Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The modesty of a woman

Section 509 of our Penal Code states that:

"Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both."

Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code states that:

"(Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) This is included in Chapter 22 entitled ‘Of Criminal Intimidation, Insult and Annoyance’, and is cognisable, bailable and triable by any magistrate. It holds: ‘Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of a woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture is seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.’"

Section 299 of the Sudanese Penal Code also states... well, it states the same thing too, but ends with "... or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished.

Here, we should come to problematise our notion of the woman and modesty. In effecting such laws, we are only reproducing dominant patriarchal norms on gender roles and behaviour. The woman, although being thought to be empowered by legal and institutional protection, is actually slowly being placed into the category of weak and vulnerable; while the man, of course, will be seen as the active oppressor.

The modesty of the man is thus not conceived at all. You could turn to biology and say that men are generally more aggressive and sexual, but the point is, society has forgotten about the modesty and dignity of men, while attempting to make women seem more vulnerable and weaker - a double whammy for humanity.

Gender norms of the status quo are reproduced in the Penal Code. It implicitly targets the male aggressor, because it creates a victim status for which the woman is expected to assume. The law itself is highly patriarchal, obsessed with the disciplining of men, because it has been informed by positivist information that men are more prone to commit such deviance and acts. In the act oral sex (of the heterosexual nature), when it was once criminalised, the man is punished, whether he is the actor or the acted upon. Women here are once again symbolically annihilated. The woman becomes measured and defined not only with respect with the man, but also the interests of the man.

For all we know, it may be physiological, as the man statistically has a physical advantage over the woman, but the conceptualisation of victimisation is culturally ascribed. What about the violence and vandalism done unto men? Or should they just "take it like a man" and shut the hell up?

What is the modesty of a man any way? Is modesty truly exclusive to women?

This is Victorian morality/conduct, uncritically adopted by us Singaporeans, explaining why our Penal Code is like that. It has become so embedded in our legal and social culture, and we have even come to ascribe upon it notions of Asian-ness and Asian values. When we talk about moral conservativism in Asian values, it is actually Victorian morality that is at play. Well, any way, women are perceived to be not as sexual as men, probably even asexual. They must hence be protected from the ills and the corruption that are exclusive to men. It is very natural and normal for a woman to have this thing called a modesty. It is unnatural for a man to have modesty, because that is probably equal to shoving a straw up your nose and drinking through it.

Male-oriented society has, through the criminalisation of harrassment of women and their modesty, carved out a female space for women. Another problem, on another level, is that women too readily internalise the notions of "modesty" and feminine vulnerability. These women are actually soaking in the views, expectations and anxieties of (ideologically) male-dominated society. The woman is more prone to embarrassment and loss of dignity, therefore she needs more institutional protection; the man on the other hand, doesn't need the same amount of protection. Patriarchy, in this case, serve neither women nor men.

I think it's very sad that society subscribes to all the oppressive notions of gender (and sexual) identity. So much expectations are created, which shape how people behave and think. Moreover, the law, policy and welfare are all initiated based on these expectations. Disproportionately more men are incarcerated, for example, because the notion of crime is gender-coloured.

I believe it's about time we start thinking about how the notions of man and woman are straight-jacketed in our society, and how these contribute to a form of desired social order. But who is desiring this? Whose interest does this form of social order serve?


Agagooga said...

I do not disagree with most of this, but labelling it 'patriarchy' begs the question.

If is blamed on 'patriarchy' rather than sexism which privileges female, Man is ultimately always to blame.

Sam Ho said...

there's always some inherent sexism in patriarchy. the "privilege" given to women is a sign that women are viewed to be weaker, but my point is that the construction of women being weaker is a cultural thing.

so it is symbolic to blame the man because he is seen and expected to be in a position of power.

isn't it sad like we have to have conceived such ideas that oppress both sexes in some ways or another?

Agagooga said...

No, my point is that repeating 'patriarchy' mechanically is not necessarily helpful or illuminating. The very framework of feminism means that Man is seen and expected to be in a position of power - even when he is not. Evidence that might be expected to contradict the assumption of 'patriarchy' is perversely used to reaffirm it.

And talking about the cultural construction of women being weaker, I actually have a feminist argument about why women are not physically weaker than men. Hoho.

Sam Ho said...

which branch of feminism are you referring to? feminism basically confronts or begins with the notion of the woman being oppressed.

maybe through mechanically repeating or identifying the "duh" things, we'll be more aware of it. no solutions though. i think that's the problem. if i knew the solutions, i'd be a pretty powerful person, or i'd need the character and temperament of a lee kuan yew to implement it.

we're all complicit in patriarchy. we criticise it from the lens with which it has provided us.

Agagooga said...

AFAIK, in all varieties of feminism patriarchy is assumed.

If you never question your assumptions, you're always going to end up with conclusions that flow from your assumptions.

In shades of grey said...

I cannot believe that I stumbled upon your blog when researching for law sch homework regarding section 509....

Hi coach sam. I am unfortunately searching for the possibility that this statue means that a woman's modesty/privacy cannot be insulted/invaded by another woman. Sounds ridiculous? Yes i know right.


Agagooga said...

Coach Sam? :0

Clarissa: In theory a woman can insult the modesty of another woman, but I doubt the police will prosecute these cases (just as they don't prosecute Obscene Songs)

Interestingly, a woman can be convicted for using criminal force to outrage the modesty of a man, but if she does not touch him nothing can be done ("criminal force" has a very broad legal interpretation, since even taking someone's hand or kissing him is counted - I am informed this is common in Commonwealth Law)

Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Me said...

I stumbled across your blog when I was researching about "eve-teasing" and the alarming rise of crime against women in India. You have raised a lot of similar and interesting points that I have been feeling and thinking, especially as an Indian woman. Good to see a man's point of view on this!