Objectification of Women and Violence in What the Body Remembers

Lucia-Mihaela Grosu-R?dulescu

Bucharest University of Economic Studies, Romania

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


This article discusses the ample illustrations of violence depicted in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel What the Body Remembers. Violence and patriarchal control come to permanently affect the lives of the main female characters, who are first analysed at the small scale of their polygamous marriage, and secondly in the context of the horrifying events of the 1947 Partition. I posit that in the novel we notice an extreme commodification of women, whose bodies become sites for men’s competition for respect and territory. Singh Baldwin provides accounts of how male violence is enacted through rape, murder and abductions of women. The literary analysis of the interactions between patriarchy, domestic violence and colonization in the novel concludes that we can establish a clear connection between the idea of intimate colonization and male violent behaviour, whether it is directed at women by their own families or at women’s bodies seen as other men’s property.

Keywords: violence, patriarchy, women’s bodies, discrimination, Shauna Singh Baldwin.


What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s first novel, tells the story of a Sikh family, with all the complications arising from a polygamous marriage, in the context of the atrocious events of the 1947 Partition of India.

Focusing both on intra- and inter-community violence against women, the present study will demonstrate that the female characters in the novel are highly objectified, their bodies becoming instruments for men to use either for their own or for the community’s interest. I call this intimate colonization, a concept to stand for the various illustrations of violence inflicted on the female characters in the book, shaped both as psychological and physical abuse.

In my pursuit to expound on intimate colonization I draw on Ania Loomba’s and Susan Sontag’s standpoints on (women’s) colonization to demonstrate that both familiar and strange men in the novel claim women as territories to be owned, (ab)used, traded and even discarded. This theoretical framework is complemented by Manav Ratti’s specific assumptions about Baldwin’s male and female characters’ colonial mindset, which dictates their behaviour. The author herself (1999) hints to the idea of women as colonized territories either directly, through her characters’ words and thoughts (“ ‘I too am a colony’ ” (p. 240)), or indirectly through images of India as “a woman raped” (p. 425).

The article will bring evidence that Baldwin’s narratorial purposes integrate not only an attack on patriarchal control, but also an indication of how the former colonizers’ mindset became appropriated by the colonized and enforced specifically onto women’s bodies.

Intimate Colonization

I posit that intra- and inter-community violence against women depicted in Baldwin’s novel can be interpreted as illustrations of intimate colonization. Therefore, the article will tackle the two types of abuse in an attempt to demonstrate that women’s bodies become sites for violence where men display their masculinity, their desire for control and their ethnic or religious clashes.

Susan Sontag was one of the first feminists to connect male dominance and colonization. In her essay “The Third World of Women” (1973) she stated that “[a]ll women live in an ‘imperialist’ situation in which men are colonialists and women are natives” (p. 184). Sontag’s Western feminist stance borrows the context of colonization to stand for inadequate power relations between men and women with women seen as carriers of innocence specific to native populations, powerless in front of a controlling enemy. Sontag (1973 maintains that the situation of women in “economically advanced countries” is “neo-colonialist” explaining that although Western women’s overall situation has much improved, “the same basic relations of inferiority and superiority, of powerlessness and power, of cultural underdevelopment and cultural privilege, prevail between women and men in all countries” (p. 185).

Critic Ania Loomba (1998) also links patriarchy and colonization refering to the Indian context. She emphasizes the fact that, besides a tradition of patriarchal constraints in India, male dominance over women might stem from a feeling of inferiority experienced by Indian men under British rule. Loomba forwards the idea that colonialism appears to intensify patriarchy in colonized countries. She attributes this exaggerated tyrannical conduct to the exclusion of native men from the public sphere to the benefit of the colonizers. This social frustration of men appears to stress the already existing patriarchal tradition in India. Yet, according to Loomba (1998), “patriarchal relations provide a model for colonial domination” (p. 161), therefore the two concepts are not only shaping one another, but Loomba considers them essentially connected. If we adopt the critic’s assumptions we could infer that, at least in part and at least in the postcolonial space, men tend to dominate women in an attempt to escape their own social demise and end up acting similarly to their oppressors.

Critic Manav Ratti (2013) makes a direct connection between the space of intimacy and colonization which can be detected in Baldwin’s novel. He illustrates the colonizing of the Other in the space of intimacy with the example of the conflict between Satya and Roop, the main female characters in the book:

“The violence of colonialism can easily be understood as one nation systematically exploiting another[…]. Gendered violence, such as the violence of the elder, resentful Satya toward the younger, beautiful Roop, […] becomes a metaphor for the inadequacies of the nation.”(Ratti, 2013, p. 122)

Drawing on these theories, I posit that when discussing violence against women in the (post)colonial space illustrated in Baldwin’s novel we could speak of a process of intimate colonization. The male characters in the book, no matter if familiar or unrelated, continually suppress women. Women’s voices are muffled from childhood, Sikh traditions reinterpreted to fit men’s desires to maintain control over them. Although Sikh Gurus preached about gender equality, urging men to treat a woman as Kaur (Princess), the reality of things is distorted. Women’s role is synthesized by Baldwin (1999) in an old servant’s words: “ ‘A man is pleasured’, Bebeji said […]. ‘But […] a woman is merely cracked open for seeding like the earth before the force of the plough. If she is fertile, good for the farmer, if not, bad for her’ ” (p. 8). In Spivak’s view (2009), women are “metonymized as nothing but the birth canal” (p. 80). I believe this objectification of a woman’s body forms the core of Baldwin’s book…Full Text PDF

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