Literary Shelf

Sarojini Sahoo: A Reading from Sri Lanka

The Mitochondrial African Eve, who gave birth to the first Homo sapiens sapiens, somewhere near Lake Victoria in East Africa, could most certainly be an ancestor of Sarojin Sahoo. She belongs to the genus Gyna sapiens, introduced to us by Dr. Leonard Shlain, in 1998. Shlain claims Gyna sapiens is higher in the evolutionary ladder than Homo sapiens.

I have never met Sarojini, but I know her from a distance, through some of her writing in English.

I do not want to call her a ‘feminist’. I do not think she needs to talk about ‘feminism’ or ‘femininity’. Nor do the 3.5 billion women around the earth. They have their identity, they have their power. They should be able to place the men in their place so the men would have to identify themselves as Masculinists or whatever.

Murray Bookchin wrote in ‘The Philosophy of Social Ecology’ about domination of ‘human-over-human’. It is this domination which has to be eliminated. Then the struggle should be for ‘Humanism’ and not feminism, and thus I would like to identify Sarojini Sahoo as a ‘Humanist’, fighting for the liberation of all human beings under the domination of a handful of humans, both male and female. And her struggle to liberate the woman, will in the end help liberate all human beings, and will also put an end to the domination of ‘human-over-nature’ too.

Women are more intelligent, more capable and more courageous than men. They also live longer than men, everywhere on earth. If Gyna sapiens too behaved like Homo, humankind would have disappeared from the face of the earth thousands of years ago. They would not have been able to survive. Even today the woman outlives the man, under most conditions, in the most sophisticated social conditions in a city of a ‘developed’ country, or in the most underdeveloped village in an Asian or African country. Survival of the fittest is proven once again. In the U.S. women live at least five years longer than men, but the women’s life expectancy is declining, probably because they too are beginning to live more like men. In Sri Lanka women live for 76.2 on average while men average only 68.8. In Japan women’s life expectancy at birth is 86.1 while for men it is only 79.0 (2005-2010). In Mozambique average life span of women is 39.0 years, while for men it is 38.3. Women are still ahead even in the country with the lowest life expectancy. (UN statistics).

Critics and the media try to compare Sarojini Sahoo with Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Judith Butler. It is unfortunate to note this as a constant occurrence. That is what always happens, people in the West and those who are serving Western interests cannot accept that we in the East could know better than them. They accused Tagore of having been influenced by Christian writers in his poetry, and Mahatma was influenced by Tolstoy. They know that Tagore and Gandhi were living in a country with a great civilization going back more than 5000 years?

Sarojini answers her critics, by introducing the term ‘femininity’, saying “it separates the female mass from a masculine world with reference to gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, nurturance, deference, self-abasement and succorance.” Sarojini has clarified her position, “feminism should not be gynocentric and misandrist any day and it should be aimed at full civil and legal equality for women”.

Then she also says, “I consider myself more a writer and as a writer, I think I am always a genderless entity. A writer should not have any gender.” Having said that, she puts the question to us, “But still, patriarchal society has prevailed; is there any possibility to have a genderless society?”

On the idea of marriage, she says, “marriage must be taken out of the social realm and fully put back into the private one. Society should withdraw from marriage and allow the adults involved to work out their own definition of justice in the privacy of their own homes”. Home also means having children. Sarojini is not a feminist who believes in interfering with nature by encouraging women to be childless. It is a woman’s right to have children.

On marriage, she often touches on monogamy, polygamy, polyandry and polyamory. Polyamory is a topic which is not touched by many men, and even women who consider themselves feminists. Sarojini had written “Neither in the East or West, the society never allows this type of relationship (polyamory) as still the patriarchal claims over woman as a property exists in any hidden form. In every society, it is hoped that a woman should keep her chastity pure.” She also wrote once about Gita Govinda, “love of Krishna was polyamorous” but she elaborates, “(it) was more an evocation and elaboration of passionate love or an attempt to capture the exciting, fleeting moments of the senses. It could also be an evocation of the baffling ways in which love's pleasures and pains were felt before retrospective recollection, trying to regain a lost control over emotional life.”

Polyamory has a respectable term, ‘consensual non-monogamy’ in the West, which is now getting openly accepted, like gay marriages. But in our part of the world, it is mostly a one way arrangement, where only the male partner has the privilege, so it is only polygyny, once more. Like in Ravana’s harem, described by Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, where Ravan was “the object of feminine desire...these women, unlike Sita, have come to the lord of the raksasas willingly”. And Ravana would have received Mandodari’s consent. Elsewhere Sarojini wonders if Draupadi was in love with all five Pandava brothers, which too could be considered polyamory.

I have not found any of Sarojini’s writing dealing with the Ideal woman and Ideal wife in India, probably because I could read only what is available in English. It is a topic she should work on, because it is close to the hearts of most women. Madhu Kishwar, in her paper ‘Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India’ confirms the imprisonment of women even in contemporary India within the mindset of an imaginary Sita of Ramacharithmanas. Kishwar says that not only in her mother’s and grandmother’s generations, but even among young college-going girls the symbol of the ideal wife is still Sita. Gandhi too had highlighted Sita’s self-sacrifice and infinite capacity for suffering, which has been taken for granted by most men, who like to believe that it is subservience.

Sarojini believes that “BOTH (her emphasis) men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound effect on beliefs and perceptions.” She is “against the patriarchy role model of society but it does not mean that I want to replace a matriarchal role model of society in place of the existing patriarchal one.”

It could be that she wants to go back to the society we had long ago, where men and women enjoyed equal status, mutual respect and did not suffer oppression in any form.

When our earliest ancestors lived the simplest life possible, which is beyond our imagination today, they would have lived like food gatherers. Whenever they felt hungry they would pluck a ripe fruit or a few tender leaves as their food. They would have learned to eat tender yams, and once fire was discovered, would have boiled more mature tubers and tough vegetables which they could not eat raw.

The tools made of bone and stone would have been used for digging for roots, splitting or cutting vegetables. It would have been the women who gathered most of the food, because they had to feed their children. The woman would have known where the food was available. She would have decided where they should settle down, where there was plenty of food available and where it was safe from predators.

Once nature domesticated the woman, and she set up her home, she was able to domesticate man, and get him to settle down in one place at least for a while. The woman would really have been the man of the house. She was the provider. The man would have sat around idle, like they do today around the village tea kiosk or the city club.

Talking about Freudian ‘penis envy’ which gives a girl the idea that she belongs to the ‘second sex’, Sarojini quotes from Samkhya Upanishad, where ‘Purusha’ (masculinity) is passive and ‘Prakruti’ (femininity) is active. She reminds us that in ancient Indian Philosophy femininity is considered as Shakti, and that “It is a regrettable and astonishing fact that while discussing ‘femininity’' we discuss Christian ideology or psychoanalysts’ point of view but never any day has anyone discussed the idea of this Indian philosophy.”

One more instance where she challenged Simon de Beauvoir’s belief that one is not born but becomes a woman. Sarojini believes that a woman is born as a woman.

A very important issue which Sarojini has raised often is on pornography. She has written, “Porn is a misogynist attitude which promotes the idea that women are shown in a subordinate role. Pornography contributes to sexism, violence against women, is a cause of rape, and also eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women.”

Probably this is an issue which should be considered by all of us. Yet the difficulty would be because porn is big business. And today porn is accessible by anyone anywhere on earth, even on their mobile phones. And there is enough of it free, which gives a taste for the porn user, who will then get addicted and will start paying for more and more. It is the same way young people get hooked on drugs, and how we all got hooked on tea.

She may have written about the prevalence of sexual assault in our part of the world, but it could be because of the suppression of the sexual urge, both among men and women, instilled by the misguided puritan ideas of the patriarchy. Whether it is good or bad, in the Western society the unlimited sexual freedom for both men and women allows men to release their sexual urges without forcing themselves on poor defenseless women, or force other women to prostitution.

Sarojini touches on many issues, reaching out to every corner to expose what we try to hide or ignore. She did that with her writing about the 2012 December brutal rape/murder of the young girl. Here she takes on the entire patriarchal system.

She looks at the male dominated religious systems, when she exposes the position of women in world religions, taking up where Noor Zaheer ended her novel, ‘My God is a Woman’. All world religions have been dominated by men, and they, with the backing and the blessings of the ruling classes, ensured that the woman was always treated as a frail, weak minded, creature always trying to tempt man. Even among female clergy, they do not have equal status. The Pope has always been a male, except for the Popess Joan, which the Catholic Church denies. In Sri Lanka there is a firm belief that a woman could never be a Buddha.

There is an ongoing debate among the feminists on beauty of women. Sarojini says, “Fashion is a barometer of cultural change. Fashion is a form of non-verbal communication to indicate occupation, rank, gender, sexual availability, locality, class, wealth, and group affiliation. It is the best form of iconography we have to express individual identity. For centuries, the authority (state, society, religion) tended to grip its control over individuals on the use of fashion.” What she did not say was that the grip is tighter today because the fashion, cosmetics and clothes industries and their advertising organizations are manipulating it, often through the state, society and religion. And also this fashion affects not only the women, but also the men, because it is once again exposing the inequality among mankind.

The modern day concept of beauty takes her to the issue of the skin color of women. Here too the cosmetics industry is raking in billions by duping women with products to make the skin fairer. Sarojini sees the irony in the fact that these same cosmetic industry is now targeting men too, offering them a fairer skin. The skin color also has become a part of the racist attitude among some Indian communities.

There is no need to mimic nature, if we can learn to accept and appreciate nature as it is. There is also no need to try to change nature. This is where the woman could play a major role, because she has always remained closer to nature. She could begin with going for the natural look, instead of giving into the cosmetics manufacturers and clothes designers, mud therapy and silicone implants. By trying to be more ‘feminine’ woman is allowing man to dominate her, place her in a subordinate role! Woman is the only female animal who tries to impress the male of the species, while with almost all other animals, it is the male who has to impress and attract the female. The females of other animal species never needed any Chausath Kala. Every process, by which the modern woman tries to look more feminine, is an act against nature, and the raw material used, the processing, the waste products, and finally the end product itself harms our environment, at every step of the way. And in the end it harms women too, because men get used to seeing the external, synthetic beauty of the woman. When it fades away, when cosmetics and technology could not hide her fading beauty, man turns away from her in disgust. Had the woman been able to attract the man with her inner beauty, with her natural self, which would grow with age instead of fading away, man would get closer to her. If we are to achieve that we should ban all advertising where woman is used as a sex object, to promote more and more cosmetics for the women.

With the fashion and cosmetic industries targeting men, more and more, in the near future we could see a narrowing of the external appearance of men and women, and we may have a problem identifying the gender from their appearance, clothes or make-up. We could all end up like the person at the airport in Brigid Brophy’s ‘In Transit’ (1969). Even in the field of education and earning power the women are already leading. In America the latest statistics show that the woman of the house is becoming the major breadwinner, and sometimes the sole breadwinner. Women are also proving they are more capable of being employed, running the household and bringing up children, without a man in the house.

We could expect a new sex-reversed culture. The real sex-reversed culture had happened in human society sometime in our history when the woman began to demean herself by trying to attract the male of the species. But Margaret Mead was also thinking like a man when she wrote about the ‘sex-reversed culture’ of the Chambri society in New Guinea, just because the men were adorned with make-up and ornaments.

I have been reading Sarojini, as a Sinhala speaking Sri Lankan living in Sri Lanka. We have very few ‘Feminists’ in our country, and most of them are from the elite society, looking down on our culture and our women through their glasses tinted with Western concepts of the man-woman relationship.

Our women have always been free. Even though there is a man of the house, the woman runs the household and the family. Probably that is why we do not have much of ‘feminist’ writing in our country, in Sinhala, and to my knowledge even in Tamil. The English writing in Sri Lanka has been influenced by the western writers and there have been a few attempts at ‘feminist’ writing, sometimes by our diaspora writers, but they did not have the exposure, the first-hand experience and the capability to empathize with the suffering women, to be able to present anything meaningful. Probably because there was nothing for them to write about.

Our women, at least in our villages, have been always held in high respect. Mother was considered as the Buddha at home.

It is true we have a certain amount of domestic violence and also sexual violence and abuse of children. The domestic violence is mostly because of the very high rate of consumption of alcohol especially among the daily wage earners and the lower income families. And among the estate labor the men and women both have become addicted to alcohol. The sexual violence is probably because of the high exposure to pornography, which is readily available, and like in the rest of the South Asian neighborhood, the puritanical restrictions, leaving the men frustrated. Because it is mostly the men who are getting addicted to porn.

Alcoholism is also one issue where the women have showed their strength. We have often seen, when the ‘man of the house’, who had been an alcoholic, who spent all his earnings on alcohol, and came home to beat his wife and children, suddenly died. Then the woman would take charge of her family and they would lead a normal peaceful life, the children following their education, the woman finding employment.

One more issue where the relationship of men and women was seriously affected was the 30 years of war in Sri Lanka. It was a war which no one, specially the women wanted, no one except power hungry politicians and a few who could make money out of it. There have always been vultures preying on human misery. This war also brought the women out, showed their strength, courage and the capacity to stand pain and suffering. They had to face it when the terrorists took their children away by force, to be conscripted to their forces, to be trained as suicide carders. Mothers had to encourage their teenage girls to get pregnant so they could escape conscription. They had to watch as their fathers, husbands, and children were dragged away by the terrorists or the state forces. That was in the north.

In the south, mothers had to watch as sealed coffins arrived from the warfront, and learn to manage their own lives in silence. They had to keep on dreaming that their husbands and their sons would someday return home, because they were ‘missing in action’. It was always the women who held the families together, and who are still struggling to get back into normal life.

Sarojini Sahoo has written about writers and writing. Once she had written, “The writing process is a sexual process. When a writer wants to expose a physical life or an energetic life, a creative tension and flow of energy is generated in the creative process. This creative tension can be experienced as a sexual tension and the flowing energy creates life or describes a new life.” This new life reminds me again of the first baby born to the young women near Lake Victoria 150,000 years ago.

As a writer and a Gyna sapiens, she has taken up the issue of the role of gender in language, because most languages evolved under a patriarchal control. Her own language, Oriya, has gender-neutral characteristics, like several other Indian languages, Tamil, Assamese and Bengali. Because she writes in Odia and in English, she is faced with the practice in the English language to use the masculine gender where it should really be gender-neutral. When it comes to professions, the name implies the male, and when referring to a woman, the usage has come to be ‘lady doctor’ or ‘lady lawyer’, not ‘doctoress’ or ‘lawyeress’. She points out that Chairman, Postman, always meant both.

In our own Sinhala language, we have gender based nouns. Often we change the gender with the suffix, like we would say ‘Sabhapati-tuma’ and ‘Sabhapati-tumiya’ for chair-man and chair-woman. We also identify the gender in our verbs.

Sarojini is conveying her message to the world, not only through her essays and speeches, but through the more popular medium of creative fiction. Her short stories and the novels reach a much wider readership, and get talked about more. And her message is getting through. Sarojini Sahoo needs to be translated into our language, Sinhala, too, including her novel, ‘The Dark Abode’ and her short stories in English. And someday perhaps, her novels in Odia, Hindi and Bengali.


More by :  Daya Dissanayake

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3379      Comments: 4

Comment She is indeed a genius .She belongs to Odisha a very small state of India but established herself as a big thinker ,philosopher and writer.
Nice article about her.
congratulations to both the writers.

Pallishree Pattanayak
21-Jun-2019 09:10 AM

Comment Nice write up,sir.Sarojini Sahoo is one writer who chooses to walk along untrodden path.That's where lies the beauty of her themes and work.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
03-Sep-2013 12:15 PM

Comment thank you Dr Rama Rao, for your encouraging words. daya

daya dissanayake
03-Sep-2013 08:04 AM

Comment very good essay
times have changed and outlooks too need to be changed
perhaps you don't know that sarojini's article without being used she was asked by an editor to seek her hubby's clearance or some such thing
good thing eou appreciate sarojin's work
all the best
rama rao

dr v v b rama rao
03-Sep-2013 00:17 AM

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