Friday, 1 June 2007


Renegotiating the Values, Rights, and Agency of Woman’s Body
Saju Chackalackal
Engendering Ethics is so persuasive as to take seriously a vital but largely neglected dimension of human existence in the life and life-experiences of women. In the classical philosophical contexts, women are said to be almost absent; whenever and wherever they have been present, they were given an unwholesome and negative depiction. But, as a man and as an ordained minister and as a teacher who tries to push the students beyond their assumed and self-complacent boundaries, I have been trying to instil life enhancing values among the people whom I reach out through my existence. Not only because I cherish those values, academically and from a Christian point of view, but also because I dream of a human society, over and above it, a wider world where all of us can cohabit, not just mechanically, but by being instruments of enhancing the lives of the rest of humanity, and to extend it further to enhance the existence of the rest of the creation.
Indeed, engendering and holding on to a holistic and life-enhancing ethics is an ideal. Though ideals are constructed, though ideals have got political and sociological undertones, though ideals have been misused by many a people all through human existence, these ideals, when conceived in a healthy manner can certainly take us to those planes where life becomes liveable and other-enhancing. I repeatedly tell my students that we are all human, but we have to become human: it is an ongoing process whereby we should slowly but steadily appropriate what we ideally mean by human, not only conceptually, but also existentially. It is an arduous task, a long-lasting pilgrimage, within which all of us have to participate, not as mere spectators or onlookers, but as active and involved participants. A conscious participation in the humanizing process, I believe, should be the ambience within which we can engender ethics.
Is engendering ethics a one time, single-handed affair? Is engendering ethics a soliloquy? When we look back at the historical development of various ethical systems, we would wonder whether it had been a single-handed affair, or whether it had come about from some other sources. Take, for instance, the case of the great law givers: Moses, Manu, and Muhammad. The three legal systems that these great patriarchs have idealized are based on a moral perspective that is inherent to the framing of the later moral as well as legal frameworks. Although they seem to have given their communities an altogether new code of conduct, I tend to think that they have been codifying and promulgating what had been emerging in their socio-cultural and religious contexts. Although their unique leadership, ingenuity, and the working of God in their particular contexts cannot be denied, I am of the view that the moral perspective that we find emerging in these three traditions which are henceforth normative to those people around them, is emerging from the community within which they were parties. An ethics developed exclusively by any individual, however systematic it could be, cannot be designed or instrumentalized for the practice of a whole community. Sustaining, and motivating a group of human beings over a period of time has to emerge from its own living vistas. The same is applicable to many of the later ethicists: many have attempted to introduce systems of ethics. We have a whole lot of them in the recent human history such as Kant and Levinas. They have been trying to develop foolproof ethical systems by seriously engaging in systematic thinking. They have been engaged in developing their systems single-handedly. However, we do not find many people or communities adopting these theories as meaningful and practical ethical guides, except for the hairs-splitting intellectual analysis. To my mind, they all failed as they did not have the essential ambience of a community practice. Any ethical system can begin to exist and continue to support human lives in terms of a legal framework provided it emerges from a human community. In other words, it does not take place in a vacuum; it does not happen in soliloquy.
The ethical systems that came to exist in different communities were thought to be facilitators of a higher humane plane. More than constraints, ideally speaking, we can look at them as instruments that can enhance individual as well as collective human existence, not only within the constructed or given human planes, but to move beyond those boundaries, or earnestly pushing human beings to move forward to higher vistas of human existence.
At the same time, we are also painfully aware of the fact that, however noble was a system of ethics, in any community for that matter, in the course of time, all these systems have been subjected to change and manipulation by politically as well as religiously powerful groups. Many a time, vested interest groups have succeeded in twisting the all-enhancing provisions of these codes of ethics to a few-enhancing mode. It is interesting to note that in most cases, as these codes have come up within religious milieus, later generation members, mostly belonging to the priestly class, began to change the emphasis of the law to their advantage, through self-styled and manipulated interpretations. Of course, apart from the priestly classes, the ruling classes have also tried their hand in getting what they wanted, mostly in collaboration with the priestly class.
Whoever be the actual agents who twisted the intent of the ethical system, in the end one or the other segment of the community to which it was given was not only neglected, but oppressed and marginalized. Instead of making life enhancing provisions for them, ethics turned out to be THE oppressive factor. Instead of aspiring for an ethics that is capable of enhancing the wellbeing of all, these systems turned out to be systematically and forcefully segregating people against people, as a result of which, finally, those communities have miserably failed in realizing their ultimate ethical goal of a holistic and all-enhancing human existence.
The most prevalent form of social control that we find in various societies is patriarchy. Over the centuries, probably due to the physical strength claimed by the male members in providing sustenance and protection to the community, patriarchy evolved as the unchallenged mode of control, and it existed so for long. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that many ethical systems that have come up – Brahmanic, Semitic, Islamic, etc. – have a tilt towards safeguarding or guaranteeing the interests and demands of the male members. However, this undue emphasis that became the pattern all over was not only disadvantageous to the community from a holistic point of view, but also has done a whole lot of damage. Ethical systems systematically and consciously made provisions against women, of course, to the apparent advantage of men. Instead of enhancing provisions for the wholesome existence and flourishing of women, these patriarchy-tilted systems of ethics began to deny even the basic rights that were guaranteed to every participating member in a community.
Added to this political strategy in forcefully introducing such an ethics for the practice of all members, the role of religion turned out to be crucial. A strategically doctored and manipulative patriarchal system was given religious sanction, making sure that it remained in place unchallenged. The divine origin that is claimed by many an ethical system that resulted from community contexts had this intent. It became unchallengeable due to the divine sanctions, that they finally became unchangeable even: everybody, at any point in time should follow the same rule without any exception. With these religiously nuanced universalistic claims, they succeeded (and, to a great extent, continues to succeed even in the present day society) in enforcing many unjustifiable systems of ethical practice – to the apparent advantage of a few, but to the definitive disadvantage of the most in the community.
The strategy adopted by the patriarchal systems to segregate against women is adopted by many other oppressive forces. Although they may not look the same from outside, the inner dynamics of all these are the same. Take, for instance, dalit oppression, environmental degradation, etc. It is true that they are all different, and the degree of affliction meted out by them might be different. However, the strategy adopted by all oppressive forces seems to be not different. We find the initial moves from the politically powerful, and a later sanctioning by the religious forces. The moment these two forces come together to perpetuate oppression against any group of members, unfortunately, we see that they wield success; so powerful is their joint venture.
Though the same dynamics are at play, some times, it may happen that we are unable to identify the oppressive factors functional at one or the other arena of life. Some times it may happen that something that looks wholesome from one angle need not be actually so from a different angle. However, taking painfully drawn insights from different strands of oppression experienced in different milieus or contexts can certainly shed more light into those issues and situations that seem to be overtly innocent.
Moreover, as a continued unholy alliance between the politically and religiously powerful can bring in havoc, all those who fight against the oppressive forces must align together, so as to bring in the force of collectivity and communion, not necessarily for the muscle power but for the might of united hearts and minds against which no earthly powers can withstand. Otherwise, traditionally powerful forces, munching on the power that they have been enjoying for long, would gulp down any attempt to challenge them, or for change from any corner.
If the need for an ethical system that is wholesome and conducive to the enhancement of the whole community is an imperative, all those who are aware of the oppressive dynamics at play should come together and work hand-in-hand. As it was already mentioned, any valid system of ethics can come about only in the ambience of a community; community practice is essential in evolving an ethics. When we propose to engender alternative ethical systems that are capable of wholesome human life, we shall not cut ourselves off from the rest. We need to be part of the larger community, of course, without losing our own identity and without losing sight of the powerful lived experiences that will shape the dynamics of the ethics that emerges from living situations. Hence, inter-linking or networking of all those who have identified oppressive elements in the present ethical patterns, legal provisions, and political governance is a necessity. The coming together of those agencies who have been victims of oppression can be so powerful that the continued experience of dehumanizing situations and structures will be identified and rejected, and instead, they themselves will be able to give rise to alternative patterns and more meaningful structures that are wholesome and life-enhancing.
Again, in this process of deriving alternative ethical procedures, a limited angle, an angle exclusively of oppression may sabotage the higher or nobler intentions. The fact that women, for example, have been subjugated for millennia does not call for initiating procedures that would now subjugate men. Then, it would only shift the emphasis from one end to the other. The healthy approach we adopt should have the intention of deriving an ethical practice that is unpartisan: that is, the realization of oppression that is inbuilt into an ethical or legal system must open up the avenues for evolving an ethics or legal system that is more wholesome. If the ethics that we engender is not wholesome – from all possible perspectives – it is not going to provide us with a solution for an enhanced humane existence.
Indeed, the limited perspectives that human beings are endowed with need not be perfect at any given point in time. Human existence is an ongoing pilgrimage to come to grip with realities, and to move further and further towards more and more holistic and meaningful existence. Understanding of what is holistic and meaningful will depend upon the identified horizons within which we try to live: broader and brighter the horizons, deeper and lasting would be the instruments of life that we design for ourselves. Engendering ethics, therefore, is not a one time activity, but an ongoing earnest attempt on the part of every human being, not in isolation, but in conceiving oneself as an integral part of the community-whole.
Provided that community is the legitimate matrix within which an ethics can be engendered, it is essential that all parties involved in the community are taken into account and their concerns are addressed in the process. The engendering of ethics in many a historical setting, as we have already seen, became problematic due to the partisan view that had been adopted by those who were primarily instrumental in deriving such systems. Taking this crucial factor into account, we propose to delineate a different mode of approach in engendering ethics in the third millennium, assuring the due place for every part of the whole.
Ethics is primarily concerned about good and bad. Then, any valid ethics must be capable of distinguishing between good and bad. Moreover, it must also be capable of providing an impetus for choosing what is good, and rejecting the bad in thought, word, and deed. Ethics as a system of enquiry provides with clarifying various concepts that are used in framing ethical judgments (i.e., judgments about good and bad). Whether seen as an intellectual discipline or as a system of practical principles, ethics assumes its role in providing an ambience for human beings to make sure that whatever is involved in human action is accorded its due place and due value (apart from human beings, these human actions will include the entire range of creation, both animate and inanimate). It calls for taking into account not only human individuals and communities, but also the rest of the creation, enveloping the entire ecosphere.
This calls for a sensitizing of the engendering process of ethics. It is true that the human agency alone is primarily responsible for ethics. However, when human beings – in community – evolve an ethics, it shall be sensitive not only to the affairs of human community, but also the sustenance and flourishing of the entire realm of reality. This sensitivity is called for from the perspective of the integral nature of reality. Though rationality is claimed to be a privilege of humanity by many, it is integrally associated with a greater responsibility, a responsibility to consciously enhance the existence of all, and to avoid any involvement that would adversely affect the whole and the development of any part for the sake of the whole.
Further, we may say that whatever strategy is adopted in engendering an ethics, it should always check for its viability and veracity in terms of its capacity to enhance life. It may appear that a particular act does not directly do any harm to the rest; but even if the adverse effect is only indirect, the moment humanity is conscious of the same, it has a responsibility to make sure that a holistic attitude and the need for enhancing life preclude it from ethical practice.
Hence, it must be also said that an ethics that is accepted for practice by any one group of people must be equally gender-sensitive. This sensitivity is to be introduced consciously due to the millennia-long neglect of the female and patriarchal tilt for the male in almost all ethical systems that are in vogue. A conscious effort is to be made in this regard, especially because over the millennia a framework is already built into the human psyche – affecting both the male and the female alike – that segregates against the female gender. While more and more responsibilities have been laid on the female gender, it is a historical and existential fact that women have been denied justice, especially in according their due rights – socially, politically, and religiously. Unfortunately, as almost all these have been given religious backing, as if all these have been engendered divinely or ordained supernaturally, breaking the old mould is not an easy task, though, time and again, it is necessarily called forth.
As women form at least half of the human race, it is beyond any doubt that their place must be given due weight in engendering ethics. What I am calling for is not a numerical calculation and a proportionate awarding of certain rights; it is not merely a linguistic modification. As women form an integral part of the human race (sometimes, more important than their male partners), provisions of ethics must take their existential plight into account, and should accord them the rightful place they deserve by their very existence and involvement in furthering the destiny of reality. As I have already noted earlier, while safeguarding the holistic and life-enhancing characteristics of an ethical system, it is essential to make sure that holism and enhancement are equally applicable to all parties involved, and not just those politically or religiously powerful (but isolated) groups.
Here is, therefore, an open invitation to all human beings, whether they are male or female or any other category to actively involve in the life of the community, and to be instrumental in engendering an ethics, an ethics that is sensitive to the existence of all. Acceptance of this invitation and the readiness to play a vital role in the life of the community are very crucial in this regard. My reference is not merely to physical involvement: women have been doing it from the beginning of human existence. Women must be, first of all, aware of the dynamics that are at play in the development of ethics, and should consciously strive to engender an ethics that is wholesome and enhancing, not only their affairs, but the affairs of all who are party in existence.
Human beings do not exist in isolation, but in community. Although communities provide the matrix for engendering ethics, the force of the ethical provisions depends on the acceptability of the same by one or the other individual. For, ethics cannot be an external but an internal force. For an enlightened humanity ethical principles, if they are wholesome and life-enhancing, are sufficient. However, being realistic, we understand that our human existence, individually or collectively, is far from the ideal. Many a time the internal force of ethical principles seems to be having no impact in human actions at all.
Life in a community, therefore, cannot merely rely on the motivating capacity of the ethical principles. Human nature is such that it requires external forces in achieving a community life that is liveable. As community life gets more and more formalized, we have organized ourselves into societies, and these societies have been guided by the state in view of achieving the common good. From an ethical point of view, common good can be realized by the practice of the ethical principles. However, in the wake of human resistance to stand for the common good, the state has evolved certain mechanisms. Legislation is one among them.
Legal provisions have been in place from the beginning of human social existence. These provisions have been made and promulgated based on an ideal that is accepted by the community in terms of the ethical principles. That is, the foundation of the legal provisions can be located in the ethical principles accepted by any society. It is observed by scholars that the strong ethical foundation is the safeguard for the validity and viability of any constitutional laws enacted by the states.
At the same time, we are aware of some legal provisions made by different states that are not sensitive to all members of the society, especially to women. It is clear from the history of the states that legislations have been largely made by a male-dominated group of legislators, whose ethical perspectives have been largely excluding the existential needs of the women members of the same society. As we become more and more sensitized to the injustices prevalent in the legislations of any society we must initiate steps to overcome the same through legislations. However, this is possible only if the society itself would derive sound ethical principles in place of the old incomplete or vicious ones.
Legal enactments are essential in safeguarding the common good of the society, especially to safeguard the wellbeing and interests of all the members of the society. Taking the prevalent mode of democracy in the present world into account, and the dynamics that are at play in legislating and promulgating laws, we must also be aware of the number game that is playing a crucial role in this regard. Excepting a few cases the world over, women are almost absent in legislative bodies. Even if there is a wider ethical consensus emerging in the community with regard to the rights of women, they would be largely neglected with a legislature that is dominated by male members. Therefore, it is high time that women come to the forefront in political action, so that qualitatively holistic and life-enhancing legislations could be put in place for the sake of common good, not as understood and promulgated by men alone, but as understood and cherished by the society as a whole, within which women rightfully claim equal partnership.
A gender-sensitive and life-sensitive perspective is not impossible for a legal system; however, this calls for concerted effort from the enlightened members of the society. The dominant forces will continue to exert force on the legislature to twist things to their advantage. Being aware of these dynamics and having platforms to involve in concerted efforts, including political action, will pave the way for a better legislation, better governance, and enhanced social life made available not only to the male members, but for all, without discriminating along the gender lines.
Engendering ethics and legislating and promulgating laws are intended to provide for better and enhanced human existence. Any amount of ethical principles and laws will not do any good if they are not imparted to the members of the society who have to follow them in their existential situations. Enforcement of laws, for example, will not do any good if the moral provisions behind the legislations and the intentions of the legislators are not known to the people at large. The ideal of moral principles that we claim to be the foundation of the legal frameworks are useless if they are altogether unknown to the community members. Hence, the need for educating all, especially the younger members of the society!
Indeed, various methods have been employed by various societies to impart value education to their people. As these methods have been designed by people, sometimes at least, only with their own vested interests in view, the holistic and life-enhancing intentions have been lost sight of. Many a time, educational systems have degraded themselves to be sheer systems of indoctrination. Against this background, and by taking into account the unjust practices prevalent in our societies, it is high time that we redesign our educational programmes so that people are sensitized to the issues of gender, caste, environment, etc.
There is need for evolving a new strategy of education, in families, schools, and colleges that will have more room for ethics and legal studies than what is given in many systems today. Those who plan the educational systems must be first of all sensitized to the gender issues and other vital issues of life that demand immediate attention. Also, it calls for re-educating the teachers who are instrumental in engaging the students. Educating the new generation is primarily the responsibility of the families into which the new members are born. This, again, calls for better family planning, ongoing training to the parents, and their sensitivity to the issues of gender and the proper and equal treatment of all children, whether they are male or female. For, home is the cradle of humanity; it is the first and the best school to school human beings in the process of humanizing.
Reality is a whole, within which humanity takes its own place. Although reality is ideally seen as a whole, human involvement in the emergence or development of this reality over time has caused damage to its holistic understanding. The result is the fragmenting of the same reality, to such an extent that human beings have almost forgotten what is to be the whole. One of the most important areas where we experience the fragmentation of life is in the experiences of injustice meted out to women by an oppressive moral and legal system that is mostly male-dominated. The disorientation and distortion that have resulted from such a situation that lasted over millennia have caused the emergence of an ethics that is totally partisan, unholistic, and life-denying at least to a major section of reality.
As many ethical systems have been primarily at the foundation of the injustices that are perpetuated in our societies, it is time for us to come out in the open with an aspiration for a new ethics that is more holistic, life enhancing and sensitive to the existence and the rights of all. We should move away from fragmented existence to a holistic existence by engendering an ethics also by negotiating the values, rights and agency of woman’s body. For, “The bonds that unite us are stronger than the barriers that separate us.”
Positive interaction and collaboration of the political and religious forces, which have been otherwise partners in perpetuating unjust ethical systems for the advantage of the powerful, can certainly make a difference. Partnership of these two vital and all-prevalent forces can definitely engender a holistic ethics, motivate individuals and communities in practising ethical principles, and create an ambience within which people live a self and other enhancing life.
Note: A paper presented at the International Consultation on “Engendering Ethics: Renegotiating Values, Rights, and Agency of Woman’s Body,” at United Theological College, Bangalore (May 28-30, 2007).

1 comment:

Saju Chackalackal said...
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