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can the subaltern (woman) speak?

when spivak asked the question “can the subaltern speak?” 34 years ago in 1988 in marxism and the interpretation of culure some scholars took offense. some felt that she meant that the indian women couldn’t speak. some asked who was she [spivak] to speak for them and some said she – a privileged indian woman with a voice – couldn’t understand the plight of the indian subaltern women.

in their 65 plus years of independence from the british, india has made many inroads: developing leading scientists and world-class research institutes; government-sponsored scientific and technical developments have aided diverse areas as agriculture, biotechnology, cold regions research, communications, environment, industry, mining, nuclear power, space, and transportation. as a result, india has experts in astronomy & astrophysics, liquid crystals, condensed matter physics, molecular biology, virology & crystallography.

and in the 34 odd years since spivak has asked ‘can the subaltern woman speak?’ india has become part of BRIC, an acronym that refers to the economies of brazil, russia, india, and china, which are seen as major developing economies in the world. according to Forbes, “the general consensus is that the term was first prominently used in a goldman sachs report from 2003, which speculated that by 2050 these four economies would be wealthier than most of the current major economic powers.”

but the death of the delhi girl in 2012 who was gang raped in a moving bus by 6 men shows that women haven’t been part of this progress and evolution india has been witnessing. that “silence question” of 1988 rears its ugly head again, and the response to spivak’s question is a resounding no! that subaltern woman -raped and killed- cannot speak! dead women can tell no tales! dead women can tell no stories! dead women can tell no lies, even if persuaded by delhi police to do so to save “brown men from raping brown women!”

parallel to this rape [and the many others that go unreported], movies continue to make/show films depicting women taking their lives after being raped or not wanting to report it to the police; divorced or widowed women continue to hang their heads in shame and hide from public life; ashrams continue to imprison women for causing the death of their husbands; widowed or divorced women continue to be scorned by ‘evolved’ and/or [western] educated NRIs inside and outside of india, and women continue to feel obliged to suffer miseries in their marriages. if that be so, rest assured that we’ve not seen the last of this question.

it is indeed sad that this question “can the subaltern speak?” posed so long ago still has resonance today in india’s impressive rise. and it is not due to the indian woman’s incapacity to speak. she is INCAPACITATED by the male-run system of politics and religion to the point of not being able to produce speech, sometimes forever [as in the case of this girl whose speech died with her].

how many more barbaric acts against women would it take for ‘change-makers’ in india to see that there has been no cultural change for women in all the progress made in india pre- and post- spivak’s question? in pre- and post- independent india?


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