological contradictions of casteism and patriarchy. She shows how caste violence is both as endemic to the dalits as much as they are victims of upper caste oppression. But casteism in the novel increasingly sidelines the question of patriarchal misogyny that becomes a more enduring form of discrimination and injustice. Her critique of dalit patriarchy is undermined by her failure to adequately represent the dalit woman’s subjectivity and sense of sexual agency; the dalit woman is merely portrayed as a woman whose violated bodily integrity is not only forgotten by the very narrative it frames but compromised by her empowering status as a sexualized victim of patriarchy. Thus I hope to show how in the Grip of Change the very cultural and political discourses that establish gender differences as differences in sexuality also construct female sexuality as victimization. I further propose to present Sivakami’s critique of this equation through her foregrounding of the politics of literary representation of caste and patriarchy.

Gender Marginality and Strategies of Survival: Subaltern Tamil Women on Sri Lanka’sTea Plantations
Amali Philips, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

In Tamil culture, self-deprivation, self-sacrifice, suffering and altruism are associated with women and naturalized as part of women’s inherent nature and love for husbands and family, and their greater responsibility for family well being. The ideal woman personifies the virtues of daughterhood, wifehood, and motherhood and suppresses her supposedly inherent and disruptive sexual urges. ‘Socialization for inequality’ begins at birth among the community of Tamils of South-Indian origin living and working on Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. The proverbial double burden that women shoulder as workers and homemakers also forms part of the larger cultural repertoire about the relative value of women and men and their contributions. This paper privileges women’s experiences of gender, sexuality and personhood among Tamil plantation women and discusses women’s strategies of conformity and subversion of the idealized versions of Tamil womanhood within the culture contexts of plantation work and household reproduction. Tamil women’s experiences of gender, sexuality and personhood, confirms and complicates traditional understandings of gender and sexuality among the Indian lower castes and classes. While flexible sexual mores and marriage practices are shaped by class and caste affiliations and oppressive work and living conditions on the plantations, Tamil women’s experiences are also informed by their ethnic minority status and their subordinate positions within the household and the work force. New work opportunities and class mobility resulting from globalization and economic liberalization lead to new forms of sexual policing of and work norms for women as part of male ‘politics of respectability’.

Women and their Words: Tamil poetry of resistance on film
Gita V. Pai, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, USA

"SheWrite" is a Tamil film directed by Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar in 2005. As the title suggests, it is about four young Tamil women writers. In their poems, these women celebrate their bodies, tackle themes such as desire and sexuality, and challenge patriarchal expectations. While these poets and their work earn much acclaim, they also elicit vitriolic attacks by men who oppose (at times violently) the content and their presence in the contemporary Tamil literary scene. This paper considers the women, their words, and the male reception of their work. It also explores the medium itself, that of film, and the filmmakers’ technique of making the lines of the poetry come alive on the visual field. Lastly, it attempts to critically engage with the ways in which gendered resistance operates both in print and on film.