Guest-Editorial: New Woman: Then and Now
By Priyanka Chatterjee and Sanchayita Paul Chakraborty
The word ‘new’ brings with it a surge of enthusiasm, the excitement of looking forward, the glamour of breaking bounds, moving away from the old, trendiness. It also ushers in a series of contradictions, insecurities, confusions. Hence when the phrase ‘new woman’ surfaced through literatures in 1860s England, it created a marked ambivalence among writers and thinkers in particular, and the mass, in general. The controversies around the term brewed such harsh sentiments that many writers who had adopted the term as part of their literary enterprise, abandoned it with the same vigour. As such the changes it historically brought about in the socio-cultural domain of everyday lives across the world, often categorised as formidable and liberating at the same time, often understood and disseminated indigenously, still remains to be gauged and comprehended. To try and understand why ‘new’ should only be associated with women and not with men would be an impractical endeavour, given the complexities of gendered existence that is still the order of the day and sexual hypocrisies and prejudices that still govern our lives. The sexual anxieties that the concept of ‘new woman’ brought in was coalesced with the endeavour of ‘new’-ness which tried to pull women out of that accepted template therefore ruffling up anxieties by creating anarchy within rigid cultural conventions. Thus ‘new woman’ has always been the fountain source of debates and disagreements on one hand and excitement and experimentation on the other.
The socio-cultural and political transformation that literary appearance of ‘new woman’ generated at the end of 19th century made it a site of cultural and socio-political contestation across geographical and cultural contexts, which in turn created possibilities for its fluid nature to evolve through continuities and discontinuities across time and space. The demands she places on society pose a crisis to the rigid conventions that govern society for whom comprehension and accommodation of the language of change becomes an unmanageable feat. The society has always been more comfortable in granting women space by co-opting them through patriarchal frames of prominence, sometimes reflected through the nationalistic (and hence, grand!) figure of ‘Bharatmata’ or as the target of (nationalistic) developmental schemes to empower her. While the grand narrative of empowerment enfolds within its schemes patterns of women emancipation, it contains the potential to simply gloss over the prospect of any implicit transformation in societies which are historically embedded within deep-seated patriarchal behaviours and understandings.
It is true that the incredible progress made in the past few years in the position and condition of women cannot be ignored, but there remains much to learn from it and to understand what lies behind this success in order to prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead. It is important to bring some perspective into this euphoria, to understand that the effects of empowerment is not homogenous as is normally celebrated. As progress, emancipation, empowerment has always been considered as an endowment from the outside, something that should be complimented through intellectual and economic well-being, the meanings of empowerment remain constrained and limited within a handful of women who can be considered privileged. While it is often declared that women are ruling the world, however seriously or jokingly, there are innumerable women-headed households which live in abjection and poverty. Women are in jobs that are underpaid, temporary, or low paid just because mobility is still a challenge for women. Women are still discriminated by sexism and racism in almost every field and in every community. Empowerment remains a more or less urban phenomenon whereas women in the rural areas still scrap the bottom of the pot, living insecure lives.
What ‘new’ in women can emerge out of what is seen as a continuous picture of bleakness and dismay, then? It is the progress that has been made against all these odds and the striving for progress that every woman tries to bring about by the social, cultural and political understanding of her stand as a woman within her space and as part of her surroundings. The impetus for change can only come from the consciousness for change which should emanate from the sensitivity towards the everyday politics of lived experience of the self as part of a larger whole. Changes or reforms can never happen or sustain in isolation. It is important to identify the complacency of homogeneity, else any project of progress would remain symbolical. Thus changes will come from women themselves, when they try to advocate real change in the field of education, employment, and life in general. The ‘new’ in women would come from their capacity and potential to take risk, to understand that it is their right to take risk. They would be empowered when they are able to control the decisions which have an impact in their lives. The dissemination of the knowledge of rights at grass-root levels is more empowering than handing over benefits to them. The new woman must be able to hold the government, the nation, the community responsible for their discriminatory attitude towards women. She must look forward towards a world that does not define itself from an exclusionary (often urban, elitist) perspective, but from an inclusionary one where every woman would be able to voice her struggles and her achievements, where every woman would be able to shape her destiny, where every women would be able to join the discourse of change. This is a task that would be about building and re-building, defining and re-defining, an endless task, just as locating, comprehending, accessing, accommodating and living as the ‘new woman’ remains a never-ending enterprise.
When we tried to float the idea of ‘new woman’ as she could be captured in the Indian milieu, we decided not to dictate as to what could be the character of a ‘new woman’, since that would be restricting the evolution of a concept which has a life beyond our consorted perspectives. Our motive is to understand how our writers visualize ‘new woman’. Hence the issue comes as a conglomeration of diverse view-points, with essays exploring the concept through films, books, dramas, poems, video games, personal narratives, translations and photographs. They do not converge and they are not a final word. What this issue wishes to achieve is to be able to stimulate more ideas and activities that would move beyond the brackets and bring about changes in the grounds of lived reality. ‘New woman’ is to be moved out of the pages of the literary, out of the cold storage of academic ambitions and is to be experienced, while opening up its possibilities of extension beyond knowable grounds. As the concept moves through a continuous process of evolution, we are extremely thankful to all our contributors for being a part of this journey of conferring meanings and perspectives to understand the malleable frames of ‘new woman’.
Photo: Ipsita Deb
Priyanka Chatterjee shuttles between her lives in Siliguri, where she lives, and Gangtok, where she works as a Research Scholar in the Department of English, School of Languages and Literatures, Sikkim University, Sikkim. She is striving to impact the everyday lives of herself and others by her sustained academic endeavours. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sanchayita Paul Chakraborty is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of English, Bankura University, West Bengal, India. Her area of research is Women’s Studies and Feminist theories. She can be reached at email@example.com .
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.