Rural landscape in Punjab is different from the urban one not only physically but also socially and culturally. Our village has been till recent times largely a self-reliant unit. It is a solid community but vegetative, socially open but tradition bound, productive but non-innovative. Village has no such public space where both men and women could move or interact protected by a shadow of anonymity.
The only public place we find the village is the ‘Chowk’, a public square which is exclusively male’s preserve where men gather, when free, to chat or discuss some issue of public importance.
The village though has no public space in the modern sense but its streets and the fields surrounding it are open areas accessible to all regardless of sex. This is an outcome of economic compulsions born of a specific mode of production evolved over a long period of time.
Patriarchy generally rules supreme in the rural community. Class and caste matter as much as gender. Discrimination against woman is a common practice which rarely gets challenged in village life which puts so many premiums on ‘manhood’, a euphemism for male chauvinism.
Though woman is treated as chattel, man’s attitude towards woman and woman’s attitude towards man are defined by the imperatives of class and caste that make the question of male-female relationship more complex than what it appears to be in an apparently simple rural culture.
Artisans and peasants are what we may call the rural working class, the backbone of rural economy. They constitute the bulk of rural population. The artisans are fast dwindling in number in the face of ruthless onslaught of intruding consumer market, rendering their traditional products and services obsolete.
The peasants with small holdings work their own fields and landless peasants are hired as day labourers by big landlords. Woman belonging to an artisan or a peasant family is usually illiterate and a few among them who make it to school hardly go beyond primary or middle level.
The situation of peasant family is exacerbated by economic factors. The family does not possess sufficient material resources to support its women’s education. It rather needs them as workers in supplementing its meager income in an inequitable economic system. So a peasant woman cannot afford to be ‘prude’ or ‘modest’ as her work involves a lot of toil and physical movement. She has to take care of her poultry and a small livestock that literally butters the family bread.
In addition to this she has to go to the fields to extend her helping hand to the male members of her family engaged in managing the agro crops round the year. She is a great help during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Family chores and physical labour makes her tough and sturdy.
Her body language is that of a woman who knows her limits as well as her strengths. Being exposed to the world outside her home, she is more equipped than her sisters in other classes to deal with men; gentle and nasty. But still, when out in the fields, she is in a danger zone where she may be taken advantage of by men with rapacious psyche who in no way are small in number. An unprotected woman is considered a fair game. That is what ‘boys will be boys’ implies.
People with medium landholdings generally fall in the category of rural middle class which has comparatively high literacy rate among its ranks. Members with education prefer to join government service or private companies and land up with low or medium level jobs. Illiterate and semi-illiterate are forced to do what their forefathers did; the farming. Women of this class take part in the productive agricultural activities but don’t go the whole hog as the peasant women do.
Their slightly higher economic and social status in the agrarian setup make them look down upon the peasantry and ape the big landholders, no longer in large in number in Punjab, with the result they look like better off peasant but pretend as if they are landlords. It looks funny when they in their social discourse refer to themselves as ‘landlords’ that they are not in the economic and cultural sense.
Such large segments are usually found in the central and northern areas of Punjab which now have few vestiges of feudalism, a product of colonialism.
The progressive thing about these families is the fact that a large majority of them send their girls to schools and colleges. Most of the educated girls join the education sector which is quite large in Punjab. Women of this class particularly the young ones are a blend of traditional and contemporary female.
This new woman is to some measure confident and self-assured due to the fact that being employed enhances her social status which consequently provides her with an invisible ring of security. She knows that if harassed or assaulted, her family would come to her support and take the retaliatory action against the culprits.
Feudal families, dominant in the western and northern parts of Punjab, are typically the custodians of traditional social structure that sees woman little more than a biological machine which produces heir who by inheriting landed property would keep the family flag flutter. Feudal woman’s existence is most vegetative.
Caged in her mansion and served by army of maids, she is not allowed to do anything that deserves to be appreciated as productive or creative. She suffers her loveless marriage silently. In the words of Bertolt Brecht “the act of love shall no longer prosper. Breeding still happens.”
Comparing feudal ladies with working women, he says “the rustic milkmaid, famous for her capacity to feel joy in the embrace, looks up with contempt at her unhappy sisters in sables who are paid for every wriggle of their pampered bottoms.” With no outdoor social activity and overfed, the feudal woman ends up being fat and sluggish.
Her body language though exhibiting signs of satiety is that of a human being who having little exposure is likely to toss and tumble at every step when looked at in a public place.
Our woman, the victim of patriarchic norms, regardless of class, has been forced to evolve a body language that conceals as much as it reveals. In other words it conceals while revealing and reveals while concealing.
The body language of woman is her survival strategy; it attracts which is natural instinct but at the same time it repels which is socially conditioned defense mechanism born of historical circumstances. History has not so far held the inquest into the death of woman’s natural body language though the killer is known to all.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2014