Introduction The power of a woman is an inspiring topic that is well recognized across international literature. This is because of the varying influences women continue to generate in societies around the world. The texts, I, Phoolan Devi, an autobiography of India’s bandit queen, Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, Provoked… a true story, directed by Jag Mundra and the song, “Frozen”, by Within Temptation, all portray the type of power in women, its cause and influence on others. The characters in these texts are representative of the ‘common’ women from our times today through to the Shakespearian times.
These texts associate power as a means of having the ability and equality, to create and maintain an influence, on situations and people. The central characters in these texts all occupy similar characteristics, yet the classification of their power is different because of different circumstances, time period and social level these characters emerge from. What type(s) of power are women shown to have in society and how is this level of power portrayed? All texts portray a character’s power as either low or high. The distinction is based on how they manage and influence the situation they come across.
The texts studied show that a woman’s low level of power arises from being in fear of others, having limited expectations from society and remaining silent, all of which influence women to create a barrier of communication with the outer society. This barrier reduces their ability to control situations, lead independent and outspoken lives, and defend themselves from harm, resultantly portraying low power. In, I, Phoolan Devi, the village girl, Phoolan, constantly fears of “being caught by someone, because whatever happened, I knew I would be the one who got the blame”.
This fear makes her stay within a “safe” distance from her house and stay busy in the house chores from a young age, rather than getting education from the village school. Similarly, in Much Ado about Nothing, the “sweet, young” and silent lady, Hero, has a noticeably limited number of lines in the play. She shows limited expectations from marriage as she, easily led by her elders without having an individual opinion, accepts to “be yours for the walk”. Her weakness in power is evident when Hero cannot protect her reputation when accused of disloyalty to her fiance.
The barriers both these characters create with the outer society and knowledge limit their ability such that they portray low power. The association of a woman’s low power to ‘fate’ has been evident in both these distinct time periods. The belief that a woman’s low power is caused by fate and God’s abandonment is the accepted norm in these texts. When unjustly treated, Hero only questions “God” as she feels “beset”. Phoolan, also ends up questioning “why is it my destiny? ” when she feels “alone…abandoned by God”, after experiencing rape and unequal treatment by the village men.
The barrier women tend to create with the outer world and people strengthens their relationship and dependence in God and spiritual beliefs like fate. This is presumably the reason why fate and God’s abandonment are strongly interrelated to the cause of injustice these women suffer, showing low power. However, in the society today, we tend to see ourselves as the controllers of our own fate through our actions. The silence and fear these women exhibit from the start, in practical sense, should be the cause of their low power.
On the contrary, a woman’s high level of power is portrayed through her vast influence on the development of the next generation. Phoolan’s violent actions in the role of India’s “most-wanted” Bandit Queen become a mechanism for her to obtain power and have an impact on the society around her. She takes revenge on any upper-class men in reachable villages to claim retribution for all low-caste women of the Indian plains and herself. Her violence influences young men to treat women with equality. Young girls also start courageously protecting themselves from the “evil of men”, in fear that Phoolan will hurt them too, if they don’t.
The influence of a woman is evident in her role of a mother also. A woman like Hero, who gives into the belief of remaining quiet for the benefit of her family, would have a powerful yet negative influence on her children and their behaviour in society. Her children are likely to follow her beliefs. Where Phoolan’s high increases the power of women around her, the daughters of women like Hero will end up accustomed to low power. The kind of influence women have on the rising generation impacts the power in women overall also.
The texts reinforce that irrespective of the time period, if a female was to portray high power, violence was the best, instantly approachable solution to the seemingly boundless problem of injustice and inequality. Phoolan, “the little village girl, who was tortured and humiliated but still not crushed” gets power in her society by inflicting violence because she realises that “on my own, without any help, I wouldn’t get the justice I wanted”. Similarly, Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, uses metaphors of violence as the best solution to get justice for Hero and declares to “eat his (Claudio’s) heart in the market place”.
In Provoked, Kiranjeet also kills her husband to set herself free from the domestic violence she endures as a silent wife for years. Violence is a mechanism that is used by any common person in society, to release anger and fight back. However, these texts end up, at some extent, sexually distinguishing a woman’s portrayal of high or rising power only through violence. How is a woman’s level of power influenced by the society’s morals and the etiquettes used to follow them? Morals are principals in society and the etiquettes are the protocols taken to follow the principals.
These actions which seemingly help keep the society in balance influence a woman’s power. Pride and honour is a moral that is continuous across all time periods. The importance given to preserving a family’s pride and honour in society and the etiquettes followed in society to do so limit a woman’s power in society. Phoolan is forced to not “learn anything except how to… cook chapattis, weed the soil… feed water from the well”. To prevent any shame, she is forbidden to “speak to any man apart from her father or her husband” because “if a man takes her then she is everybody’s and no husband will want her after that”.
Like the other village women, Phoolan is made to follow the etiquette of confinement to protect the family’s pride. This protocol limits Phoolan’s ability as an individual. It renders her incapable of having a control in the society such that she finds herself treated worse than the village animals. Similarly, Kiranjeet decides to sacrifice her interests in becoming a lawyer, to “get married, have children, be proper Indian woman” and confine herself to her husband.
In the short term, the etiquette resultantly limits the power of both these characters who decide to suffer silently. However, the injustice they face by confinement provokes Phoolan’s rebellion because she “wanted them to say, Phoolan Devi is a human being; because then they would say it about others”. Kiranjeet also kills her husband from the violence she endures to find freedom in prison. Contrary to the society’s belief, Kiranjeet and Phoolan discover that a female’s confinement may preserve the family’s pride, but its effects destroy their individual pride and honour.
This discovery portrays that endless confinement can have a positive influence on women. The experience of discomfort and rising inequality from male domination forces them to the power of thinking for themselves first. Kiranjeet begins to learn English and starts controlling her life as a single and independent mother. Resultantly, both women show that sometimes, constant mistreatment can also have a beneficial influence corresponding to the moral of “every cloud has a silver lining”.
The etiquette of confinement stimulates the development of male domination in society where a woman’s silence promotes dominating behaviour in men whose decisions become seen as the correct and only way to keep the society in balance. Kiranjeet’s belief in the rightness of being confined stimulates negative, dominating behaviour in her husband who starts finding it acceptable to hit Kiranjeet and starts seeing her as “less than nothing”. This etiquette creates an imbalance in families where men slowly start to treat women like ‘pets’ causing inequality and promoting sexism.
The ill experiences of these women generate a horrendous view of the functioning of today’s society where survival, to a great extent, is based upon implementation of harm on women who are expected to confine themselves to preserve family’s pride, but not on the men. Yet interestingly, it is no different to the olden times. In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare shows that if a woman like Hero was unable to save her honour in society, “you may conceal her, as it best befits her wound reputation, in some reclusive and religious life, out of all eyes, tongues, minds and injuries”.
The etiquette of confinement for women was evident even then, correlating with the importance given to the morals of pride and honour. Confinement in Shakespeare’s time however, is presented as a consequence for women if they are unable to preserve family honour. In today’s society, confinement has graduated from being a consequence to an action, to try and preserve honour before it is lost.