MMB1 — A Wall Worth Building: A Rhetorical Analysis of India’s Women’s Rights Protest

Millions of women joined hands along a highway in Kerala to form a “women’s wall” on New Year’s Day. Photo provided from NPR.org.

Wall building, however one may take this ambiguous statement, has been a rising topic all throughout 2018. Sure enough, it continues into our new year on January 1st, the rise of the topic starring in the country of India as millions of women form a 385-mile wall of protest. The organization, National Public Radio, was able to provide some context on how and why this wall was created:

The demonstration was planned to create awareness of gender equality — and to protest a religious ban that prevented women of menstruating age from entering one of the country’s sacred Hindu temples even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of their entry on September 28th last year. Therefore, somewhere between 3.5 million and 5 million women lined up on National Highway 66, a long stretch of road that runs along the country’s western coast. They called it the “women’s wall” — vanitha mathil in the local language of Malayalam.

— Reporter, Kamala Thiagarajan

In a country plagued by archaic patriarchal structures and severe religious strife, this “women’s wall” was a historic moment in the fight towards equality – marking it as one of the largest mass movements of Indian feminists, unprecedented in the history of Independent India. It is a radical push towards challenging the “sacred” traditions that have been used for time immemorial as a justification for the violent discrimination of sexual and gender minorities. Therefore, in the heat of this social movement, how can one view this rhetorically? Rhetoric, by defintion, is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. Yet, in this context, there was no public speech or announcements to be made, so how is the mode of persuasion applied and effective? Rhetorican Lloyd F. Bitzer created a more precise term for this called rhetorical situation. Lloyd explains in his work, “The Rhetorical Situation” that all rhetoric is situational; “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (6). In simpler terms, if there is an issue or problem at hand that demands action, the situation will always be rhetorical.

So, lets refer back to the photo. There is a complexity of women demanding equality against both government and religion. Based on the picture, no words are said, but it was the action of building the “women wall” that created a powerful force of persuasion against the issues. Although the photo captures only the tiniest fraction of the approximately five million women’s wall, it may have been a rhetorical choice among them to not bring any signs of protest and certainly not to invoke any violence. It is acknowledged that the problem is against them as women and women alone, so why not use their body as a symbol to speak for them. Another rhetorician, Sonja K. Foss, describes in detail in her work, “Nature of Rhetorical Criticism” on how “we live our lives enveloped in symbols” (1). Let’s look at another photo that can explain this further.

In this photo, the women are posing differently, but the effects are still the same. Bitzer explains that as long as there is “one controlling exigence which functions as the organizing principle: it specifies the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected” regardless (7). Therefore, the “women’s wall” is still be addressed regardless of the change in tactic. In this case, they have their hands out in a singular uniformed fashion. Still their body language is speaking for the words they aren’t saying.

Foss explained in her section, Human Action, “the symbols we study in rhetorical criticism are those that are created by human beings or are products of the human imagination. Natural objects and events are not appropriate objects of analysis because they are independent of human invention, will, and control” (5).

— Sonja K. Foss

It gives the audience a sense of strength and relentless as all women, young and old, have come together to “voice” their opinions on their opposed state. In return, the audience could feel persuaded to join the women in the protest or persuaded to protest back against it. Either way, their rhetorical choices have provided a point by the audience feeling a sense of pathos, a quality that evokes an emotion, and reacting upon it positively or negatively.

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. For someone who lives across the globe only gaining access to this historical event through a series of photo, I must say it certainly is.

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