There is something profoundly bewildering about the schizophrenia of India’s treatment of a woman- a stubborn irreconcilability to the multiple manners in which she is constructed, portrayed and engaged with. She is devi (goddess), earth, mother, carer, breeder- delicate and pure; but also seductress, whore, temptress, tainted- bleeding and foul.
A baffling mix of personal experiences of reverence and contempt, esteem and distaste, respect and derision constantly obfuscated my attempts to successfully characterise the nature and place of the woman in India.
Until, that is, I met Agemben and his sacred man. Agamben’s theory of the ambivalence of the sacred brilliantly illuminates the contradictory nature of the treatment of the homo sacer or the sacred man. The homo sacer is he who can be killed but not sacrificed- a banned creature who is simultaneously sacred and impure, sacrosanct and denounced. He is a singular embodiment of the pure and the impure, simultaneously auspicious and inauspicious, and condemned to a life of eternal vulnerability in his position as one whose killing cannot be sanctioned.
There could not be more apposite a conceptualisation. The Indian woman is Agamben’s sacred man. All at once, she is august and damned, hallowed and cursed, divine and repugnant, virtuous and obscene.
Eyes won’t drop
She’s as vile as vile can be
She’s a regular devi
The chilling reality that this contradictory, antithetical construction of the Indian woman translates to is a permanent state of incertitude- of being and remaining forever violable, rapeable, killable without reproach. It is this position of vulnerability that forms the foundational basis for protest and resistance against gender based violence in India. And from the ambivalence that frames this vulnerability, spring two unique formulations of the Indian woman in protest.
The first manifests itself through campaigns like Slutwalk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SlutWalk) and the Pink Chaddi Campaign (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_Chaddi_Campaign). Where the Indian woman brazenly declares herself as sexual, material, carnal and provides her physicality, her venereality as the site for resistance and protest. Where the materiality of her body is not stifled or concealed, nor subtly alluded to, but front and centre of the revolution. Where her impurity is acknowledged and embraced, and then its characterisation as impure challenged.
The second construction of the Indian woman is the very inverse of the first. It plays instead on the veneration of the Indian woman- her sanctity, righteousness and virtue. It appeals to the good and pious in potential perpetrators, beseeches them to reach deep into their moral rectitude and see women for the divinity they embody. The Abused Goddesses Campaign is the ultimate portrayal of this, depicting various Indian goddesses as powerless victims of abuse:
Since my first exposure to these images, and profoundly more after my dalliance with Agamben, I have developed a strong discomfort with the latter construction of the Indian woman. Aside from its valorisation and fetishisation of victimhood, it serves to produce the good Indian woman, pious and worthy of protection, and its antithesis- the impure woman. It retains the element of uncertainty and susceptibility in its blatant appeal to potential perpetrators, dispensing with any focus on women reclaiming control of their own bodies and destiny. A venerated woman remains a vulnerable one.
Agemben has shown me that our accursedness will be our ultimate release. It is only through a visibalised, unapologetic performance of our physicality, our bodily materiality that we can liberate ourselves. Our impurity is our salvation.