Bhamini Lakshminarayan | M2015MC013 Media Studies
Dr. Sunitha Chitrapu
27th August, 2015
The “Public”: Its Composition and Negotiation by Women
Habermas (1962 | 1989) traces the evolution of the word “public,” and its syntagmatic and paradigmatic associations with other words in the English language. In doing this, he locates the word within the changing sociopolitical structures of the European continent, and bases these changes within a materialist reconstruction of history. While he discusses the social stratification of access to the public in terms of lineage and class, he does not locate the particular gendered identity that constitutes and makes use of this space.
The existing economic climate, both internationally and in India, have become refeudalised within the structures of monopolistic capitalism and political beauraucracies. In this, the neglect of women within the composition of the public is not merely an accidental ommission in the bourgeoise evolution, but a systemic exclusion fuelled by patriarchal discourse that, I argue, must be noted in any analysis of the public.
The industrial revolution’s division of labour led to a distinctive binary forming in the opposing spaces of the “public” and “private,” based on the use of the mode of reproduction of life within the particular space. Calhou (1993) and other feminists have argued that the distinctive binary thus created reinforced the social position and access that woman had outside of her own home. The location of her role as one of the biological reproduction of life, as opposed to the material reproduction of life, and the consequent devaluing of this role in rationalist-enlightenment intellectual thought, further seperated her from legitimate access to the public domain. The distinction between the personal and “private” and the political and “public” has not only led to the legitimisation and exploitation of gendered division of labour, but also the refusal to acknowledge sexual, domestic, and emotional violence within the sphere of the private as a legitimate agenda in public discourse. Questions of democracy, justice, and egalitarian principles were located within the sphere of the public, and did not extend into the realm of the private. Furthermore, the idea of the “public” would seem to exclude the identity of the woman, with the connotations of the ideas of the “public woman” and the “street walker” being linked with prostitution (Solnit, 2000).
This feminist critique of Habermas is particularly relevant in the sociocultural space we occupy in India today, with the growing and competing demands for substantive equality and access to public life, and the call for a paleocentric return to some form of a glorified, imagined pre-colonial past. Women in India are still restricted in terms of both familial control and state infrasturcture in their access to public space and discourse. While this might not be apparent to the new elite, in whose circles women travel late and alone, and often far away, one must be careful to make note of the sort of spaces these women access. Phadke et al (2011) make note of the “privatised public spaces” that women of an upper middle class and upper class background feel as though they have unrestricted access to – shopping malls, coffee shops, and so on.
In the discourse of the media in India, a woman’s access to public space has been framed within dominant middle-class narrative (Fernandes, 2000) of the context of women’s safety – an argument I have already made in a previous response, Consent, Manufactured: Mainstream Media and the Essentialised Feminist Discourse. In a further contextualisation of this argument, I locate the media imperialism of Fejes (1982) in the reconstruction of the public space as the domain of the heteronormative male, reflecting the existing structural inequalities in India. The public domain, restircted as it is for the Othered identity – particularly the Muslim identity in India – is further restricted for the women who belong to this community, as noted by Khan (2007) who discusses the terse negotiation of space for Muslim women in Mumbai.
The mainstream media has propogated and perpetuated the discourse of an unsafe public for women in their publications and coverage, neglecting the fact that any member of the public is at risk on – for instance – an unlit public road (“TPC installs solar lights for women safety,” Times of India), or when on a highway (“Women’s safety: Kerala govt to install GPS in public vehicles,” Zee News.) This is in line with Chomsky’s propoganda model, and, further more, leads to the Foucaultian construction of “docile bodies,” in which women themselves regulate their restrict their access to the seemingly “public” space – choosing their mode of education, employment, attire, and association with the fear of the “unknown public” in mind.
In an web ad that went viral in 2014, Protecting Women is Religion, a lone woman in a salwaar kameez walks down a road in the middle of the afternoon. She is followed by a pair of men, who, by their aesthetic appearance, appear to be from a lower economic background. She becomes more and more uncomfortable until they finally step in front of her and they come face to face. We, as an audience, are expected to anticipate some form of street sexual harrassment or worse to follow, but this is mitigated by the appearance of several men of different religious identities, who, holding hands, form a circle as a protective barrier around the women and “protect” her from the dangerous individuals she otherwise encountered in the public space. I argue that this ad recreates the binary between the public and the private, wherein men are the gatekeepers and guardians of the public space, and can either be perpetrators or protectors within the public domain.
In all of this, a woman’s access to public space is severely constrained, and thus one would assume that their participation in dialogue and discourse would be so as well. Sainath (1997) argues that the entirety of the public space for discourse and dialogue has been shrinking. However, in the context of women’s voices, I would argue that there exists a medium that could potentially mitigate their lack of access to the physically public space – that of the internet. Women in this medium have shared stories and experiences which would otherwise not have been available in the public domain. The very act of taking a selfie, an act that is attributed to a primarily female demographic, is, I argue, an active reconstruction of the sexual and social
identity of a woman, distributed within the public space of the internet. While this space is certainly again only negotiated by women of a certain class and background, and that there is undeniably – not just a significant amount of surveillance – but active misogyny and threats of violence as a consequence of their access, it cannot be discounted a possible move forward.
In conclusion, I argue that Habermas’ discussion of the evolution of the “public” entirely ommitted the gendered heirarchies of access to participating within this space, and that it furthered the normalised discourse surrounding the public/private binary. In India, this is characterised by surveillance and control of women’s access to public spaces, while private issues such as marital rape are considered “family” matters. The mainstream media has failed to avoid an essentialisation of the public, as well as the discourse of women in public, and has propogated flawed models of their participation in it. The only recourse lies in an active subversion of these normative structures.
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