Metanarratives, Women & Society: An Obnoxious Idea of Supremacy

Manisha Aswal
Aditya Joshi

Introduction

Margaret Davies in Asking the Law Question has argued against meta-narratives and questioned their claims of universality by showing how the law looks different whether we view it from the inside or the outside.

What is inside and what is outside depends upon which side we are on.[1] Davies throughout the book consistently emphasises that the inside way of seeing things is the universally or culturally imposed way while the outside way of seeing things is the one that is the not generally accepted view. It operates on various levels. Sometimes, a person is inside and sometimes a person is outside. Sometimes a person is included and sometimes a person is excluded.

“Metanarratives” are universal explanatory frameworks or theories which are located outside the history or context of the discipline.[2] They create a myth of totality and universality which, in reality, is unattainable. For instance, Davies critiques Finnis’s formal notion of “practical reasonableness” which suggests the presence of a “universally accepted reasonable way of approaching things” which could form the basis for a legal system.[3] According to her, different people perceive the world in different ways and they act as per their value systems.[4] In an attempt to define the substance of “practical reasonableness” devalues those who are excluded while setting such particular standards.

Austin’s sovereign, Hart’s rule of recognition, Kelsen’s grund norm depicts that the ideal of completeness is impossible. In all these, the legality of theoretical entities has been assumed.

Critical Legal Theories and Metanarratives

Critical legal theories disbelieve the meta-narratives. According to them, theories are not universal rather they are conditioned in particular social and cultural constructs.

Postmodernism:

Postmodernism attempts to reconstruct the structures upon which our perceptions are based. It dismantles the foundations of western legal philosophies and challenges the pre-existing methods of legitimation. It no longer sees universality as a way of validating knowledge. Taking law as an example, Davies shows that law operates on multi-levels and there are several layers to it. Any attempt to create a universal picture of law would always be inadequate.

Lyotard proposes to replace the meta-narratives with a plurality of narratives that offer different ways of looking at things. Post-modernists question the fact that when we speak of a subject in a particular way, we tend to exclude whatever that does not fit in or conforms to our particulars.

Feminist Critique of Metanarratives

The feminist approach attempts to disclose that the dominant meanings and standards taken in our society are masculine.[5] The idea of gender is engraved in the laws. The challenges universality of the laws is produced in a highly gendered male-orientated social context which excludes non-dominant experiences.[6] Davies argues that to change the social practices of women’s lives, it is necessary to change the way we engage with the world.[7]

However, mainstream feminism faces criticism from women who have been left out of it. It is accused of not taking into consideration other kinds of oppression faced by women which are not based on gender division but other aspects such as race, sexuality, religion, etc. Thus, it can be said the liberal, radical, socialist feminisms (collectively called “mainstream feminism”) seeks to replace the traditional rational individual (who was an educated white male) with its feminist rational individual (who is an educated white female).

Women from racially disadvantaged groups argue that mainstream feminism divides the world into two groups based on sex i.e. men and women. Within their division, the question of race, class or ethnicity does not arise. In reality, the oppression mainstream feminism talks about is the oppression faced by white women which is not meaningful to women of colour. Furthermore, mainstream feminists ignore their racial positioning.[8]

LGBT theorists like Robson reject the pre-given idea of a woman. The social concepts are defined in such a way that imposes heterosexuality and patriarchy. Further, queer theory has questioned the whole concept of gender identity and any essentialities associated with lesbians or gays. Davies argues that white women cannot understand other forms of oppression. She emphasises that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about racial, religious, sexual oppression in addition to oppression based on sex. [9]

Critical Race Theory: A Metanarrative for Supremacy of Race

Davies criticizes the notion of “colour-blindness” employed in the perception of law which hides white supremacy.[10] Critical race theorists attempt to demystify the identity upon which formal equality has been premised.[11]

The rationale behind colonisation too stems from a meta-narrative that western civilization had a moral responsibility to “civilize the savages of East” For instance, according to J.S Mill the development of the world was depended upon the western civilization which according to him was the most advanced society. Many like Mill believed that the traditions and cultural practices of western civilization were the only way to advance society. However, this narrative suffered from two major flaws. First, the eastern civilization like the Indus Valley was one of the first society to have technological advancements like drainage system, water management system etc. Second, the western societies themselves advocated barbarian laws which legitimised social ills like slavery or laws which suffered from gender bias like no voting rights for women. Therefore, the narrative that the western world was superior to other civilization shows how meta-narrative should not be used as a principle of universality.

Understanding Metanarratives in Indian Context

In the Indian context, one of the most significant impacts of meta-narratives can be seen in the Armed Forces. The Indian society associated the idea of armed forces exclusively with men. Women were denied a permanent commission and subsequent benefits of permanent commission solely based on the narrative that men are stronger and well suited for the role of armed forces while women were not “fit enough” to be a member of the army permanently. Finally, the Supreme Court in “Secretary of Defence v. Babita Puniya” granted a permanent commission to a female army officer. In doing so the apex court quashed the gendered narrative that men are more capable army officer than women.

Similarly, Section 6 of the National Cade Corps Act 1948 prohibited the entry of transgender in NCC. This has been challenged before the Kerela High Court. One of the arguments given by the NCC was that the purpose of the NCC is to groom probable candidate for the Indian Army but since there is no provision for entry of transgender in the Indian Army, making one in NCC is a futile exercise. Thus, the Indian armed forces serve as a very good example as to why meta-narratives shouldn’t be used as a standard for universality.

Moral policing of women is another aspect that showcases the misapplication of meta-narratives. The majority of Indian society has considered women as the “property” of man. Consequently, the ideal image of a woman is based on a narrative that women must maintain a strict moral and ethical code of conduct. This meta-narrative of “well-disciplined” women could be understood through two decisions of the Supreme Court, namely “Anuj Garg v. Hotel Association” and “Joseph Shine v. Union of India”.

In the Anuj Garg case, the SC struck down Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act, 1914 which prohibited the employment of women in premises serving liquor. The provision was based on the idea that women must not associate themselves with liquor. While quashing the provision, the SC rightly observed that the right to decide for employment for oneself was a part of the right to self-determination and female gender identity. Similarly, in Joseph Shine, the Supreme Court rejected the narrative that a woman was a “chattel” of man thereby making her weaker sex.

Conclusion

The above discussion tried to illustrate the attempts by various legal approaches to demystify the dominant metanarratives. Through the examples, we have attempted to question some existing notions in Indian society which may be termed as metanarratives. It is an undeinable facet of society that some notions are given supremacy over others. If a society has to keep pace with the changing times, it will have to breakfree of such narratives.

Photo Credits: The Guardian

References

  1. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed. 

  2. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). 

  3. Margaret Davies, Natural Law and Positivism, Asking the law question (2017). 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Margaret Davies, Feminisms and Gender in Legal Theories, Asking the law question (2017). 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Margaret Davies, Race and Colonialism: Legal Theory as White Mythology, Asking the law question (2017). 

  11. Ibid. 

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