Feminist Conflict Theory Through the Movie Water

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Last updated: June 12, 2019

Deepa Mehta’s Water focuses on widows in India in the year 1938, which was a time when men dominated society and did not accept women’s rights. Women were not allowed to make their own decisions. Many were married off at a young age to older men through arranged marriages. In Hindu Culture at that time, if women were widowed at a young age, the women were expected to throw their bodies on their husband’s funeral pyre and burn to death. This custom is known as sati. However, sati did not happen all the time.

Sometimes women were given a choice, they were still outcasts but were allowed to live in very unfortunate circumstances.This alternative was a decision made by the in-laws and the parents to put their daughters in the Ashram (widow house). In this paper, it will be argued that feminist conflict theory can be used to understand changing attitudes toward widows in India, through the lens of Deepa Mehta’s, Water.

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Through feminist conflict theory, we can understand that the widows’ major problems are due to the patriarchal society. The goal of the feminist view is to eliminate male domination, so women can have equal attention in a patriarchal society. Things have slowly changed in India regarding widows, as women became more equal and less subordinate.Background on Sati: Deepa Mehta’s Water briefly mentions the ritual of sati, in which women were burnt on pyres at their husband’s funeral. The word sati originated from Hindi Sanskrit religion. A goddess named Sati sacrificed her life because her parents did not accept Sati’s marriage to god Siva. Sati was not a victim. Her suicide was an act of rebellion and anger towards her controlling parents.

Since the body portrays the relationship with her parents who created resentment, this caused her to sacrifice her body in order to take that pain away (Lashmi 2003: 84-85).This religious belief has transformed throughout time and people now have a different view of the sati. In pre-colonial days, India was a male dominated society. They pressured widows to follow the same tradition but with a different meaning. In India, sati was no longer a woman’s act of defiance but became an act of oppression where women became victims and had no choice about committing suicide because they had no value after their husband had died (Lashmi 2003: 87). The movie shows how women were given two choices: they either got immolated with their husband’s corpse or they had to accept widowhood and ecome an outcast from the society that no family member would be allowed to visit (Lashmi 2003: 88). The performance of sati was way to show that women did not have value and that men decide the fate of their women.

The Feminist Conflict Theory through the movie Water: Deepa Mehta’s movie, Water, tells the story an eight year old girl named Chuya who has been taken to the journey of widowhood. This young girl has no idea that she has become a widow. For an eight year old, the decision should be to take her home and be with her parents.Because of the patriarchal environment, her father will decide whether she will stay with the parents or go to a widow house. Now that Chuya become a widow, her life has no value in society and she as to go through suffering.

Her parents decide to put their eight year old daughter in the widow house, as dictated by the patriarchal rules of the society. But even though Chuya did not realize that she has lost her the freedom, she always has hope that her parents will came and take her away from the widow house. She is keeping the false hope to keep herself alive.

The feminist conflict theory focuses on the aspect of the patriarchy, where males dominate in society and females are subordinated and are considered less powerful (Brym 2007: 21-22). One belief of the feminist conflict theory is that it is better to eliminate gender inequality and also eliminate the patriarchal society (Brym 2007: 21). In order to better understand feminist conflict theory through the movie, the two frameworks of feminist conflict theory, Radical and Socialist theory need to be analyzed. The purpose of both theories is to fight against the domination of male in society and also the inequality toward females.They both want to eliminate the foundation of the patriarchal society, so women can have a purpose in a social order. a) Radical Feminist Theory: According to Brym (2007), patriarchy is “male domination and norms justifying that domination” of women and “is more deeply rooted than capitalism.

Radical feminists conclude that the very idea of gender must be changed to bring an end to male domination” (p. 335). Using the Radical Feminist Theory to analyze the movie Water, it is obvious that the movie portrays a significant complexity of male domination.

The patriarchal society has arranged the women’s role in society.When a woman becomes a widow, her place should be in a widow house which is one way she loses her identity. Once the husband is dead, her freedom is taken away and she becomes a living sati. A widow becomes a social outcast, with a life of solitude until she dies. At the time the movie is set, the women were not educated and were accepting of what they were told.

Since they became widows, they believe that they are bound to live a single life of solitude and misery, which is not true. The movie mentions that after a woman becomes a widow, sometime they are later allowed to get married.But this ideology is not acceptable by males and is not recognized by most females, since males have arranged gender roles where women are the subordinate of society.

On the other hand, the movie shows the kind of overwhelming pressure that males put on women by not allowing them make decisions about their own life, by forcing them to accept the widowhood. The main problem is gender. If males were suffering the same way, the patriarchal society would quickly act on their behalf but females were considered less important (Lashmi 2003: 94). The radical feminist theory does not approve of the inequality between genders.

They believe that whatever males can do, so can females. They also believe that the idea of gender must be altered so that it ends male domination (Potter 2001: 62). What this means for widows would be that they should be allowed to live a life style where they are the master of their own decision and they are allowed to interact with society. They can decide whether or not to get married; in other words, they get their freedom back. The theory emphasizes that women should get more attention because they are victims of oppression of a patriarchal society.Because of gender differences, they are bound to be pushed out (Potter 2001: 62).

Basically, widows should not be any different than normal women of society; they should have the same status as a married or single woman. b) Socialist Feminist Theory: The Socialist Feminist Theory, according to Brym (2007), “regards women’s relationship to the economy as the main source of women’s disadvantages. They believe that the traditional nuclear family emerged, along with inequalities of wealth, and that the economic and sexual oppression of women has its roots in capitalism” (p. 35). The Socialist Feminist Theory has a different meaning from the movie’s point of view. The movie shows that widows have a social disadvantage because they were first of all an outcast and they did not have the means to financially support themselves. Once a woman becomes a widow, she has to live a life of simplicity, poverty and misery, since the widows did not receive any kind of financial support.

In order to support themselves financially, they either had to beg for money or prostitute themselves to support the widow house.In Water a young beautiful widow by the name of Kalyani has to give herself away as a prostitute to support the widow house. Widows had no social life at that time and could not even eat certain food. The movie shows how Chuya, the eight year old, received money by begging outside of a temple, which made her angry. Chuya felt that to beg for money is socially not right. Being forced to beg, shows how devalued a woman becomes when she loses her social status.

Chuya angrily run away from the temple to get back to the widow house. On her way there she found a sweet store where she stopped to buy some sweet.The owner of the store knew who she was and told Chuya that because she is a widow, she was not allowed to have food that gives a sense of pleasure and, financially, she cannot afford such things. The owner put Chuya in her place by telling her that she was not supposed to have money or eat things that are not a virtuous of a widow. At the time of the movie in India, men were the ones that vindicated laws that they felt were right for widows.

That’s why socialist feminist theory believes that there should be a separation of goods between genders, where males and females receive the same amount of heritage (Potter 2001: 63).The movie shows that when a woman became a widow, she becomes destitute and does not receive what they legally should own after their husband’s death: whatever their husband owned becomes her in-laws’ property. Socialist feminist theory refers to this inequality and states that women should receive equal amounts of shares (Brym 2007: 335). They believe that in order to remove oppression of women, they should eliminate the economical aspect of private owned property and create a new reform of economic equality (Potter 2001: 63), which means that patriarchal society should integrate widows socially and economically to gain their status.Once they gain that status, they will no longer have a social disadvantage. Comparing Past and Present Widowhood and Widow Houses: In the year 1938 in which the movie is set, it shows that how the living condition of widows were horrible.

They did not have anyone to support them, socially and economically. Widows were bound to suffer throughout their existence. Once they became a widow, their parents or their in-laws would bring them to the widow house, because they do not want to be burdened with the support of their daughter.The rules were so strict at that time that being around a widow was considered to be a sin and also bad luck.

The movie shows that widows’ lives should be lived with simplicity and that she should invoke god’s name and asks for repentance of being a woman. The widows at time were blindly accepting of what the patriarchal society told them about how to live in society once they became a widow. One reason for this is that they did not have any education and the full knowledge of the religion.

In the movie, it shows also that once a woman becomes a widow, after a certain time she is allowed to marry.Kalyani was offered to a marriage proposal but the other widows said that it is a sin to think of remarrying, but in reality, the Hindu religion did allow widows to marry again. In that time, there were still some cases of sati but those who became a widow at a young age did not perform sati.

Typically, it was older women that would still perform sati. Those who became widowed were also called the living sati, which means living from outside but dead on the inside (Sujan 2009). Basically, this widow house at the time was full of young widows, who got married in arranged marriage with older men. )Modern Widowhood & the Widow Houses: Comparing today’s widows, their living condition has been ameliorated; from the statistics, actually 28 percent of the widows in India are entitled for pensions and from the 28 percent, less than 11 percent receive benefits (Sujan 2009).

In recent years, India has more than 40 million widows equalling 10 percent of the country’s female population (Sujan 2009). Now, the old practice of widow burning is against the law. There as being some changes in recent decades; if a woman cannot support herself financially, she is at the sympathy of her in-laws and her parents.If both families cannot support her financially, she is on her own (Sujan 2009). The widow house still exists in modern India, yet there is a big difference – no woman is forced to live there. These modern widow houses still support the older widows who have been there most of their lives, as well as accepting new widows that are of an older generation and cannot support themselves on their own (Sujan 2009). Both generations of widows have to suffer the same way, their freedom is taken away and they must live a life of simplicity (Sujan 2009).

There is not much of a difference between the new generation of widows and the old generation widows; they opt for a life of simplicity where there should be no hint of attractiveness and are bound to wear white saris for the rest of their lives (Sujan 2009). In the past, widows may have had their heads shaved to make them unattractive, but this tradition rarely happens now (Sujan 2009). In the present, things are slowly changing and the widows are given support they need, such as food and medication with some income to live their lives, so they no longer have to beg or prostitute themselves.The Feminist Activist: During the time that the movie is set in, the females were the subordinate of in a male dominated society and there was little to no feminist activist movement. Even though women would start a movement, they would not be taken seriously, because both sides were not educated and the patriarchal society will not allow them. The culture and tradition would restrict a woman from stepping forward to vouch for their freedom. The movie talks of young girls that became widows and would be placed in a widow house.

The sati ritual was performed on women of an older age in that era and that was accepted as a normal tradition. Not until 1987, when the last case of sati was performed on Roop Kanwar, did the feminist activists step up to vouch for their sisters’ freedom (Hawley 1994: 101). This case stirred Indian feminist activists to be concern about their sisters. For the first time, women’s voices were heard as a political issue because of this case and that was considered a major step for women in fighting against a patriarchal society.Roop Kanwar was an 18 year old widow pressured by her in-laws to commit sati. After her death, the media picked up the story which was noticed by feminists who took Kanwar’s in-laws to court to face a charge of murder.

The in-laws were found guilty even though they did not physically push her onto the funeral pyre but because they mentally forced her to do it (Hawley 1994:126). The case of Roop Kanwar gathered feminists and liberals to fight for a severe punishment, for families that force widows to perform sati. InIndia, there is a tradition that after a funeral and a woman commits sati there is a celebration called chunari mahotsav, a ritual held on the 13th day after cremation. After Roop Kanwar committed sati, even though it was forced, the villagers wanted to glorify the event and perform the ceremony.

Hundreds and thousands of people from other villages were planning to attend the celebration and come and see Roop Kanwar’s life style, including her home and bedroom. This event would be seen as religious, in which people will pray and reinforce the idea that to perform sati is a good thing (Hawley 1994: 107).Since the feminists’ activists considered the case to be a murder, they felt strongly that there should not be a celebration. They waged an anti-sati demonstration and took the case to the high court of Jaipur, which got a response from the Chief Minister to stop the event (Hawley 1994: 107-108).

This case was the beginning of real feminist activists’ networks, which later increased their support to fight against the oppression of a patriarchal society (Hawley 1994: 109). Those feminist activists had to be careful because the patriarchal society was attempting to destroy the morale of the feminist activists.The reason for them doing this is because the patriarchal society did not want to be incriminated of pushing women to perform sati. The women activists were outraged at the majority of male witnesses who reinforce the belief that women have no values and they should suffer.

Now, women can speak up for their sisters, which is a big step in stopping the tradition of sati. For the upcoming women in India, the feminist activists made a major impact with radical change in a society ruled by males. In conclusion, the women will mobilize together and protest to be heard. Conclusion:The fundamental belief of the Feminist Conflict theory is to eliminate male domination and females should receive equal status as males. Through the lens of Deepa Mehta’s, Water, the feminist conflict theory can be used to understand changing attitudes toward widows in India.

Females are victims of society, especially a patriarchal society. In order to achieve status, the women have to devalue themselves in order to compete in male dominated society to the point of ignoring their own well being. At time goes on, life is changing for the better for Indian widows as they are beginning to reclaim their lives and values.


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