Re-versing the Social Gaze: Sexual Violence, Law and Gender

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2013 27 Pages

Sociology - Gender Studies


1. Gendering Sexual Identity

Gender has been a significant term for examining the status of women. It is a learned behaviour which is socially and culturally constructed. Gender been usually seen a ‘psychological, social and cultural aspects of maleness and femaleness’[1] -which represented the characteristics taken on by males and females as they encountered social life and culture through socialization. However, the problem arises when this social construction boosts up a ‘hierarchical relationship’ within patriarchal set up where men and women are produced and live with different realities according to time and space, with male domination and female subordination in most spheres of life.

V. Geetha (2002), points out that gender is everywhere, and when we allocate to the male and female sexes, specific and distinctive attributes and roles, we are ‘doing’ gender. She talks about different spaces meant for both the sexes. Thus men are being taken as more outdoor going whereas women are seen as bearer of indoor responsibility. Female identity is linked to her role as mothers, wives and daughters while male identity is linked to the productive work. This mindset is surrounded by a particular historical and sociological identity to the female sex and thus makes it appear natural. However, ‘Power’ plays a very dominant role in defining these roles and statuses. The theory of power has been connected to ‘authority’, ‘domination’, and/or exploitation and it is an entity that an individual or groups can possess. However, whichever group has power can define roles, can access to all the economic and political resources and can eventually shape the social structure as per its own interests. In Sexual Politics, Kate Millet (1972)[2] defined politics as a ‘Power Structured Relationships', arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another’. What made her argument debatable was that she applied this definition to the relation between Women and Men. Thus Power is manifests into the creation of gender inequality which exist across a range of resources, from income and wealth to social honour, cultural authority etc. She argues that those benefiting from inequalities have an interest in defending them and those who bear the costs have an interest in ending them.

The ‘male female’ hierarchy may be linked to the historical development of the relation between the ‘colony’ and the ‘colonizer’. Edward Said’s (1979) concept of Orientalism strengthens the perception of this gender hierarchy. He describes that:

An entire corpus of writing and other material--literature, poetry, philosophical tracts, government reports, religious commentary, etc.—represented the Orient in specific ways. ‘Orientalism’ refers to the processes and sites of ‘producing’ a space called the Orient for western consumption, such that the West and the ‘Orient’ come to be in a relation of superiority-inferiority. Western religious, aesthetic, philosophical, kinship, literary, scientific and ontological traditions come to be established as superior to their Oriental counterparts. And, hence, colonialism becomes justifiable as the ‘civilizing mission’ of a superior ‘race’. Most significantly for our purposes, 'Orientalism' also established the dominant meanings of masculinity through ‘feminizing’ entire populations who came to be represented as unfit for self-rule. So, the ‘cunning Arab’, the ‘inscrutable Chinese’, and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ were simultaneously stereotypes of gendered behaviour: they were, compared to western men, ‘womanly’. This way of thinking proceeds, of course, from the premise that women are inferior to men. Hence, the idea that western men were superior to non-western men was based on the notion that ‘masculine traits’ were superior to ‘feminine’ ones.[3]

The theoretical variation on gender discourse still follows a continuum in its direction. The existing inequality in both the gender has been advocated by early thinkers as ‘natural’ and consequence of ‘biological differences’. They found significance in a relative universality of physical characteristics among humans and of a gender division of labor that assigned men to certain tasks and women to others, a division that sometimes characterized the public sphere as a male domain and private sphere as a female domain. This view of biological determinant in deciding gender stereotypes was however, replaced and questioned later on by feminist scholars who hold the view that though there are basic differences between the sexes which are biologically determined, the differences in gendered role are the product of ‘social conditioning’ (typically set early in life).

To be a feminist is to understand that different identities located hierarchically as dominant or subordinate -are produced at different times and in different spaces, but also to be aware particularly of the processes of gendering. By ‘gendering’, I mean the ways in which people are produced as ‘proper’ men and ‘women’ through rules and regulations of different sorts; some of which we internalize, some of which have to be violently enforced.[4]

Ann Oakley, a British sociologist disagreed on the notion of ‘sexual division of labor or gendered role’ as something universal and rejected it as a myth that women are biologically incapable to carry out heavy and demanding work.

For Oakley, sex is a word that refers to the biological differences between male and female: the visible difference in genitalia, the related difference in procreative function and gender is however a matter of culture, it refers to the social classification into masculine and feminine.[5]

Simone de Beauvoir similarly questioned the assumptions behind such biological formulations in her feminist classic The Second Sex and said that “anatomy is not destiny and that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.[6]

1.1 Conceptualizing ‘Social Gaze’, Gender Identity and Male Hegemony

Gaze is a psychoanalytical term brought into popular usage by Jacques Lacan to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), Laura Mulvey introduced the second-wave feminist concept of ‘male gaze’ as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera and women are represented for male gaze.[7]

The social gaze with respect of viewing women is rather like that. It occurs when the society projects the ‘woman’ through the perspective of a man. The patriarchal society narrates the lifestyle, code of conduct in which women are usually represented the manner men want. Thus a female objectification is sanctioned and reinforced through a socially created gender discourse and create an environment in which male body perpetrate sexual violence on ‘women’, thinking her being an object of sexual gratification.

The male gaze may be seen by a feminist either as a manifestation of unequal power between gazer and gazed, or as a conscious or subconscious attempt to develop that inequality. From this perspective, a woman who welcomes an objectifying gaze may be simply conforming to norms established to benefit men, thereby reinforcing the power of the gaze to reduce a recipient to an object.[8]

Maintaining an existing social prevalence is like reiterating it through its performance over and over again. When a woman ‘sees’ the world through a feminist gaze, she reveals the hidden social gaze through which she has been projected as an ‘objectified manner’ at all levels of society, that goes on below the surface of apparent ‘equal world’.

The projection of women in their various gender roles and responsibilities is constructed and maintained through a larger social-cultural framework in which a gendered subject acquires a gendered identity in the way society gaze at it, or projects it. Thus the gendered identity which women emulate as reflection of their ‘own self’ is actually the reflection of the essence of that social mindset in which they live in. They start therefore perform their corresponding gender role designed by the society. This gender identity further reinforced by the process of dialogism through which the female gender involves in interaction with various agents of society and acquires meanings for itself.

The concept of identity cannot mean simply ‘to be something’ or to be ‘identical with oneself’…rather, the principle of identity coincides with the principle of otherness or to use Bakhtin’s terminology with the 'principle of dialogism': The self is the gift of other…Bakhtin argues...“I realize myself initially through others, from them I receive words, forms and tonalities for the formation of my initial idea about myself”.[9]

Consequently a matrix of culture and religion along with other social agents intertwined together to construct a multiple identity for women according to its own preferred discourse. In a patriarchal set up, the male hegemony creates norms, code of conduct and divides spaces for the female gender. Men therefore held claim in everything which is resourceful and productive ice the public sphere and pushed women to the unproductive and unrecognized domain i.e., the ‘private sphere’. However, both the spheres continuously being the noxious domain for women exposing them to extreme form of violence perpetrate by men so to retain their authority.

For decades women looked at themselves through the prism of this social gaze, succumbing to the male sexual violence and consider it a part of their fate-“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”.[10]

1.2 Normalizing Gendered Desk

For decades the gender structure, the unequal gender relations and particularly the narrow social gaze through which women have been seen like a ‘reproductive object’, ‘the dweller of private domain’ and ‘the different others’ have been maintained through a male hegemony and acquired a commonsensical understanding of the society. Gramsci’s pivotal concept of hegemony has been relevant in this regard:

For Gramsci, hegemony involves two elements through which it maintains its power: the first element of hegemony is that it produces consent among people to accept the group in power and live within existing structures. Second, this hegemony involves the production of what Gramsci (1971) calls “historically organic ideologies…[that] ‘organize’ human masses,…[and] form the terrain on which men [sic] move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.”[11] “As ideologies permeate both culture (Gramsci’s ‘civil society’) and politics, they settle into people’s unconsciousness to generate “sedimentation of common sense”, a shared understanding that the workings of society have a natural logic and are meant to be the way they are.[12]

In the same manner, the social gaze of projecting women through the prism of male hegemony has been maintained as a cultured ideology and strive to normalize ‘male gazing’ of female gender and tries to gain consent from women in the process.

The normalized gender structure then diffused through influential agents like: priests, journalists, advertisers, politicians, psychiatrists, designers, playwrights, film makers, actors, novelists, musicians, activists, academicians, coaches, and sportsmen- who are the “weavers of the fabric of hegemony” as Gramsci put it, its “organizing intellectuals”- these people regulate and manage the gender regimes: articulate experiences, fantasies, and perspectives; reflect on and interpret gender relations.[13]



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Jawaharlal Nehru University – School of International Studies
re-versing social gaze sexual violence gender



Title: Re-versing the Social Gaze: Sexual Violence, Law and Gender