Re-Interpreting the ‘Old’: from ‘Respectable Femininity’ to a New Interpretational Space

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In recent management and organisational studies, researchers have explored the tensions emerging between social constructions of femininity and the identity of the ‘modern’ working woman. The fundamental insight is that the practices, beliefs, and narratives that define women and men are socially constructed and historically situated in power relations. In most organisations, men consciously or unconsciously use these constructions to maintain power.

In exploring an organisation’s culture, focusing on the narratives of femininity, i.e. the stories that shape the identities of individuals and groups, serves as a tool to better understand these constructions. A better understanding in turn can wield a transformative impetus. It can reveal gaps in these constructions and suggest re-interpretations of the narratives and stories. Furthermore, sharing and becoming acquainted with the re-interpretations of other people can lead to new insights and new perceptions. Overall, researchers have come to see that focussing on narratives and stories is extremely useful in understanding and improving the situation of women.


My own hypothesis is that particular attention should be directed towards ‘old’ narratives. Especially in the Indian context, dominant ‘old’ narratives of ‘respectable femininity’ from ancient myths continue to provide a powerful source of identity for women (and indirectly, for men).

What is identity? Identity is a contested site. Identities shape interests, loyalties, and passions. They are a central resource. Power is inherent and central to identity. Identities are processual, interactive, and integrative. Identitiesare themselves narratives. Narratives are never value-neutral. They come to us populated with socially and politically charged intentions. Ancient stories, myths, and historiographies uphold ideals of identity that contrast with the more recent narrative constructs of ‘modern’ identities.

An example of an ‘old’ narrative that reaches into the core of organisations is the narrative of ‘respectable femininity’, i.e. who is a respectable woman and who is not. The traditionally upheld role of the woman as the pure mother who nurtures, the good housewife who serves husband and children, is being challenged by an upcoming middle class of professional women (active especially in the IT sector). The gender scholar Smitha Radhakrishnan argues for “the usefulness of respectable femininity as a way in which to study the interplay between colonial/nationalist constructions of womanhood and contemporary urban enactments of femininity.” She believes that ‘respectable femininity’ can offer a glimpse into how the dynamics of these constructions play themselves out in everyday lives. The underlying premise is that the success of women who are able to live up to cultural expectations is ultimately a source of legitimisation for upholding the interests of the dominant male class. This type of femininity becomes an image that is sought in order to gain social standing and respect.

‘Respectable femininity’ thus serves as a tool for positioning female identity through day-to-day narratives that shape social interaction, conversation, and the altogether work situation. In other words, the work place serves as an environment for women to assert respectable femininity as a mark of their Indian culture.

In her interviews with female employees working in the IT sector, Smitha Radhakrishnan found that special concessions were made to those who enact ‘respectable femininity’ at the work place. Management and co-workers expect women to enact normative values of ‘respectable femininity’. Enacting ‘Indian’ femininity is linked to practices stemming from the traditional domestic setting. ‘Respectable’ femininity is rewarded, while alternative femininities tend to be sanctioned. Her study concludes that in most cases “these women established a moral and cultural discourse of national belonging that highlighted the education, knowledge, and merit of Indian professional women. These discourses were always simultaneously grounded in relatively clear notions of Indian traditions and values, almost always tied to the family.”

Stories of ideal, self-sacrificing women devoted to men have a legitimising power within families as well as organisations. An important example of such a narrative is the story of Sita. The story of Sita has become the ‘ideal woman’ narrative per se.

Madhu Kishwar, the founding editor of Manushi, describes how she discovered the relevance of Sita for the Indian feminist discourse:

“Sita forced herself on my consciousness only after I began working on Manushi. The articles and poems that came to us, especially those for the Hindi edition, showed an obsessive involvement with Sita… My impression is that 80-90% of the poems that came to us for Hindi Manushi, and at least half of those for English Manushi, revolved around the mythological Sita, or the writer as a contemporary Sita, with a focus on her steadfast resolve, her suffering, or her rebellion. Sita loomed large in the lives of these women, whether they were asserting their moral strength or rebelling against what they had come to see as the unreasonable demands of society or family. Either way Sita was the point of reference – an idea they emulated or rejected. I was very puzzled by this obsession, and even began to get impatient with the harangues of our modern day Sitas.”

As the editor of Manushi, Madhu Kishwar became aware of the relevance of an ‘old narrative’ that had before remained unvoiced in mainstream academic discourses. She developed an interest in understanding how women of today re-produce and absorb ‘old’ narratives.

I present a short summary of Sita’s story below:

Sita is of divine origin, the daughter of the Earth, and completely devoted to her husband Rama, who won her in an archery contest. When Rama the crown prince of Ayodhya is exiled due to intrigues in his family, she joins him and his brother Laxmana into exile in the jungle. There she is abducted by Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka. Rama then mobilises an army to conquer Ravana and win her back. Throughout this time, she is wooed yet not touched by Ravana. When Rama defeats Ravana in an epic battle, Sita return to Ayodhya with her husband and for some time they live happily. Yet rumours spread in the city that Sita was defiled during her abduction and imprisonment. This compels Rama to have her undergo a ‘purity test’ by walking through fire. She passes the test. Yet the city’s population is still not appeased, and in a twist of fate, Rama sends Sita into exile. At this time, she is pregnant. After bearing twins who go on to become well-known bards singing the glories of Rama, she is taken back by Rama. But again she is asked to go through a purity test. Powerless and frustrated, she prays to her mother – mother earth – to take her back into her bosom. The earth opens up and swallows Sita completely.

This narrative has been reproduced and absorbed in political, social, media, film, literary and other related discourses. It upholds ‘respectable femininity’ as an ‘ancient ideal’. The story establishes parameters of purity and power, self-sacrifice, and nurturing as the ‘core’ of respectable female identity. In its organisational translation, it establishes the standing generated by ‘respectable femininity’.

Notable voices from the Indian feminist discourse claim that there is a powerful consensus promoting and enforcing the self-sacrificing model of Sita for Indian womanhood. Yet others, such as the gender scholar G. Raheja, argue that such claims wrongly assume “that women are the passive assimilators of a monolithic set of cultural discourses on gender, in terms of which their own lives are either unambiguously morally exemplary in the manner of Sita . . . or morally flawed and reprehensible.” In other words, individuals are in a constant process of reflecting and re-interpreting old stories and narratives, applying them to their own lives. In the remaining part of this article, I review a selection of re-readings of Sita’s story that promote counter-interpretations of the narrative of ‘respectable femininity’.

Traditional interpretations of Sita’s story focus on her self-sacrifice and obedience to the men that direct her life. She appears to represent an ideal femininity that evokes submission to male power and devotion to fulfilling its aims and goals. Sita’s destiny seems to be shaped and decided by males who protect her purity and female sanctity.     Yet this picture has many gaps. The same narrative has been received and re-interpreted in a surprisingly different way:

“A history of Sita’s life will show us a woman who walked out of a safe home to face the dangers of the world, a woman who had to overcome sexual harassment, and a woman who was a single mother – all conditions familiar to many women today. Though Sita is a member of the upper class, she, like women today, realises that class does not afford women much protection. Even as a queen, she is powerless to prevent her own exile as a result of social speculation regarding her chastity. Nevertheless she has enough strength to bring up her sons without her husband. In short, Sita is a wonderful ideal not because of who she is married to but because of who she is.” (Bahri and Vasudeva)

This re-interpretation highlights Sita’s ability to say ‘no’, to cope with and resist male domination. It casts her story in a light of self-determination and self-definition. She is no more a passive recipient but a woman with agency. The plot has changed. We encounter a ‘respectable’ Sita who knows the limitations of the male, who realises her own aptitudes and makes the best of her situation.

Another re-interpretation is proposed by Nidhi Dawesar in a contribution in The Tribune India entitled ‘Reinterpreting the Myth’:

“Sita is born always, often out of men’s interpretations and reinterpretations of myths and epics. Men always moulded the image of a perfect female with the changing times to suit them and their requirements and complement their comforts.

But this time, she refuses to serve Ram, because he never was and is not worth it! And she is learning to recognise that. In time, she has learnt to respect herself and to put so-called Ram in place… The Sita of modern era refuses to breathe compromises, make adjustments beyond requirement and also to surrender her individuality to Ram of the times… The legendary lady appears time and again not to cater to Ram but to reform society and elevate her own status for that matter. She continues to be a mother, a wife, a daughter and most of all…. a woman, but with a difference.” (The Tribune India, October 19, 2003)

In this re-reading, Dawesar uses the narrative as a tool to propose an altogether different version of Sita for current readers. By re-interpreting the narrative, she introduces a political element evoking Sita as a reformer who makes up for the inabilities of the male to change society. Sita’s respectability is no more defined by her relation to the male. The modern version of Sita need not submit to male conceptions of femininity. Her femininity can be autonomous, diverse, different, and unique.

Sita’s narrative is not only being fruitfully re-interpreted on the Indian subcontinent. In a Manushi article titled ‘Sita in the City’, Shana Sippy and Anne Murphy published results from interviews with South Asians working in New York:

“In New York City, people speak of Sita as having struggled with the same kinds of issues they now face in their own lives.”

“Emphasis is placed on how she negotiated her position in relation to different characters in the tale, and how she navigated the trials of her life… Her ability to fulfill all of these different roles is highlighted as a strength.”

These results suggest re-reading Sita’s narrative from the perspective of social negotiation. Interviewees selected decisive moments from the narrative and evaluated them by inscribing their own meaning. They then re-applied and compared these moments to their own social negotiations. This allowed them to produce a new narrative space by creating counter-narratives against interpretations establishing patriarchal and subtle gender biases.

Counter-narratives of a Sita that can say ‘no’, of an autonomous Sita that is the author of her own subjectivity, provide a powerful space for women (and men) to re-evaluate the meanings of ‘respectable femininity’. The re-interpretation of the ‘old’ narrative opens up a space from which a new dimension of meanings with a potentially new symbolic capital emerges.

In the organisational context, this translates to an emerging space for re-considering male-focussed conceptions of power, subtle gender biases, and practices discriminating women.

Narratives similarly linked with conceptions of ‘respectable femininity’ are, among others, the stories of Radha, Draupadi, Shakuntala, Lakshmibai, and Mirabai. The wealth of myths and myriad stories available in India invoke a ‘re-interpretation programme’ from a gender perspective. Such a programme would focus on the role of ‘old’ narratives in achieving identity and legitimacy in organisational and societal contexts. One option is to ignore ‘old’ narratives as outdated material. A better option is to acknowledge their abiding power and create a space for resisting, re-interpreting, and applying them to new contexts.

Christoph Rentsch is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland’s leading business school. His focus of research is on the role of narratives in shaping identities within organisations. Alongside his PhD studies, he is active in the trading business and works for the Chairman of an Indian-origin conglomerate.

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