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Gender, Feminists

Aren’t these traditions anti-woman?
Most feminists agree that freedom of choice and reproductive rights should be a part of any women’s health agenda. However MATRIKA is concerned that this agenda does not include women’s right to choose ‘tradition’ and indigenous healing and birthing modalities.

While it is important to champion all women’s rights to access biomedical health services, it is also important that we do not de-skill ourselves as caretakers of our own and our families’ health. For this reason we need to acknowledge and respect the valuable contributions of women’s indigenous health knowledge and practice. Whatever form it takes—in North India a grandmother makes a hot concoction of mulati and ginger; a dai gives a woman ajwain ka ladoo or pangiri postpartum—these healing practices are still in memory. They will be erased, however, if their valuable contributions are not acknowledged. Cultural resources are being discarded. The question is how do we take the best from both tradition and modern medicine?

Indigenous health practices, which are often household-based, are still surviving, unsupported by state and biomedical establishments, due to their abiding relevance to local communities. Insufficient knowledge about indigenous medicines and their therapeutic capacities has led the women’s health movement to advocate for more hospital care, emergency services, more chemical medicines and contraceptives, disregarding the wealth of alternatives coming from traditions. It is important for all women to take charge of their own health and not be dependent on doctors or other health professionals. We should not lose our living heritage of herbs, massage and ritual practice—nor should we be denied access to good modern medical care.

Mira Sadgopal, a feminist, physician and activist writes of traditional medicine

Generally speaking, women in India find more resonance in the AYUSH systems and local health traditions as compared to Allopathy. This is because of their pattern of social and cultural relationships, their power (or lack of it) within each system, and the way women relate to their bodies and to nature. Contrary to what most analysts have argued, it is probably not their powerlessness (economic weakness, poor educational status) that "drives" women (as it is said) to vaidyas or hakims. As regards mental and emotional health, too, there is more resonance. In the Allopathic view there is a sharp mind/body distinction or split, hence a dichotomy of mind and emotions. The male mind (supposedly not emotional) is seen as the standard "sound mind", and so women's mental and emotional health issues tend to get discounted. But in the traditional views, in general found throughout India, a person's "man" (roughly translating as "mind" but located closer to the heart, in the upper chest) is a combination of both mental and emotional facets. This is not to say that women’s mental health issues are not neglected by practitioners of Ayurveda, Unani or Homeopathy. It is only to suggest that the AYUSH systems and local health traditions may provide relatively more space for women’s mental health issues to be addressed.

Why is there so much misinformation about dais and birth traditions?
During British colonial times Western science and medicine were viewed as superior to Indian knowledge systems such as Ayurveda, Yoga, Tantra, etc. Also gender relations and the status of women in India were used as justifications for colonial rule. The following quotes come from Katherine Mayo in Mother India, (first published in 1925) a book which influenced the Indian elite of the time.

Says Dr. N.N. Parakh, the Indian physician:>

Ignorance and the purdah system have brought the women of India to the level of animals. They are unable to look after themselves, nor have they any will of their own. They are slaves to their masculine owners.

Said that outstanding Swarajist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, in his Presidential address to the Hindu Mahasabha Conference held in Bombay in December, 1925:

The great feature of present day Hindu life is passivity. “Let it be so” sums up all their psychology, individual and social. They have got into the habit of taking things lying down. They have imbibed this tendency and this psychology and this habit from their mothers…There is nothing so hateful as a quarrelsome, unnecessarily assertive, impudent, ill-mannered woman, but even if that were the only road which the Hindu woman must traverse in order to be an efficient, courageous, independent and physically fit mother, I would prefer it to the existing state of things.

A Rajasthani miniature of a noblewoman’s birth scene. Note the special birthing bed being carried in, the preparation of a herbal concoction on the left, and perhaps atta being kneaded for the ritual splitting of the atta.

What about the idea that birth and menstruation are ‘dirty’?

It is very tempting for modern women to stand outside of ideas of the ‘dirty’ female body and critique them as archaic and misogynist. Considering the MATRIKA data and focusing a woman-centered eye on India’s extensive and ancient visual culture cautions us against doing so.

Dais’ voices suggest that this ‘dirt’ correlates closely to the fertility of the earth and of the female body. So-called ‘pollution taboos’ are related to this female fertility—where priests have radically separated the idea of the sacred from the reproductive potential of the female body. This is true of all the dominant religions: Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Brahmanical Hinduism. During menstruation and post-birth women are ‘unclean’. However the dai speaks with a very different voice than the pundit about this uncleanness. To her the placenta, the ultimate polluting substance in the shastra literature, is spoken of reverently. It is no coincidence that dais are mainly from low and outcaste communities. Both caste and gender are involved in concepts of the ‘dirty’.

A village woman plasters the walls of her home with gobar (cow dung) which is known to keep away insects.

Despite the pejorative connotations, this concept has allowed for abiding female spaces and birth cultures. In the ‘male’ or ‘dominant’ view these female times are ‘filthy’ or polluted, but they are also times when masculine, social and even familial demands on women are suspended. Both fertile women and fertile land must rest, in order to create the world anew. And traditionally older women guarded these spaces from any incursions—perhaps with the help of ‘demons’ and nether forces!? Within this imagistic representation, the nature of female bodily energy is understood as ‘out of control’—women are presumed to be more emotional and have special physical needs at this time—so the usual social constraints are suspended. Of course we need to question the priestly voice and de-sacralisation of menstruation and birth—but we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should not ignore traditional birth knowledge.

How can we who are concerned about gender and the politics of knowledge understand the gender biases of modern medicine?

  • Science and modern knowledge systems were developed in 17th Century Europe among a group of elite men, outside of the Universities, that were controlled by the Church. They explicitly and implicitly excluded women for 300 years. (And also lower class men and men of color.)
  • In England the Royal Society was founded in 1660 and the first woman was admitted in 1945.
  • In the United States Smith College was founded in 1875 as the first educational institution which followed the same curriculum as men’s elite Ivy League colleges to which women had no access. At the time of its founding, the dean of the Harvard medical school published a book in which he argued that a rigorous intellectual curriculum would shrivel a woman’s uterus since all her blood would have to go to her brain.
  • One characteristic of this system was that it depended on a new world view—one in which the non-human world was machine-like, had no consciousness or agency. God was understood to be the creator of the world, likened to a master clockmaker of an inert and unconscious universe. God wound up the clock and gave it its working rules, the “laws of nature”.
  • Human beings (male) endowed with a God-like mind could figure out the rules—they are called the ‘laws of nature’.
  • Spirit or soul was removed from nature—nature was inert and nature and culture were totally separate, becoming categories that are mutually exclusive in the sense that culture is what nature is not and nature is what culture is not.
  • According to Boyd, the father of the scientific experimental method, God could create and annihilate but Nature could do neither. Thus experimental science was fully legitimated to act upon nature. Women could not participate in these experiments since women were equated with nature.
  • These changes in worldview overlapped with the ‘Enclosure movement’—land being enclosed and privately owned. Before many people had rights to land. The European ‘commons’ was the material foundation of peasant social life. Land became a ‘resource’ and peasants were removed by the ‘owners’. Livelihoods, social life, sacredness of land were all eroded.

“The Age of Reason was Built on the Ashes of European Shamanesses”

  • The emergence of this knowledge system corresponded with the witchhunts (most of whom were women) and the persecution of other ‘heretics’. In Europe these were bloody centuries, full of religious and class wars. There was a prominence of women in the peasant rebellions.
  • In the German city of Cologne during the religious wars nearly all the midwives were executed. Women accused of witchcraft were often midwives and healers as well as shamanesses using local psychotropic plants.
  • The wise women (in French Sage Fem, in Hindi Samajwali—she who knows) lived in local communities mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. They articulated the agency of the non-human world through expressions of gratitude, reciprocity, language of the spirit, as well as gift exchange.
  • Nature’s powers of Regeneration were not separate from human regeneration. Psychotropic substances, communication with the dead, rituals all facilitated regeneration.
  • In the earlier worldview there was a world soul, Anima Mundi, and all of matter was full of life. The world was full of God. The five elements (the panchmahabhuta) linked the human and non-human world.
  • The shaman—plant—ritual—forest or jungle all co-created each other in this cosmovision.

Courtesy Dr. Frederique Apfel Marglin



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