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Battles Against the Body: Reconstructing Femininity in Patriarchal Religio- social Spaces

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Femininity has been a social construct; the biological attributes of female sexuality had provided mere supporting logics to those constructing authorities which could easily be identified in patriarchal sociopolitical agencies. Philosophy, on the
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  Battles Against the Body: Reconstructing Femininity in Patriarchal Religio-social Spaces Ratul Ghosh 1 Abstract Femininity has been a social construct; the biological attributes of female sexuality had provided mere supporting logics to those constructing authorities which could easily be identified in patriarchal sociopolitical agencies. Philosophy, on the other hand, has always been used by religion as well as governmental authorities to provide a theoretical framework for its pragmatics of dominance and discrimination. The proposed article would focus on how femininity has been persistently considered as a corporeal phenomenon in the socio-religious domain and would explore how the initiated women had to fight against their own body to fit in that discriminating and dominating social structure and religious pragmatics. In the course of this discussion, this article would also focus on politicisation of feminine corporeality in ancient as well as modern societies to exemplify the subtle dominance of patriarchy. Thus, this article would try to understand the making of female subjectivity through this inner battle in the arena of a phallocentric socio-religious narrative. 1 Govt. General Degree College (Hindi Medium), Alipurduar, West Bengal, India. Society and Culture in South Asia2(1) 103–126 ©  2016 South Asian University, New Delhi SAGE Publicationssagepub.in/home.navDOI: 10.1177/2393861715609825http://scs.sagepub.com Corresponding author: Ratul Ghosh, 20 Bansdroni Place, Sonar Tari Appt. 3rd Floor, PO. Bansdroni, Kolkata, 700070, West Bengal, India.E-mail:   ghosh.rat13@gmail.com  Article  104 Society and Culture in South Asia 2(1) Keywords Femininity and physicality, embodiment, religion, culture Birth of the Problematic: Feminine Religious Corporeality In his Taẕkirat al-Aūliyā,  the famous treatise on Sufi saints, Farid al-Din Attar (1145–220) considered a single woman saint to be included among the greatest Sufi saints of all time. She was Rābiʿah al-Başrī. The chapter on Rābiʿah begins with some clarifications by the author: If anyone says, ‘Why have you included Rābiʿah  in the rank of men?’ my answer is, that the Prophet himself said, ‘God does not regard your outward forms.’ …When a woman becomes a ‘man’ in the path of God, she is a man and one cannot anymore call her a woman. (Arberry 2000: 29). Therefore, we can see that femininity has been demonstrated as a mere ‘outward form’. This structured corporeal femininity was considered unsuitable to achieve accomplishment in religious practices and faculties. Fulfilment in religious endeavours usually calls for the occurrences of virtuous metaphysical transcendence, which are reportedly considered as a characteristic path for men. Therefore, Rābiʿah had to attain ‘manhood’, she had to ‘become a man’ in the ‘path of God’ to be reckoned among extraordinary saints. We can easily understand that this ‘becoming a man’ symbolises spiritual and metaphysical upliftment. Thus, manhood has not  been considered as a mere outward form. An enhancement of spiritual faculty by practising austerity, self-mortification and asceticism could transcend one’s femininity into manhood by surpassing the borders of  physicality. This example exposes subtle patriarchal notions which were  predominant from the developmental stage of classical Sufism. Nevertheless, we could historically trace it in much ancient societies as well as in modern egalitarian societies, both in mainstream religious doctrines and subversive alternative religious cults. This article intends to understand how femininity has been delimited as an assemblage of physical attributes, and how this idea of corporeal femininity has been ceaselessly utilised by the patriarchal religio-social agencies to subjugate and manipulate the feminine within religio-cultural as well as social spaces. Providing examples from the Fakir–Baul cult (which is still a contemporary religious practice in rural Bengal) could substantiate our  Ghosh 105  proposition in reference to alternative and heterodox religious practices. Bauls and Fakirs are heterogeneous groups with an amalgamated doctrinal structure encompassing ‘tantra’, ‘yoga’, ‘ vaishnavism ’ 2  and selected doctrines of Sufism. Prolonged coital union with female partners (  sādhan sānginī  3 ) is their principal sexo-yogic exercise. Regarding their religious practice, they utter the aphorism, ‘Become a woman to make union with a woman.’ 4  One of their proposed explanations is reportedly that, during a sexual union, man’s nature is penetrative and woman’s nature is receptive or absorbing. At a higher level of the religio-coital exercise, the adept acquires that feminine receptive power by controlled  breathing and seminal retention, which generates a suction mechanism in his phallus. This is how they propose to achieve femininity, become a woman in coitus (Jha 1999(2010)). Hence, we can derive that femininity is essentially an achievable physical state according to the doctrinal understandings of the Fakir and Bauls. Moreover, a concerned parallel research could establish the fact that these female consorts are used merely as tools for religio-coital sexo-yogic practices. A female subject with full control over her genital mechanism and her body in coitus is  preferred as a tool for the esoteric practice of the male practitioners. We could refer to Dr Leena Chaki in this regard, who has done an extensive fieldwork among  sādhan sānginī   or female Baul practitioners of Bengal and have found discourses of despair, denigration and desolation among them (Chaki 2012). She has found that women from disciple families are sometimes offered to the spiritual master as fruit, cow or other offerings are made. As the process of their esoteric coital exercise requires feminine vital fluids in a vivid range, the primary task of a male practitioner is to collect menstrual fluids from women and consume it to prepare their  body for prolonged coital union (Jha 2007). A male practitioner can have as many female partners as he wishes to, and he seemingly holds the authority to judge whether the female partner has the eligibility, rather capability, to pursue the  sādhanā or not. Though an apparent notion of respect and adoration towards the women is customary among the Bauls and Fakirs, we cannot ignore the fact that the feminine body has become 2 Vaishnavism  is a Hindu religious tradition where the Supreme God Vişņu and his incarnation Kŗşņa (sometimes Rama as well) are worshipped. In Bengal, Vaishnavism  has an orthodox creed named as ‘Gauḑiya Vaishnavism’ and another subversive heterodox creed named as ‘Sahajiyā Vaishnavism’. The Bauls have been much influenced by the later creed. 3 In Bengali,  sādhan/sādhanā means esoteric practice and  sanginī means a female partner. 4 The Bengali version is:  Prakŗti hoiyā kara prakŗtir sanga . The word  prakriti  has a dual meaning in both Bengali and Sanskrit. Generally,  prakriti  means ‘nature,’ but it also means ‘women’ or ‘cosmological feminine principle’.  106 Society and Culture in South Asia 2(1) a corporeal machine in this praxis of religio-coital exercise. What was in theory of the Sufi doctrine came into practice by denigrating the femininity into physicality. Before exploring certain notions of this  physicalised femininity in religion and society, we would observe the historical development of this vilification in sociopolitical spaces. Denigration of Body: Contextualising the Mind–Body Split  Now, the prevailing question is: why being considered as a bodily  phenomenon confers a discriminating social position for femininity? How this interpretation could affect and denigrate the position of the women in the society? To expound this aspect, we would propose a sociopolitical understanding of the Cartesian model of soul/mind–body split. It could be considered as the first philosophical mind–body encounter of modernity, which has a sociopolitical reference of subjugation. According to Descartes, the mind or soul is a distinct entity which could exist devoid of the body. The human body is merely an organic machine, being controlled and dominated by the soul or mind which is autonomous and indestructible in nature. This proposition has  been criticised from various perspectives and we would not focus upon its philosophical polemics. We rather would try to concentrate on the sociopolitical scenario of the time when this theory was emerging. We would apply a Marxian conceptual framework to understand it, as Silvia Federici did in her important work Caliban and the Witch . One may wonder about the rationale of applying Marxian framework over Cartesian model. However, the model of Cartesian split, as we observe, experienced a sociopolitical consequence alongside the  philosophical objective. The philosophical part of the model, which would further involve the idea of God, would not be leading us to depict the politicisation of philosophical ontology under the regime of the institutional power constructed ‘within specific historical practices’ (Butler 1990: 97). To understand this power structure and its modes of  pervasions, we are proposing the Marxian framework which will explore the political economy under which this Cartesian model was being moulded within the subjugating mechanisms of capitalist power. We would also observe how religion, working hand by hand with the political  power structure, has controlled the deployment of this philosophy in social modalities.  Ghosh 107 In the 16th–17th century, the age of the development of capitalism in Europe, the industrial state put a rigorous effort in transforming the individuals into labour power, where church worked alongside this  power regime. We have to remember that this time has historically been characterised as the ‘Age of reason’, when the occult, witchcraft, black magic and similar practices had been constantly attacked by science, logic and reason. Federici elucidates: At the basis of magic was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in ‘sympathetic’ relation with the rest. (Federici 2013: 141–42) Such perceptions suggested that human existence in this world could transcend the barriers of space, time and corporeality to achieve things without pertaining to work or causality, but with the help of supernatural forces. This idea, proposing the occurrence of irrationalised possibilities, did not deem fit for capitalist society or its work ethics. Such ethics considered ‘labour’ as a commodity which could be bought by wage, which necessitated a regularity of this laboured work process, as the industry required continuous production. Hence, Francis Bacon voiced against magic: ‘[I]n the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’ it is now by various labours (not certainly by disputations or idle magical ceremonies, but by various labours) at length and in some measure subdued to the supplying of man with bread; that is, to the uses of human life. (McKnight 2006: 99) As Bacon asserts that ‘magic kills industry’, Hobbes criticised ‘prophecy’ in his Behemot as ‘prophecy being many times the principal cause of events foretold’ (Federici 2013: 143). A capitalist state could not afford to suffer such uprisings initiated by its subjects at the time of Industrial Revolution, which requires a labour power that could be manipulated and controlled in a regular and mechanical manner of work schedule and that could be used up to the most optimised level of human capability (as the industries are ‘buying’ their labour as a commodity) so that the flow of production never stops. This was the time when capitalism required a sympathetic ‘mechanical philosophy’, and this was the time of Descartes. In this period, the ‘body’ of human subjects became the most important resource to capitalism as the foundation of labour. The ‘body’ seemed to serve as the only commodity in possession of the proletariat (among whom, the prostitutes were also included), as it could be waged against. Thus, the idea of ‘embodiment’, the perception of living as an organic
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