Unsexing and the Woman

It has always been a matter of immense amusement to observe the pattern of action taken up by women in positions of leadership. My curiosity peaked when I picked up a few works of the great English Bard William Shakespeare and pull them apart in the name of analysis. Celia from ‘As You Like It’ , Portia from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night’ are three heroines I have now chosen to prove my point.

Celia is supposedly Shakespeare’s most fascinating female character. It is absolutely awe inspiring to find a female character so forthright in the face of a threat from her own uncle. She is brave and is all too aware that she is on the side of justice. Was it however necessary that she take on her male alter ego Ganymede to survive in the Forest of Arden? I don’t imagine that the guise strengthened her already ‘unfeminine’ characteristics. Nevertheless, she was stepping out of the circle of patriarchal expectations through her defiance and ability to take on the role of negotiator, teacher and leader. The same holds good for Portia. She as her ‘feminine’ self is equally forthright, wise and practical. It is through the progress of the play that we find her donning the male avatar of Balthazar the lawyer in order to prove her mettle and save Antonio. At this juncture, I would like to ask if the audience would have received well a female character in her ‘feminine’ form, saving a male character. Was Shakespeare resorting to such a tactic simply to make Portia’s actions palatable to a heavily misogynistic crowd?(It is common knowledge that male actors had to take up female roles also. Thereby it could have been an act of convenience).  Viola is a tad too similar to Portia when it comes to the execution of the role of a negotiator. That apart, she also manages to bring in an element of homoeroticism.


Indian folklore and literature are ripe with tales of similar attempts of what Shakespeare would term ‘unsexing’. We Tamils have our own classic ‘Silappathikaram’ and the much revered heroine Kannaki. The transition of this character from a voiceless being to a fiery Sakhmet. The final blow to the ramparts of Maturai is dealt when the fiery Kannaki wrenches off her breast and throws it on the city. The power of her chastity is said to have dashed to the ground every trace of injustice. This story also plays in the favour of removing an essential marker of female identity in order to execute a typically male deed: the keeping of justice.

Another story that is doing its rounds on social media is that of Nangeli, the fearless Dalit woman who is the sole reason for the abolition of the humiliating ‘Mulakarram’ or ‘Breast Tax’ in Kerala. As legend goes, Nangeli was approached by the tax collectors so as to continue the tradition of keeping the lower castes in debt. She is said to have cut off her breasts , put them on a banana leaf and handed them over to the officials stating that they pay off the tax as they are now in possession of her breasts. She died of heavy bleeding and her husband performed the act of sati in her honour. The governing body is said to have named Nangeli’s then residence as ‘Mulachi Parambu’ which is loosely translated as ‘The Land of the Breasted Woman’. Here the woman is extolled for literally eliminating her female organ for the sake of justice much like Kannaki. In a similar pattern, her identity has been declared through the naming of the ancestral property just as Ilanko Adikal would refer to Kannaki as the chaste woman with the single breast.

As much as I wish we could dismiss the above as a mere legend and nothing more, it is sad to note that the tradition of unsexing still continues. Despite the amount of progressiveness that has made its way through the stubborn doorway of a patriarchal society, we still classify spheres as male and female. It is with much elation that I witness many women making it big in leadership roles however certain inequalities remain.

HRCDuring a guest lecture, the speaker mentioned that American politician and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was often called a ‘ball buster’ and criticized for her ‘unwomanly’ legs. These statements prove that a certain kind of judgmental taxonomic classification still remains ingrained in the human psyche. Any woman who is confident and resourceful is considered a threat to men and the male dominated world. Her excellence is not evaluated as an individual hallmark but rather as a yardstick against the competence of her male counterparts. This is one major challenge faced by women throughout the ages.

Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India was one who had supposedly tried very hard to shed her female identity and pursue an aggressively masculine demeanor in order to be taken seriously. It is said that she confessed to an American politician that she would like to be called “Sir”. This might be a thing of the past but it does raise a serious question considering the nearness of Ms Gandhi’s  historical tenure as well as the contemporaneity of Ms Clinton. Do women still have to sacrifice their female identities and take on a masculine one in order to be taken seriously? Do the credentials of a woman be considered manlike so that she may prove her worth?


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