Essay: Demolishing the women’s ghetto
Last week, in conversation with a writer on whether it made sense to join a gender-based social media site, we spoke about consciously choosing to use gender neutral language. She believed that promoting her books on social media and improving their market value meant rising above tags and categorization. It struck me then that, in an age of the vibrant growth and recognition of literature emerging from the LGBTQ community, we are also falling into the trap of pursuing divisions based on gender. In a classic case of ghettoization, authors are loosely labeled as ‘women writers’ and their work compared only against that of others within the group. We fall for it every time.
Adding a qualifier implies that a dominant group is giving a particular set a seat at the table – handing out a consolation prize because they are a minority. No one is ever labelled a ‘male writer’. Why is value attached to women achievers only in relation to something projected as better? Writers who happen to be women don’t need an authority to tell them they have seats at the table because they are great ‘women’ writers. They already have seats at the table; they don’t need reconfirmations. Binaries are a reality and can’t be denied but the intent must be questioned; it is equality versus equity. Categorizing according to gender is not OK. The power differential created between male and female writers serves to segregate and consequently diminish talent. It takes away from the essence of writing.
The literature of a country grappling with rape, domestic violence, female infanticide, and street violence has to reflect this reality. But is the onus to tell these stories only on women? When will men break the self-posited rule of writing largely about politics, revolution and economics leaving women to tackle our uglier social realities? Indian English authors particularly need to challenge the conventional approach to writing our narratives. Mary Beard’s Women in Power dissects the “deeply embedded mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously”, and looks at how ‘’power” means many things in the world of today.
Creative forces like Krishna Sobti, Amrita Pritam, Mahadevi Verma and Kamala Das, to name a few, dealt with an abundance of vicissitudes to leave their mark on the world of literature. In the West, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf struggled to establish themselves in a milieu dominated by men. The dialogue on gender led to the evolution of Women Studies. The cultural battles fought by Western feminism from which the contemporary Indian movement takes many of its cues were like rites of passage. Categorizing writing according to gender emerged from this ferment. This seems outdated in 2019. We cannot continue to give currency to definitions based on the gender of the writer because sex does not predetermine the kind of literature that will be created. The idea undermines the soul of a creative artist, and how she perceives and expresses her individual voice.
Krishna Sobti expressed this sentiment masterfully: “How a writer accepts her ancients by not merely focussing their vision on her own self, how she forms relationships with her contemporaries and how she casts and moulds the old and new in these thoughts – all these literary behaviours limit and control a writer’s own relationship with her own self.” Sobti questioned being categorized as a-kind-of-a-writer. Her voice was her own, whether narrating a story through a male or a female character. Each writer has a distinct tonality and texture, and that is what acts as the qualifier.
Within Indian literature from different regions, over a few hundred years, gender stereotyping has been challenged and rejected. This is the foundation that needs to be strengthened and built upon. Do readers pick books based on what they wish to read or on the topicality of the subject? Though we have favourites, the gender of the writer does not interfere with the decision-making process – at least I would hope not.
Is it possible to determine the gender of a particular paragraph’s writer if the name is not mentioned? VS Naipaul thought you could. But isn’t the general reaction more intuitive and instinctive? Submerging ourselves within a crucible of fixed norms and refusing to approach a piece of writing with a contemplative mind is reductive. Unless we question our ideas about the world, how can there be change? It would be wise, instead, to start noticing how often books by women are reviewed by men and vice versa.
All types of writers exist. Why and how they respond to the world is a matter of their own perception, their instinct to communicate with their audience, their choice. Value can’t be conferred on anyone based on their gender. The reader chooses how to respond to the storytelling. Like Margaret Atwood said precisely about women, “They are not Apart: they are A Part” of the planet. To be entirely inclusive of all sexes is the only way to be.
Mita Kapur is a literary agent and writer.