Indeed, in the text as presented by him, there is no evidence of this kind.
Ambiguity in the Subaltern
All we have is Guha, mysteriously turning against his own presentation of the facts, and insisting that what appears to be a choice made out of fear and practicality was in fact an act of resistance. This latter interpretation is no less guilty of overreaching than are the others. If that was all there was to the matter, our critique would be no more than an academic quibble about texts. The deeper problem has to do with what his argument implies about resistance as a political act and about agency itself.
Bhagobati was given a choice between two awful alternatives, a choice that was the product of the local patriarchal order. Neither she nor Chandra had any means, nor did they show any inclination, to change the choice set or even contest the terms on which the choices were offered. Their agency was limited to opting for one or the other — bhek or abortion. In the end, they went for the later and Chandra paid for it with her life.
Choosing between two options that have been generated by an oppressive social structure is not resistance — it is acquiescence to that order. It is not, therefore, something to be celebrated , but the very circumstance that a critical analysis ought to insist that needs to be changed. For it operates in an area of liminality not strictly governed by the will of husbands and fathers — an area which appears to the latter as fraught with uncertainty and danger, since women speak here in a language not fully comprehensible to men and conduct themselves by rituals that defy male reasoning.
Beauvoir never privileges the body as the site of resistance, nor does she consider childbirth as an assertion of autonomy. To insist, as I do, on an interpretation that highlights the constraints under which Bhagobati labored rather than on her supposed resistance, is not to deny her agency. It is to point out that, for Bhagobati and for millions of women in her circumstance, agency is exercised in making the best of a horrible situation, day after day and year after year. It is to call attention to the fact that those circumstances are unjust precisely because no matter which choice is made, the outcome will be unjust.
That is why it is the choice set itself that needs to be changed, by making it the object of struggle. If merely choosing between the options given to you is to resist them, then why enjoin the oppressed to struggle against the choice set itself? It has generated a cottage industry of interpretation, no doubt in part owing to the dense prose but also because of the sheer range of issues that Spivak throws into the mix. Spivak seeks to engage both the issue of imperialism in its relation to the Third World as well as the problem of revolutionary agency in the contemporary setting.
This patriarchy was instantiated clearly in the debate around widow immolation — known as sati — in British India.
Bhuvaneswari, an unmarried woman, did not, of course, commit sati. Bhuvaneswari was careful to hang herself during her menstrual cycle, so that it was clear that she was not pregnant at the time of her death. She did so because, in the patriarchal culture of Bengal, when teenage girls committed suicide, it was typically assumed that they had done so to cover up a sexual tryst that had been or was about to be discovered.
Bhuvaneswari knew that, like most female suicides, hers too would be viewed as the outcome of an illicit relationship. So she killed herself when she was menstruating as proof that she was not a victim of failed romantic passion. We see, then, the significance of the suicide for Spivak. Although Bhuvaneswari kept these details to herself, she clearly wanted it to be known that, whatever the motivation for the suicide might have been, it was not the shame of an illicit affair and its consequences.
For years her family remained in the dark about the background to her act, knowing only that it was not because of a pregnancy. These criticisms have some merit; in response to them, Spivak has modified or redrawn some aspects of her analysis. Furthermore, Spivak also allows that there are other forms of agency that women, and subordinate groups more generally, might have available to them — a point I will return to shortly. So Spivak now agrees that it is possible for the subaltern to engage in resistance.
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But what has been largely ignored in this debate around her work, and is of deeper significance in any assessment of the politics of postcolonial theory, is what counts as resistance. Let us return for a moment to the specifics of her death. We know that she was entrusted with the job of a political assassination and for some reason found herself unable to carry it out — which in turn seems to have led her to take her life.
She also understood that, given the mores of Bengali culture, her suicide was likely to be apprehended as an admission of moral failure, of being guilty of illicit love. Hence her decision to show emphatically that any such interpretation would be an error, as evidence by her active menstrual cycle. What this shows, however, is not that Bhuvaneswari rejected or punctured Bengali patriarchal norms.
Bhuvaneswari was not calling for a rejection of the idea that women should abjure romantic entanglements not approved by their betters. She is merely proclaiming her innocence from the idea that she might have been guilty of such an act. To be sure, the act did embody agency of a kind — it was a volitional stance intended to respond to something in her situation. But whatever else it was, it was also a plea not to be associated with the norms of impurity and transgression sanctioned by that very same patriarchal order.
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Bhuvaneswari went to great lengths to assert her innocence from accusations of an immoral act, but never questioned the grounds on which acts such as those were deemed immoral. It was therefore an action carried out very much within the parameters internal to the order. Thus, much like Guha, Spivak discovers resistance in this text — resistance that dominant discourses and conventions supposedly refused to recognize — not by uncovering it where it had in fact been obscured but by redefining it — or, more to the point, by turning it into its opposite.
Can we not, however, insist that it is not only relevant but in fact central to the matter? Indeed, if Spivak had explored a little further, she could have uncovered not just these actions but a rich archive of thousands of these women, in the peasant movement and in the Communist movement, which have been available for years in regional and national archives as well as in oral testimonies.
Against this backdrop, Mahashweta Devi narrates the story of the capture of a young woman, Draupadi, an indigent tribal and a militant in the movement. She is on the run after participating in the assassination of a landlord; her husband, a fellow activist, has been killed by the police. Draupadi is good at hiding in the dense forests, home to her but almost impenetrable to the law enforcement teams.
Ultimately, however, she is outwitted by a particularly ruthless and efficient army officer, Senanayak. Unlike the officials who worked for him, Senanayak is something of an intellectual, having steeped himself in revolutionary literature in order to better analyze the Naxalite movement. Draupadi is brutally and serially raped all night long.
Draupadi does go out to meet Senanayak, but does so naked, having refused the soap and water that were offered her. What more can you do? Come on, counter me. Draupadi joins the movement with her husband; she is clearly trusted and valued by her comrades, as evidenced by her inclusion in a political assassination; and she values the movement itself enough to withstand inhuman torture and rape at the hands of the police.
Spivak confines her focus to the final sentences of the story, when Draupadi is presented to Senanayak and refuses to clean and clothe herself for her interview. Indeed, her immersion in the revolutionary movement only continues her gendered subordination, which is why, for Spivak, her torture marks a break, it provides her with the opening to emerge out of the shadows of the men in her life.
A Subalterns Passage
Bitterness toward the leadership? No, her mind goes to the fate of another comrade, whom she vows to emulate — a young man of twenty-two who bit his tongue off during torture rather than reveal the information demanded of him. Then her thoughts return to her martyred husband, also killed in an encounter.
By my life, Dulna, by my life. Nothing must be told. The inner sources upon which she draws throughout her ordeal include her gender identity, of course. But they also include a steely courage, a sense of obligation to the sacrifices of others, and an unshakable commitment not to endanger the lives of other comrades — all of which come from her political conviction as a revolutionary, and all of which Spivak sweeps aside with the back of her hand.
Her subjectivity is affirmed when she steps forth and expresses awareness of her subjugation specifically as a woman — when the brutalization is to her body. Spivak denies her this when Draupadi rejects her brutalization as a class subject and joins in with her comrades to overturn that class hierarchy. Why not? Why is she assumed to be a passive follower of commands when she is in the company of men, instead of a political actor fully aware of the imperatives behind her choices?
Surely a feminist reading of the text might at least allow for the possibility that she proceeds with an understanding of her interests when she takes up arms against the landlord armies of Eastern India, no less than when she taunts Senanayak while in captivity? What is admired is her act as an individual, not her willing and conscious participation in a revolutionary movement — and not just as an individual but as a woman.
Whereas socialism privileges the politics of class, Bhabha seeks to restore the salience of other interests and identities inevitably ignored under the singular weight of economic issues. The strike was another instance in which working-class men crafted their strategy to defend not only their economic interests but also their dominant position in the gender order.
In other words, it was a demonstration of how one set of interests was promoted at the expense of another. But as it happened, it became the occasion for a dramatic overturning of the very patriarchal order that the men were trying to sustain. The men relied on the fact that their women would internalize their framing of the issues and fall into line.
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It finds order only by erasing or suppressing all the myriad complexities that constitute the social world. This complexity goes down to the level of the individual. Hence, for women in the mining towns, the strike opened up both a dilemma and an opportunity. They were also gendered subjects, and both identities coexisted. Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices? It is the more radical thesis that the very idea of fixed identities or objective interests is mistaken. Bhabha therefore describes the effects of the struggle in a very particular manner.
Bhabha never describes it. It remains unnamed and unspecified, but he is quite clear about the notion that, upon emerging from and rejecting their class identities, the women of the mining towns moved on to a new form of social identification that could be described neither as class nor gender. Bhabha illustrates his argument by drawing on an article written by Beatrix Campbell for the Guardian at the one-year anniversary of the strike. The interviews are supposed to have illustrated how the women were initially divided by their two identities, but then, though the course of the strike, transcended both to create a new gestalt.
All of the women interviewed do recall a transformation in their perspectives, if not their lives, as a consequence of their experience in the struggle.
Gendered conventions were denaturalized for all of them in varying degrees. Yet not one of the women Campbell interviews viewed their gendered identity to be in conflict with their class identity. These working-class women accepted the logic of the strike, the inherent class contradiction that it embodied, without any hesitation.
They all seemed to have viewed the attack on the miners as an attack on them no less than on their husbands; they all looked back at the strike with admiration and even nostalgia. Campbell describes the experience of Margaret Storr, to whom the experience of the strike opened up an entirely new life even as she continued with her old roles.
A housewife and mother of four, the strike transformed her marriage. After some hesitation, she participated in the strike support efforts, and also joined her husband on the picket line.
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