Rethinking motherhood

Print edition : November 10, 2017
A renowned feminist takes up arms against religious dogma, capitalist myths and nationalist patriarchy.

THIS little book, the last work of the renowned feminist critic and women’s rights activist Jasodhara Bagchi, looks at an important social institution as it evolves in history and changes its functions. The author’s notions are in stark contrast to the prevailing shibboleths of eternally unchanging motherhood used extensively in political demagogy and commercial entertainment; it is also available as common sense, much valued by the media. This book’s perspective is socialist and oppositional and it takes up arms in no uncertain terms against religious dogma, capitalist myths and nationalist patriarchy.

It is a gem of a book, one that offers a good, solid, incisive introduction to the shifting demands of the ruling class from the female half of the population in time and space. While it takes up the social and economic function of motherhood, it has an integral view of the other services demanded of women in family and outside, namely the sexual and domestic functions, apart from the useful romantic and affective aura they are supposed to provide.

This contribution to gender studies is neither a campy manifesto nor a doom-and-gloom tirade against men: it is an invitation to think out some of most burning issues of the day.

Jasodhara Bagchi had a distinguished career in activism and authorship in the area of gender relations, both of which evident in this text. The book has just the spark to persuade readers into interrogating their fondly-held notions. She provides a neat and critical summary of the issues in the first chapter. The relevant Indian debates are taken up first and then the international scholarship on gender relations in general, and on motherhood in particular, comes in for a review. The author is scrupulously fair in naming names and in explicating opinions, but she is not one of those who find the holy grail in the academic take on the gender question; she looks particularly, and fairly, at texts that come out of movements and debates.

Her view of radical feminism, for instance, is firmly but judiciously critical, and though she does nothing to hide the Marxist bent of her thought, she leans over backwards in being generous to critiques of Marxist orthodoxy. She herself takes part in the debate within Marxism, interrogating the rigid separation of productive and reproductive labour and the resultant valourisation of the former. One suspects that the authorial voice in this text wishes to separate the worldwide Marxist discussion of the subject from the official doctrines of Soviet dialectical materialism. The enduring values of Soviet socialist experiments are not devalued, but the author knows that the world has moved on, and that in these dark times other ways of knowing and other models of praxis must be sought. Not for her the comfy billet of secure loyalties.

Coming nearer at hand in the second chapter and engaging in the ongoing discussion of the “woman question” in our own times, this book proceeds to dismantle the myth of celebratory motherhood. Who would not agree, in this day and age, that existing ideas of motherhood are often a historical ploy to entrap women into the domestic round of breeding and rearing?

Forget the unregenerate Victorian order of repeated conceptions and large broods, even the enlightened 1960s saw in the advanced capitalist west (where else but the United States?) a surge for “scientific” motherhood in the “century of the child” (page 20). All it did for the affluent married woman was to complicate her customary burden with additional gadgetry and the anxiety of market choices. The poor, particularly the black, mother carried on as usual. The Soviet example much earlier went a long way in freeing women from marital mating and obligatory childbirth, but it nevertheless extolled the glories of “socialist” motherhood. The result was had an extra range of domestic labour on top of whatever socialist labour she had to contribute. But this was probably a vastly better deal for the mother than anything else found in history.

Jasodhara Bagchi feels a particular affinity with the South African black woman who fought so valiantly for an apartheid-free and independent nation. But for her too, the child on her back as she faced the police and the family she had to go back to was not only a cruel dilemma but also a fundamental limiting of the possibilities of her social being.

The movement of black nationalism has emphasised the more revolutionary dynamic face of motherhood that is no longer content to suffer passively.

“As feminists, how do we view this phase in one’s history? Was it, as the nationalists claimed, a process of authentication for a fulfilment of the search for one’s own identity? Or, was it just a manipulative attempt to set up a counter hegemony which hardly changed the rules of the game?” (page 70)

Coming to her own society in the third chapter, Jasodhara Bagchi is equally incisive. She worked for a long time on the dynamics of the nationalist moment in Indian history and was one of our leading experts on the relationship between nationalism and gender. This book summarises her earlier work to demonstrate the deep linkage of the iconic Bharatmata with the colonial gentry’s patriotic and patriarchal agenda. Whatever its historical origins, “for the nineteenth century Hindu male elite of Bengal the image helped to consolidate the exclusive orthodoxy of a Hindu brahminical patriarchal world order” (page 51).

The particular image may be a bit ragged round the edges now, but this segment of Indian history is still the happy hunting ground of a myriad historians, reading a variety of mentalities in events, agencies and texts. Since many social scientists make heavy weather of imaginative texts, missing nuances, traces and affinities, Jasodhara Bagchi is particularly well-suited to the task of reading the national narrative in its gender-class-caste-race deflections, having had the best of training in the area of textual studies in Kolkata, Oxford and Cambridge.

Since her task in the present instance is to read gender realities under ideological constructs, she has managed to unravel the plight of the woman as a historical subject in many junctures and many sequences. In her relatively lengthy reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora (1909), a novel which can be read as a critique of patriotic orthodoxy, it is the mother figure of Anandamoyee who turns out to be the pivotal embodiment of counter-hegemonic discourses.

The author finds Adrienne Rich’s distinction between motherhood as an institution and motherhood as an experience quite useful in her reading. Anandamoyee does not cite doctrines as the men do or take part in public debates in which men alone have entry, but in her everyday life as a practicing mother and in her queries of ordinary matters she turns out to be “the opposition figure of motherhood in India’s colonial history” (page 37). Jasodhara Bagchi celebrates this kind of motherhood, not the retro rubbish of mythical constructs.

She avoids discussing Gandhi and his version of sin bins, though his mixed bag of orthodoxy and populism has not been entirely ushered offstage yet. Instead, we have Tagore, who was in some of his seminal texts the luminous figure of the Indian Enlightenment in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. It shows up the pathetic regress of civilisational values at this juncture that we have to constantly invoke him and his like as the most crucial legacy in our fight against proto-fascist culture and politics.

Jasodhara Bagchi finds areas of darkness not in India alone, but the whole world. She sees the savage maw of imperialist capitalism devouring its victims everywhere, its array of technologies and media power pushing women into the time-warp of compulsive motherhood.

The very important fourth chapter of this book is absolutely crucial to her argument about capitalism and motherhood. The last thirty years have seen a lot “resistance” to this invasion of what has been called assisted reproductive technology (RT). The natalism of this phase of RT, combined with the emphasis on genetic parenting, makes it complicit with patriarchy” (page 92). We have been made complaisant with the proliferation of goods and services without which life seems empty. We no longer strain the brain about child or family or community or nation or the globe; all our social links are taken care of by the market, and states are only too eager to feed the giant of consumerism. The age of neo-liberal imperialism has ushered in regimes of coercion and terror everywhere, not least in the sanctum of family life and mother-child bonding. The smear of commerce pollutes all.

To state the blindingly obvious, humanity seems to have taken several steps back to set up nightmarish regimes all over the globe. One finds a regressive India under the new dispensation and the victims are largely women and marginalised people. The crudest of signs are taken for wonders, the cruellest of violence brings thrills: another day, another child raped, another girl thrown acid at, another bride burned, another mum thrashed by sons. Jasodhara Bagchi has, in her goodbye gift to friends and readers, offered a thinking woman’s way into the mess, and the rationale to fight it out.

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