Speaking with the Subaltern: An Exploration of the Voices of South Asian Women in Literature and Film
If the subaltern could speak, what would she say? Would the women of India and South Asia talk about arranged marriages, sati (the sacrificial burning of widows), bride burnings, clitoridectomy, purdah, pativratadharma (husband worship), or female infanticide? Would they talk about the expectation of a woman’s community or the roles ascribed to them as mothers, caretakers, and the bearers of tradition? Would they talk about the denial of education, property rights, domestic violence, or denial of female sexuality? Or are these the topics on which a white Western feminist would have them speak and, if unsatisfied with what they have to say, speak for them? The key to my inquiry here is the fundamental problematic: can the subaltern represent herself and be heard in Western discourse? The subaltern is best characterized by the economically dispossessed individual whose identity is his/her difference from the elite group. For my thesis, I explore the works of three artists (literary and visual): Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, and Deepa Mehta. The women of my thesis, though born in India, hardly constitute what Spivak defines as the “true subaltern” (27). All of the women I study were born into privileged or middle-class families and all but one obtained higher levels of education.
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