Gender and Modernization

On July 25, 2018, Posted by , In blog, With No Comments

Gender and Modernization: Two Women's Struggle for Justice and Survival in the Face of Global Dependency Structures

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of both the novel, Nectar in a Sieve, and the oral history, Don't be Afraid Gringo, is how very similar the two stories are; although they are separated by decades in time, and thousands of miles in space. To a large degree, this may be attributed to the fact that both works concern cultures experiencing a similar crisis: the social impact of core-periphery economic exploitation upon traditional family existence in 1950s India and 1980s Honduras. However, the major point of similarity between the two texts is that their protagonists – the fictional Rukmani and the real-life Elvia – are women and mothers who perceive their economic exploitation and political oppression from a feminine perspective.

The core-periphery exploitation in the two texts takes different forms – colonial capitalism with the commodification of land as symbolized by the tannery factory in Nectar in a Sieve, and monopoly capitalism as figured in the oppression of field workers who produce fruit staples, mainly bananas, for the core market in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo. This essay will argue that both text's representation of their economic situations – of mercantilist core/staple producing periphery exploitation, semiproletariat relations with the comprador elite, family/church socialization and factory/military oppression – are depicted through the lens of female-male relations and family life in traditional cultures.

For example, it is impossible to separate the function of the factory as a symbol of economic oppression in Nectar in a Sieve without taking into consideration its devastating impact upon the family life of the Indian community in which it is situated. Rukmani's initial description of the tannery is noteworthy, for it carries both political and symbolic significance:

It was a great sprawling growth, this tannery. It grew and flourished and spread. Not a month went by but somebody's land was swallowed up, another building disappeared. . . . A never-ending line of carts brought the raw material in – thousands of skins . . . . It seemed impossible that markets could be found for such quantities . . . . Apart from the white man we had first seen – who owned the tannery and lived by himself – there were some nine or ten Muslims under him. They formed a colony of their own. . . . (Markandaya, 51)

In this passage, the hierarchical (and racist) structure of colonialism is subtly suggested by reference to the Muslims who work "under" the "white" tannery owner, and who together form a "colony" independent of the Indian community. Moreover, the tannery itself is symbolically represented as something alien; an impersonal, cancerous-like "sprawling growth" which "swallowed up" people's land, homes and lives in order to supply the insatiable markets of the core with the "skins" of the periphery.

The care spent in crafting the above passage – a moving depiction of the social "cancer" of core-periphery exploitation – leads a reader to suspect that the tannery will be the antagonist 3 for the novel's protagonist, Rukmani. Unlike the other villagers, who regard the comparatively high wages the tannery brings to the community as a blessing, Rukmani more insightfully perceives the social disruption the tannery brings to their traditional, familyoriented way of life; the noise, the hooligans, the dirty bazaars, and the slow corruption of easy money (Markandaya, 50).

This corruption, the commodification of human life itself by colonial capitalism, is figured in the family tragedies of Rukmani's daughter becoming a prostitute and her son being killed at the tannery. This fact is particularly emphasized when her son's body is brought home, and Rukmani at first does not understand why or how he died: "He had been caught, they said; something about money" (Markandaya, 93). Later, however, when two officials come from the tannery to intimidate Rukmani from seeking any compensation from the tannery for their killing of her son, she becomes aware that in the new economy even human life has a price:

"He should not have struggled. In these circumstances you naturally have no claim on us." "Claim?" I said. "I have made no claim. I do not understand you." Compensation, I though. What compensation is there for death? I felt confused. . . . There was no sense agreeing or disagreeing, the gulf between us was too wide. (Markandaya, 95-96)

The gulf Rukmani perceives here is the gap between the economics of the core and that of the periphery, and the domination of the latter by the former. In this context, the role of the comprador elite in supporting the colonial oppression is integral. It comes as no surprise that the final economic blow to Rukmani family is delivered by the tannery through her unseen landlord. Her husband – "trembling, impotent" – explains the justification of the tannery taking the land they have lived on for thirty years: "there is a profit to be made" (Markandaya, 134). Rukmani reflects that "I had always known the tannery would be our undoing", and now understands how the economic exploitation it represents has destroyed her family and her village (Markandaya, 135).

The comprador elite plays a similar role in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo, in oppressing the rural semiproletariat of Honduras to further the interests of the core. For example, Elvia relates how her friend Carmen's land was legally "stolen" by a rich landowner and politician (Alvarado, 117-118), and how rich landowners' sons attempt to murder and harass campesinos into submission (Alvarado, 73-76). She relates how the comprador elite uses its wealth to dominate the media and so inhibit the campesinos, largely uneducated and often frightened, from getting the story of their oppression out to a wider public (Alvarado, 63-4).

In this the comprador elite is aided by the Honduran military, for a key difference between the situations of Rukmani and Elvia is that the exploitation by the core in Honduras has an overtly political as well as economic dimension. In the place of the tannery corrupting the social fabric of the Indian village in Nectar in a Sieve, in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo we see how the gringo military bases – the American undeclared war against Nicaragua in the 1980s – cause a similar financial and social corruption in Honduras. The Palmerola base, like the tannery, brings a great deal of money into the area, and is similarly welcomed by some for this. For more information go to

Like the tannery, however, it also stimulates the moral corruption (and sexual exploitation) of prostitution. Moreover, much as the tannery was likened to a cancerous "growth", so the American base becomes associated with another disease spreading among the poor of Honduras: AIDs (Alvarado, 110-111).

In this corruption the Americans are aided by the Honduran military who do the "dirty work" necessary to keep the campesinos fearful and compliant. Elvia differs from Rukmani in that she is an activist against social injustice, and her prominence in this role leads her time and time again into conflict with the military who torture and murder innocents with no hesitation (Alvarado, 127-38). The comprador elite and the military are, to some degree, assisted in this by the Catholic Church. The Church's role in Elvia's story is both good and bad. She still thanks the Church for training her and other women as social workers – leading Elvia to leave her husband as she learns she need no longer passively accept his abuse – but when the women question not only their particular situation, the general economic exploitation of the periphery by the core, and the role of the comprador elites and military in this equation, the Church rejects them (Alvarado, 16- 17). By not following Christ's example as a crusader against social injustice, Elvia regards the Church as facilitating the continued exploitation of the poor (Alvarado, 29-38).

In conclusion, the representation of core/periphery exploitation in Nectar in a Sieve and Don't Be Afraid, Gringo in all its aspects – from the factory/military, to the family/church, and semiproletariate/comprador elite – is achieved through the lens of two women's perspectives. Their function as mothers and wives, their struggle against the sexist limitations of their genders(Rukmani's desire for education; Elvia's dealing with sexism and the threat of rape in a "macho" culture), all contribute to their moving stories of how woman, and people in general, in the developing world survive in the face of economic and political exploitation by the core industrial powers.


  • Alvarado, Elvia. Don't Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart. Trans. and Ed. Medea Benjamin. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.
  • Markandaya, Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve. Orig. Pub. 1954. New York: Signet, 1998. 

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