Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture, and Postcolonialism

By Rajeswari Sunder Rajan | Go to book overview

1

THE SUBJECT OF SATI

Pain and death in the contemporary discourse on sati

I

A woman burns to death in a village in the state of Rajasthan in India. The news makes it to the front page of the New York Times-as had some years earlier the news that a woman had been stoned to death for adultery in a Middle East country. 1 The 'monolithic "Third World Woman'" 2 as subject instantaneously becomes an overdetermined symbol, victim not only of universal patriarchy but also of specific third world religious fundamentalism.

The stereotypical and merely sensational aspects of these 'events', isolated from their context, have tended to overwhelm not only the much greater complexity of the issues actually involved, but the equally significant protest mounted by local women's groups and other sections of the population; the continuing and persistent role of the 'west' in post-colonial gender issues; and the theoretical considerations that are of relevance to the issue of female subjectivity in general. It is some sense of these other aspects of sati in contemporary India that I attempt to communicate in the first section of this chapter. The next section explores, tentatively, how a western meditation on the subject of the body in pain may be appropriated for and contested by a specific historical and feminist project in the interests of the female subject as agent. 3 A survey of the representations of sati created upon various discursive sites-the formulations of the anti-sati legislation of 1987, the journalistic media, visual (iconic and photographic) productions, documentary films, cinema and fiction-which follows in the last section, reveals how the politics of representation crucially intersects with the procedures of subjectification of the sati in India today.

If my reading of the 'social text' of sati highlights its discursive dimension, it is because this dimension has been so crucially interwoven with the material reality of the phenomenon. (I bear in mind here the caution issued by Benita Parry: 'discourses of representation should not be confused with material realities.') 4 One index of the widespread recognition of its importance is that the new anti-sati legislation extends its scope to prohibit not only the 'commission'

-15-

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Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture, and Postcolonialism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures ix
  • Acknowledgements x
  • I - Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Subject of Sati 15
  • 2 - Representing Sati 40
  • 3 - Life After Rape 64
  • 4 - The Name of the Husband 83
  • 5 - Gender, Leadership and Representation 103
  • 6 - Real and Imagined Women 129
  • Index 147
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