Sado-ritual syndrome, part III – applying Daly’s elements to suttee

(part I, part II)

In applying Mary Daly’s elements to several areas of ritualized women’s oppression, we will see how they are all related. Daly calls this feminist process “the development of a kind of positive paranoia.”

Element I – obsession with purity

In suttee, care was taken not to cremate the woman alive during times of “impurity” such as menstruation or pregnancy. She was ritually bathed beforehand. As I explained in part II, by ridding the community of widows, a source of potential sexual impurity was purged from the community.

Element II – total erasure of responsibility for the atrocities

The most influential and well-known Western scholarship on this subject invites us to see the sati as an agent with free choice. Others who forced women into it or made sure they couldn’t get back out of it are sort of glossed over. And the role of the priests, which I have already explained, is omitted.

Element III – inherent tendency to “catch on” and spread

As is so often the case, royalty paved the way and was afterward followed by the upper warrior class and, finally, later, by lower castes.

Element IV – women are used as scapegoats and token torturers

In this case, we have women ritually bathing and then dressing the widow. The “objective” scholarship often blames mothers-in-law for insisting on the death.

Element V –  compulsive orderliness, obsessive repetitiveness, and fixation upon minute details

Again, there was the bathing and dressing. Care was taken to be sure the woman was not “impure.” There were rules about placement with the widow holding the corpse’s head in her lap or against her breast.

Element VI – behavior which is at other times and places unacceptable become acceptable and even normative; often, the ritual is still practiced or desired even after it has been made illegal

Suicide is absolutely prohibited in Hindu religious texts. Male religious leaders, however, formulated theories for how suttee was different from any other suicide.

It has very much been the case that suttee has been practiced and idealized long after it was made illegal. Note that the writers of the modern law banning the practice back in the eighties felt compelled to even explicitly ban “any glorification” of suttee. Remember too that only since the ban, Sati has become a very popular name for girls, which I would file under “glorification.”

Element VII – legitimation of the ritual through “objective scholarship” despite appearances of disapproval

I covered a good bit of this in part II.

As Daly sums it up, “By the dogma of female worthlessness and the device of “blaming the victim,” the priests of “objective scholarship” continue to justify a context in which suttee can be seen as reasonable and virtuous.”

The case of Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book “Mother India” is an important and illustrative example of the backlash against true woman-centered scholarship. I think it is so important that I am going to spend a good bit of time on it.

Mayo lived in India for years. Her book was an honest report on the pitiful conditions of Indian women – hospital logs naming seven year old child brides with broken bones, maggots in their wounds, internal injuries; married women dying of starvation because they could only ever eat after their husbands had had their fill; beggar widows required to sing hymns outside religious houses of charity for four hours to get a cup of broth at lunch and another four hours of singing to get an evening cup of tea. Mayo also describes conditions around childbirth in which a woman was regarded as so unclean that only the “unspeakable” dhais (midwives from the “untouchable” castes “to whose filthy, brutal, grotesque, and frequently murderous ministrations the woman in childbirth is subjected”) could touch them:

Such labor may last three, four, five, or even six days. During all this period the woman is given no nourishment whatsoever – such is the code – and the dhais resorts to all her traditions. She kneads the patient with her fists; stands her against the wall and butts her with her head; props her upright on the bare ground, seizes her hands and shoves against her thighs with gruesome bare feet…. Or, she lays the woman on the ground flat and walks up and down her body, like one treading grapes, Also, she makes balls of strange substances, such as hollyhock roots, or dirty string, or rags full of quince seeds; or earth, or earth mixed with cloves, butter and marigold flowers, or nuts, or spices – any irritant – and thrusts them into the (woman), to hasten the event.

Although the dhais were women, let us understand the patriarchal context and intent. Mayo writes of the total contempt for women’s bodily functions, especially her sexual functions:

Unclean, she (the young wife in childbirth) is, in her pain – unclean whatever she touches, and fit thereafter only to be destroyed. In the name of thrift, therefore, give her about her only the unclean and the worthless, whether human or inanimate.

It was also Mayo who reported the statement I presented in part II from a Hindu man who admitted that husbands treated their wives so badly that suttee was a good insurance policy against wives being tempted to poison their husbands.

Mayo’s work aroused a storm of protest, East and West. There was a flurry of books and articles, replies and counterreplies. Books that appeared in response to Mayo’s “Mother India” included “My Mother India,” “Sister India,” “Father India,” “Living India,” “Understanding India,” “A Son of Mother India Answers,” “Neighbour India,” “Unhappy India,” “India, Stepmother,” “India: Its Character,” “A Reply to Mother India,” and “Shiva or the Future of India.” Obviously, Mayo had struck a nerve. She wrote two more books in response, defending her position – “Slaves of the Gods” (1929) and “The Face of Mother India” (1935).

The sort of defensiveness Mayo’s expose evoked is exemplified in “My Mother India” by Dalip Singh Saund. Defending the position of the married Indian woman, he pictures her as “dropping longingly into his (her husband’s) embrace with almost divine confidence….” He next speaks for his own sister, who of course does not get to speak for herself:

And when the ideal of her childhood was realized, no wonder she found in his company that height of emotional exaltation which springs from the proper union of the sexes and is the noblest gift of God to man. The American girl thinks my sister married a stranger; but she had married an ideal, a creation of her imagination, and a part of her own being.

The fact is that Saund’s sister had, like all Indian women, been trained from earliest childhood to view her husband as a literal god.

Writing twenty years after Mayo, David Mace considered the former’s work and its impact in the name of “objective scholarship:”

The dust finally settled. It was conceded that Katherine Mayo’s facts, as facts, were substantially accurate. It was recognized that she had taken up a serious issue and drawn attention to it, which has helped in some measure to hasten much-needed reforms. But at the same time her book had done a grave disservice to India, in presenting a one-sided and distorted picture of an aspect of Indian life that could only be properly understood within the context of the entire culture.

(“Marriage: East and West”)

Mary Daly translates Mace’s review back to a woman-centered analysis for us. I think Daly’s analysis of what Mace actually did here and how he did it is so important that I’m including a couple of paragraphs. It is important for the feminist scholar to be able to decode such “objective” scholarship.

Thus Mayo is put in her place. We find here the familiar use of the passive voice, which leaves unstated just who conceded, who recognized. We also find the familiar balancing act of scholars, which gives a show of “justice” to their treatment of the attacked author. The qualifying expression, “as facts” added to “facts,” has the effect of managing to minimize the factual. Women who counter the patriarchal reality are often accused of “merely imagining” or being on the level of “mere polemic.” Here we have “mere” facts. Then the author graciously concedes that Mayo hastened “much-needed reform,” which gives the impression that everything has now been taken care of, that the messy details have been tidied up.

Anyone who knows anything about the condition of women in India today, even just through the news, knows that this is not the case.

Then comes the peculiarly deceptive and unjust expression “grave injustice to India.” Mayo was concerned about grave injustice to living beings, women. Injustice is done to individual, living beings.How, we must ask, is it possible to do injustice to a social construct, for example, India, by exposing its atrocities? We might ask such re-searchers whether they would be inclined to accuse critics of the Nazi death camps of “injustice” to Germany, or whether they would describe writers exposing the history of slavery and racism in America as guilty of “injustice” to the United States. Mace goes on to accuse Mayo of distorting “an aspect of Indian life.” But what is “Indian life?” Mayo is concerned not with defending this vague abstraction (presumably meaning customs, beliefs, social arrangements, etc.) but with the lives of millions of women who happened to live in that part of patriarchy called “India.”

The final absurdity in this scholarly obituary is the expression “properly understood within the context of the entire culture.” It is Katherine Mayo who demonstrates an understanding of the cultural context, that is, the entire culture, refusing to reduce women to “an aspect….”

Yep – we must not view the condition of half of a nation’s population as just “an aspect” of that nation.

Feminist Searchers should be aware of this device, commonly repeated in the re-searchers’ rituals. It involves intimidation by accusations of “one-sidedness,” so that others will not listen to the discredited Searcher-Scholar who refused to follow the “right” rites. The device relies upon fears of criticizing “another culture,” so that the feminist is open to accusations of imperialism, nationalism, racism, capitalism, or any other “-ism” that can pose as broader and more important than gynocidal patriarchy. Thus the just accuser becomes unjustly sentenced to erasure. Her life’s meaning, as expressed in her life’s work, is belittled, reversed, or wiped out.

Of course, we can not assume better consideration of a work like Mayo’s just because the scholar is female. The temptation, legitimated within every field, is strong to identify with the male viewpoint and there are penalties for not doing so (precisely as the Mayo example illustrates). Thus we get a completely distorted entry on Mayo from Mary F. Handlin in “Notable American Women,” written at the height of the Women’s Movement. Handlin gives small space to Mayo’s major, influential work,“Mother India,” subtly discredits Mayo’s motives, and gives no indication of the content or importance of the book. Furthermore, Handlin reaches into the realm of pop psychology to give us this infuriating tidbit: “Mayo could confront her own sexual anxiety openly only by writing about distant places and alien cultures.” WTF? This is purely speculative and irrelevant personal attack. I doubt very seriously that we would ever read a biographical entry of a male historian or anthropologist making such a charge. Finally, after assigning repressed sexuality as the explanation for Mayo’s travels and work, Handlin makes sure to follow up with a snide note that Mayo was “unmarried.”

So, that wraps up my entries on suttee. Part IV will be background on Chinese footbinding.


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