Adreyo Sen resides in Kolkata, India. He is pursuing his MFA at Stony Brook, Southampton. He has been published in Danse Macabre, Kritya and Garbanzo.
You can read more of his work in the January 2015 issue of Indiana Voice Journal.
Social Control and the Liminal Woman
In highly stratified societies like India, those most invested in an unofficial or semi-official capacity with social control are those who feel their position to be the most vulnerable.
This phenomenon is a gendered one. Those who arrogate to themselves the right to arbitrate the lives of those underneath and above them are, due to the entrenched gender inequality in such societies, predominantly women.
The lower middle class housewife or homemaker sees her status as wound up in the financial outcomes of her husband, as also in her performance of the domestic angel or moral center. That her position is a tenuous one, moored to her husband’s finances, impels her all the more towards the performance of this latter role.
Her control over her male offspring is predicated by the extent to which he is ready to indulge or perceive her authority within a patriarchal household wherein the role of the matriarch is consistently under-valued, or merely paid symbolic respect. The biological ward she can truly control is her daughter, whom she moulds into her highly restrictive definition of normative femininity.
The wards over whom she exercises the most power are surrogate ones. They are her domestic help. Social stratification and the breakdown of the demand-supply model result in labor being cheap and plentiful. India’s continuing feudal culture means that the domestic help can safely be regarded as permanently refractory children in need of moral instruction.
The housewife, then, is a benignant tyrant, deriving a sense of emotional well-being by directing the lives of her domestic help. This results in her extraordinary invasiveness in all matters of their personal lives – she directs their romantic outcomes, the tenor of their marriages, their performance of devoutness and their gaining access to medical care.
To rebel against this heavy patronage can be dangerous for the professional career of the domestic help. They are required to accede happily to their enforced childishness and to grin and simper at the appropriate moments. They also become instruments in the coercive control exercised by the housewife over her female offspring, an obstinately animated object that is permanently liable to rebel against the torpidity it is expected to grow into. This they do by passively or actively participating, under implicitly economic coercion, in the matriarch’s ridiculing of her daughter.
In another sense, too, women in stratified societies exercise an inordinate amount of social control. This is in the role of teacher.
Being a teacher in a government school or an average day school is an invidious position, given the disparity between the teacher’s income and that of her husband, allowing her possible passion to be dismissed as an adult child’s little contributions to the family kitty. In addition, the role of the teacher is one that, for all its public and periodic valorization, is despised as the last resort for those who are otherwise unemployable.
This puts the onus upon the female teacher (as opposed to the male teacher, who is less conscious of such pressures on account of his inherent superiority as a male subject endowed with greater agency) to demonstrate her efficacy as a moral guardian and enforcer.
She inhibits the articulacy of children from poor homes by stigmatizing it as crudity, she dismisses their efforts at growth as hubris and non-consequential to the academic course load, and she favors the rich (and inevitably outwardly more normative in terms of personal appearance and deportment) students in their arguments with the poor. She also subtly, or unsubtly, suggests that poorer children stay within their limits, and proves detrimental to their pursuit of mobility.
In such a role, however, the teacher doesn’t restrict herself to the social control of the poor. She is also invested in the social control of middle-class, upper middle-class and rich children. To her reification of their status is a hidden cost: she is personally invested in their maintenance of their social caste. To that extent, their efforts to fall out of that caste mortally offend her, especially given her own liminal position.
Such “downward” moves include the expression of interests non-allied to those traditionally associated with privilege, the opting for careers that are experimental and non-remunerative, and outward expressions that do not befit a high social position: excessive emotionality, other-gendered behavior, muteness or excessive aggression, shyness and an excessive curiosity with regard to the seemingly immutable social order. Her predominant weapons against such socially dangerous traits are ridicule and psychological intimidation. In general, she is not in favor of imagination in her charges, irrespective of their finances.