Non-Violence in the Private Sphere

Kaushiki Arha

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

For Virginia Woolf, what keeps a woman from writing literature is the absence of a room of her own, a room that lets her mind run wild, a room where she is free above all to encounter serendipity and experience what leisure is, a room that lets her write for herself. In mapping the boundaries between public and private spheres what is often missed is the porosity between these borders, so delicate yet definitive. Definitive enough to let philosophers welcome the state and the society into the bedrooms of individuals and pry upon what it calls the “private” and alter it as it suits the public. The access to this room or the lack of it brings in the question of violence. This question was conceptualised by Johan Galtung “as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual” This article is an attempt to situate non-violence in the private sphere.

The distinction between the public and the private is maintained primarily on the grounds that this separation is “natural”. Whether or not the public and private divide existed across time in societies, the idea is rooted in modern common sense, that each gender has a distinct sphere (the public – man and the private – woman) to which one “naturally” adapts. While rejecting the “mechanistic separation of the two spheres” and not denying the real consequences following from it, it is useful to consider the private/public as an analytical concept for its decisive role in the allocation of powers and resources, an issue raised by Woolf. To question the natural premise of this separation is not to forget the vital role played by private/public in the beliefs we tend to hold about how society ‘works’ and should work.

“The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family”

Within the Aristotelian teleological system, the function of the household is to maintain a biological existence, thereby a gendered division of labour and a lack of freedom of choice, speech, and justice are all subsumed under the banner of the ‘natural’ and the biological. The modern equivalent of an Aristotelian household is the conjugal family based on heteronormative sexual ideals. This conjugal family, just as the Aristotelian household, is constituted of hierarchically positioned gender identities shaping their relation vis-à-vis the public. The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family. This ends up taking away from the non-normative genders their right to form one of their own.

“An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself”

The private sphere, however, steps outside the household to enter the market whose relation with the individual (within or without the family) is again deemed to be outside the purview of the public domain; the state is reduced to operating as an intermediary and any intervention is deemed to be an intrusion of the “free” market. An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself. Formal freedom provided by the public realm sanctions commission of omission with regard to questions of right and justice in what it construes as the personal. Accruing to a remarkably similar modus operendi deployed in family, the private adds to the power of the market in dispossessing the individual of any agency to strike a fair bargain. 

Examples range from the recent farmers’ agitation in India where the crisis could have been postponed in the name of being agrarian. However, it has reached the urgency of a civilizational lacuna that forgets and masks the number of farmers committing suicide every day. This is not only because of market inequities but the sheer lack of acknowledgment of the nuances that a farmer’s identity entails, the policy intervention it requires only to not mention the trauma and social handicap their families face after subsequent suicides. 

“the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs”

Other examples include the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs; the stereotyping of minorities (social, cultural, sexual) by a cultural industry that feeds off an unjust private life premised upon a superficially autonomous idea of entertainment, one that does not concern itself with the social and political reality within which it is produced. This brings us to the question of violence – what constitutes violence? and is non-violence adequate to challenge violence? 

As noted earlier, violence according to Johan Galtung is not simply a coercive physical act intended to cause harm but one that limits the very possibilities of one’s being. Violence is systemic and structural so much so that the very nature of the structure invisibilises the violence inherent to it. Within the institution of the family, the question of justice has been ridiculed to be too petty since family is made of “higher virtues” such as love. The existence of love external to the concept of justice fails to register any concern among progressive theoretical discourse on substantive justice. 

“The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms”

The question of gender in this regime of love is unheard of as it confronts the family with seemingly lower, pettier concerns of unequal access to resources to women, higher unpaid working hours among others only to be met with the there is no “I” is the “us” of a family response. The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms. The market, on the other hand, works in conjunction with existing pre-capitalist forms of oppression, leaving little scope for the individual to act freely upon their choices since their identities shape their bargaining power. 

Non-violence too is not simply to be seen as a negative: as only the absence of violence but a positive condition that requires conscious action. For Gandhi, non-violence requires one to reform oneself through action. It is both a means and an end in itself. He has a  teleological understanding of non-violence or ahimsa, which serves as a basis for his search of truth, for truth can neither be found nor realised in the presence of violence. For him, non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It implies a positive quality of love for one practicing non-violence is to not hate their oppressor and every person has a role to play in society and in family which they must fulfill. He laid great emphasis on physical work. According to Gandhi, everyone must contribute their labour to the best of their abilities to become self-reliant. 

However, even Gandhi preferred violence over injustice and cowardice, for him any sort of injustice should be resisted even if it calls for violent measures in extremities since he did not tolerate the prevalence of injustice out of fear. The emphasis on injustice here is crucial because it brings us back to the assertion that the supposedly ahistorical separation between the public and the private sphere invisibilises violence which is inherent to any dichotomous conceptualization of the simultaneity of our lived experiences. 

“The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders”

It is imperative to repetitively note that the public and the private distinction is politically and historically constructed so much so that the claims to universality and natural necessity are a legitimation technique employed to downplay the violence that holds this distinction together. This argument is being made in light of the politically charged assertions being made by groups and individuals seeking to reconcile this gap between the two spheres which continue to oppress them. The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders. There has come about a need to discard these boundaries with questions of justice, equality, democracy, and freedom which through a long drawn historical struggle laden with nuances of diversity in our communities have acquired a universal status. A universal that has so far been external to the regimes of “love” (family) and “choice” (market).

Kaushiki is currently pursuing a Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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