Review: Uncertain Identities

Uncertain Identities: Craftwork, Women, and Patriarchy in a Village of Easter Uttar Pradesh
Uncertain Identities: Craftwork, Women, and Patriarchy in a Village of Eastern Uttar Pradesh
Sayantani Jafa
Calcutta, India: Progressive Publishers, 2003

Review Copyright © 2004 Garret Wilson — 29 January 2004 3:21pm

In a village near Faizabad, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India, Sayantani Jafa went to investigate how craftwork interplays with female aspirations in a patriarchical society. After much research and five years of case studies, Jafa presents a well-articulated picture in prose. Her conclusion in Uncertain Identities: Craftwork, Women, and Patriarchy in a Village of Eastern Uttar Pradesh is that craftwork, while providing an avenue for repressed women to partake in the stream of the economy, nonetheless entrenches the very patriarchical structures that define these women's existence. The women themselves, however, embrace this structure to define their own identities; through craftwork, they test and at the same time reaffirm the boundaries imposed by patriarchy.

Jafa comes with a firm foundation in feminist ideology, and part of the brilliance of Uncertain Identities is its ability to bring the reader up to date on traditional and revisionist feminist theories. Jafa's presentation is very objective and informative, only occasionally breaking into emotional portrayal of her subject (One example: "There is perhaps no starker evidence of the degraded position of women in the conservative social milieu I encountered than in the pernicious and ugly incidence of dowry." (64)). Her analysis is logically arranged: 1) an analysis of craftwork; 2) a critical examination of patriarchy; 3) a more in-depth analysis of patriarchy in contemporary India; and 4) an emperical investigation into the lives of actual females, applying the theoretical framework earlier examined.

At the outset, Jafa notes that the very notion of craftwork has been presented by various parties in somewhat contradictory terms. In some renditions, craftwork is part of "a romantic, Arcadian time-frieze [sic] immune to the forces of change and modernity." At the same time, paradoxically, there is "an implicit acknowledgement that craft is backward and small-scale and needs to be nurtured and protected against the rampage of powerful, capital-intensive and modern industrial production and large-scale agriculture." (20-21). Significantly, historical feminist portrayals of craftwork note that is serves to restrict women to traditional roles in the home and to "feminine" tasks such as embroidery, thus entrenching patriarchal restrictions of women. Here Jafa points out that while these early feminist accounts are not incorrect, "the economic and institutional constraints on women are seen in conjunction with the deep-seated internalization of the conservative definition of gender roles by rural women themselves." (32)

Women's role and embracement in their position within patriarchal restrictions is thus the paradoxical situation that forms the crux of Jafa's conclusion, a situation that Jafa believes should not be ignored when analyzing current gender-based inequalities in India and when formulating assistance programs:

In classic patriarchy women's subordination and lack of autonomous space is made more rigid by their active collusion in their own subordination for emotional and economic security in a scenario where men are the main breadwinners. This means that they consent to submissive behaviour founded on notions of female propriety because in return they are afforded the protection of identity and status. Also there is a deep internalization of the logic of subordination, which makes women believe in their dependent status as entirely natural and befitting to their feminine identity. Implicit in this idea is therefore a notion of female compromise as a specific strategy for survival in a certain type of society. The points to probe are not then assumptions of female victim hood but of the motivation for such behaviour. (40)

Jafa's presentation of patriarchy in theory is no less lucid and educational. She points out that "In its rigid form the family structure resembles a feudalistic pattern ; with concentrated [male] power at the apex … through to the senior most female member …." This hierarchical structure continues down through females. As bearing sons bring more power to women within this hierarchy, and as a woman yields more power within her home (and less power when she is married and moves to the house of her husband), women work to increase their power within this structure and at the same time reaffirm patriarchical control. "Logically therefore a rigorous patriarchal setup would show a marked son-prefence among women and would also exhibit competitive or hostile female relationships within the family." (41). One wonders if such intricate familial power relationships in South Asian culture is part of the reason that Indian languages make rigorous distinctions among relationship names for father's father, father's mother, mother's father, mother's mother, etc.

Jafa's expertise in feminist theory provides a contast to the book's shortcoming: Jafa does not add groundbreaking ideas to the corpus of feminist thought. Her few, brief summaries of actual interviews—the few girls and women who are actually named and described—similarly do not, as presented, constitute a quantitatively significant source of analysis to confirm or refute the theories that are presented. Lastly, while Jafa sees increased gender-based segregation as stemming from, besides a desire for upward social mobility, the "recommunialization of rural society in the wake of the Ayodhya dispute" (107), the discussion of this Hindu-Muslim dispute of a sacred site in the area is conclusory and little evidence is presented to support this contention. Jafa herself noted that while "almost women seemed to see a cataclysmic break in the destruction of the Masjid which signified an end to an era when they had lived in qualitative peace," this portrayal "was not necesarily accurate" (78). The extent, in objective terms, to which the Ayodhya dispute has factually or politically increased patriarchical tendencies seems to be outside the reach of this study's scope.

Jafa's work is nonetheless enormously valuable not just because it provides a quick, effective primer to feminist through surrounding patriarchy and craftwork, but because it provides a contextualizing account. The anecdotal summaries given are important not because they persuade, but because they explain. Jafa sets out to show that some loyalties were "so fimly entrenched … that even those women who had suffered from familial gender-based violence, desertion, deprivation and neglect were convinced of the legitimacy of marital bonds and institutions as the bedrock of social acceptability." (100). The research presented indicates, in theoretical terms, the reason for this counterintuitive phenomenon. Jafa's five-year village-based study provides the human face to this conclusion and helps it be understood, if not accepted.

Jafa presents some direction for future projects addressing gender-based repression in India, and she successfully uses craftwork as a point around which patriarchy's dynamics can be discussed. She warns that naive, generic solutions may fail. "It would be too much of a generalization to assume that women's collaborative instincts would automatically disappear of the material conventions for their socio-cultural degredation were improved." (109). Her study provides a source of serious consideration for those who seek to create specific solutions for providing women in patriarchal settings new avenues of self-improvement and advancement.