The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002

Myths and gender: a Marxist analysis
G. V. Gupta

From Myths to Markets: Essays on Gender.
Edited by Kumkum Sangari and Uma Chakravarti. Pages 393+xxx. Rs 700

THIS catchy title contains 15 papers, divided in four sections, presented at a seminar held in IIAS, Shimla, with an introduction by the editors. The authors are mostly female, Brahmin and from Delhi, with obvious Marxist leanings. Modern examples of mythmaking on female subjugation are communal periodisation of history and the creation of an image of a conquering Muslim male defiling the Hindu female.

The myth of Madhavi reinterpreted by Bhishma Sahani to bring out the marketability of female re-productivity in the original text is analysed in the fist essay to lament mere superimposition of modern sensibility on old myths and the absence of bringing these myths forward in modern times. Analysis of patriarchy in king’s household in Arthashastra is the subject of another essay while female space is sought to be located, not convincingly, in folk songs in Tamil in another. The fusion of the textual and folk in Puranas to create a great tradition in a form more accommodative of the female is another study.


‘Market’ is attacked for the inadequacy of the neoclassical theory in valuing the female contribution to domestic production to treat her merely as a consumptive unit with no role in production. This also deprives her of control over her earnings. Globalisation further commodifies the female. The two essays skillfully summarise the well-known textual criticism originating in the West. Nirmala Banerjee makes the distinction of private patriarchy, where the male oppresses as the patriarch, and public patriarchy, where the males being better organised use their bargaining power to relegate women to inferior jobs or pay, as defined in Western literature and not applicable to India. She emphasises the cultural aspects of Brahmanism. Aparna Mahanta’s presentation is the only one that specifically brings out the change in the productive role of the female during the change of mode of production from tribal to a more settled agricultural system. But the inadequacies are well brought out in the introduction itself.

An analysis of Rashsundari’s autobiography brings out the effectiveness of the genre of doublespeak to allow expression to an upper-class housewife in Bengal. However, the use of satire and other techniques of sabotage remain unexplored. All female biographical writings analysed here celebrate the ‘pativrata’. This indicates that only the reform movements in early colonial times provided the space for expression.

Excluding Tamil folk songs, the collection contains only two field studies. Rajni Palriwala brings out well the increased burden of customary movement of the female between the natal and the in-laws’ houses as supplementary labour with increased productivity. Prem Choudhary studies folk sayings to subjugate the female in rural North.

An ideological frame is provided by the editors who are in no doubt that it is the mode of production that is decisive. For them subsistence economy better provided for nourishment entitlements and individual freedom for the female. The growth of capitalism and market economy with globalisation are for them the most oppressive. They make woman a commodity. They have no appreciation that it is the freedom of the market, particularly of labour market, which has created a choice both for the male and the female for the first time even if it is true that the speed of change has not been fast enough to benefit the female and the male trade unionist has tried to limit the freedom of the market for the female. The answer to the inadequacy of the market is not reversion to a non-market economy but to make it more widespread and fault free with increased knowledge and better transport. Capitalism is symbiotically tied to individual freedom. It is the relatively larger freedom from want due to scale economies and a choice between employers not available under feudalism, which has made this possible. Communal control over means of production has been as oppressive of the female as feudalism, as seen in China and Russia, simply because it is labour bureaucratic control at best and nationalist army control in general.

The editors blame Brahmanism more, whether it is mythmaking or attempt at Puranic integration. For them texts are more important than reality. It helps also in projecting secularism. They are, however, mistaken in repeating a textual statement (page 171) that Muslims were more advanced in female education in Madras Presidency compared to Brahmins just to disprove, what they term as Brahmin prejudice, that Muslims were more reluctant to educate their girls. The fact as given in the table on page 170 is that the proportion of boys to girls for Brahmins in university, secondary and elementary education was 92:1, 21:1, and 1.5:1, respectively, as compared to 115:1, 29:1 and 5:1, respectively, for Muslims. It is clear that as compared to boys a much smaller number of girls were in education among Muslims than Brahmins, apart from the much smaller number of Muslim girls as a percentage of the total population. Such mistakes may easily invite the charge of prejudice on the part of editors.