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From a Being of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ to a Becoming of ‘Oppositional Femininity’: A Study of Female Protagonist in Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman


From a Being of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ to a Becoming of ‘Oppositional Femininity’: A Study of Female Protagonist in Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman

Sahadev Roy

State Aided College Teacher

Department of English

Dewanhat Mahavidyalaya

Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India


Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

O.P.J.S. University

Churu, Rajasthan, India



The paper endeavours to redefine the feminine identity of Manju Kapur’s female protagonist Astha through the subversion of hegemonic masculinity. ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ emerged as a theory to postcolonial studies in the 1980s. It denotes to masculine hierarchy of power and position over feminine gender. While coining ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ Connell also coined ‘Emphasised Femininity’ which serves as a counterpart, or subordinated ‘Other’, to hegemonic masculinity, ‘performed especially to men’ by woman.  Rewording and elaborating Connell’s definition, though Schipper later defined ‘Hegemonic Femininity’, the concept of femininity, though here terminologically different from Connell, remained the same in tone and spirit. In order to resist unequal gender relation, a recent non-hegemonic form of femininity has emerged as a feminine source of power when Messerschmidt gave the concept of ‘Oppositional Femininity’ which “refuses to complement hegemonic masculinity in a relation of subordination.” Manju Kapur’s female protagonist Astha in A Married Woman neither corresponds to Connell’s concept of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ nor Schippers’ concept of ‘Hegemonic Femininity’; rather, in conformity with Messerschmidt’s concept of oppositional femininity, she is non-compliant with hegemonic idea of female subordination. The paper is an endeavour to deconstruct the stereotypical construct of womanhood as defined by Connell and Schipper in order to redefine it as per Messerschmidt’s concept of oppositional femininity through the character of female protagonist in Kapur’s A Married Woman.

Keywords: ‘Emphasised Femininity’; Gender; ‘Hegemonic Femininity’; ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’; ‘Oppositional Femininity’

‘Hegemonic Masculinity’, a coinage of ‘hegemony’ (i.e., power) and ‘masculinity’ (i.e., manliness), appeared as a theory to postcolonial studies in the decade of 80s in the last century. It is indicative to the establishment of masculine hierarchical position and power over feminine counterpart. The concept is indebted to Gramscian idea of ‘Cultural Hegemony’ that describes the maintenance of power and power by the ruling hegemonial class over working subaltern class consensually rather than coercively:

“The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony… is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority.” (Gramsci, 80)


On the basis of Gramscian idea of hegemony, Connell first coined the term ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ in relation to man-woman relationship as per gender construct and since then the concept of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ has been a subject of debating issue. Connell gives definition of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ as:


“The configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimation of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” (Connell’s Masculinities, 77)


Connell’s “configuration of gender practice” is narrowly confined within the configuration of male gender practice and he hardly mentions anywhere about the configuration of gender practice pertaining to feminine gender; rather he defends,


“There is no femininity that is hegemonic in the sense that the dominant form of masculinity is hegemonic among men.” (Connell’s Gender and Power, 183)


In lieu of associating hegemony with feminine gender, Connell employed ‘Emphasised Femininity’ which works as a foil, or subordinated Other, to the idea of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’, “performed especially to men” (Connell’s Gender and Power, 188). Connell’s idea of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’, on account of being formed in the larger and solely interest of masculine gender over feminine gender, results in controversies and debates among many. Amidst such controversialists and debaters, in the last decade of the last century, Schippers is one of the emerging personalities who, opposite to Connell’s unequal treatment of hegemony that establishes male as a centralized figure over female as a marginalized figure, proposes hegemonic masculinity in parallel with the idea of hegemonic femininity.  Reassessing and reevaluating to what Connell has defined, Schipper coins ‘Hegemonic Femininity’:


“Hegemonic femininity consists of the characteristics defined as womanly that establish and legitimate a hierarchical and complementary relationship to hegemonic masculinity and that, by doing so, guarantee the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” (Schippers, 94)


However, neither Connell in his idea of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ nor Schipper in her idea of ‘Hegemonic Femininity’ probed deeper over the man-woman equality, free from gender stereotype. Schipper merely affixed another ‘good for nothing’ chapter in Connell’s idea of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ with ‘Hegemonic Femininity’. Both ideas, though terminologically difference, bear the same meaning. The result was that femininity remained in the same position as it had long been and was much away to its most desired goal of equality with its masculine counterpart.  In reaction to ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’, a number of writers appeared to raise their voice and held their pen to protest it. However, the way and manner Manju Kapur has showed it in her novels, is a greater achievement in itself than many others. Kapur’s novel A Married Woman can be studied through the critical lens of counter-hegemonic masculinity. The storyline that initially frames the journey of its female protagonist as a part of subaltern class who has no voice against her derogated and devalued position within patriarchy for being totally submissive to hegemonic masculinity, finally turns a hundred and eighty degree when the narrative develops by becoming a free-willed and emancipated figure beyond the controlling power of ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’.


In reaction to Connell’s idea of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ and Schipper’s idea of ‘Hegemonic Femininity’, a body of Indian female novelists came upfront in the beginning of present century. Among them, Manju Kapur is the most celebrated name. Instead of becoming a character caught between tradition and modernity, Manju Kapur’s women characters live on their own. They never sacrifice their freedom on the altar of tradition. Out of tradition they appear completely as new and modern women who know how to challenge the male hegemony. In this perspective Manju Kapur’s A Married woman presents a controversial picture of female emancipation from subaltarnity of sexual status in the form of lesbianism challenging the male hegemony of heterosexuality which was completely new in the history of Indian novel writing in English. Prior to Manju Kapur Shobha De dealt with the same theme in “Strange Obsession” but failed to bring brighter side of lesbianism from feminist point of view. 

Protest of subalternity is very common in almost all the novels written by Kapur.  Her Virmati in Difficult Daughters reacts against the family conservatism in order to seek educational freedom, her Nisha in Home cherishes the desire to transform the world she lives in into a world of equal compatibility with male counterparts; her Nina in The Immigrant involves into pre-marital sex with her teacher and in the present novel under study A Married Woman the protest of subalternity takes something new in the form of lesbianism hardly written earlier. Opposite to sexual subalternity, Astha in A Married Woman acts not as a counterpart of male hegemony, rather she takes refuge in new, something unconventional relationship in the form of lesbianism.  Reconsidering the new image of womanhood, Manju Kapur deconstructs the man-made image of female subalternity in A Married Woman where her heroine Astha is like the phoenix getting new identity after being borne out from ashes of subalternity. Kumar has truly opined reflecting on Manju Kapur’s protagonist Astha and her escape from becoming a voiceless subaltern caught between tradition and modernity: “Astha likes to have a break from dependence on others and proceeds on the path of full human status that poses in threat to Hemant and his male superiority. Although, she finds herself trapped between the pressure of the modern developing society and shackles of ancient biases she set out on her quest for a more meaningful life in her lesbian relationship. (Kumar 134) Manju Kapur presents Astha’s growth and evolution at various stages through different relationships and she appears to be the first Indian novelist who focuses woman’s desire and longing for homosexuality. The origin of traditions, living up as per ideal Indian woman, giving up self-interest for family, keeping self behind, devaluing herself, being satisfied  to live in the safety and security of the husband, home and family deliberately come in conflict with Astha’s postmodern sensibilities that drive her to make a flight on her wings of freedom to interrogate founded norms, to search for her real identity, to desire for a true soul mate, to develop, to enter and to embrace socially forbidden relationship.


            The very title of the novel A Married Woman indicates its protagonist Astha, a married woman who gets married to Hemant, an attractive young man. Astha leads a happy conjugal life with Hemant for a few years and becomes a mother of a baby girl, Anuradha. Her husband Hemant insists on taking due care of the child. The keen interest taken in the baby girl enhances Astha’s love and affection for Hemant. When Astha was expecting Anuradha, Hemant tells her that he longs for a baby girl. He gives Ashta his negative remark over categorization between male and female in India: “In America there is no difference between boys and girls. How can this country get anywhere if we go on treating out women this way?” (Kapur 57). Astha is drawn more to her husband. Her enjoyment knows no boundary when she notices her husband’s keen interest in the upbringing of their daughter. But what seems real proves false reality in her later life. Soon reversal of situation takes place in Astha’s life. Hemant becomes more and more occupied with his business and thus he struggles to spare time to spend with Astha. She observes an unexpected behavioral change in Hemant when he demands a son before Astha. ‘“I want to have my son soon,” declared Hemant, looking emotional and manly at the same time. “I want to be as much a part of his life as Papaji is of mine.” ’ (ibid 61) “Hemant’s desire to have a son and his insistence that he would not stop until he has one, makes Astha dissatisfied and uneasy. She cannot fathom her man.” (Chakravarty 202) Hemant’s indifference and unsupportive attitude fills emptiness in Astha’s life. Astha’s craving for Hemant’s love and appreciation remains incomplete all the time. Physicality of love completes but there always remains wanting of emotion. “For Astha a marital life meant participating in all activities, discussing all issues with her husband but for Hemant this relationship meant physical relationship and just fulfilling the social needs of his wife.” (Verma 56) However, Astha does not violate sanctity of relationship between her and her husband making relationship with other man, rather she seeks alternate sexuality in Pipeelika’s embrace.  “Astha does not want to cross the threshold of her married life: she does not want any other man. What Manju Kapur is hinting at is that had Hemant been more appreciative of and sensitive to his wife’s needs Astha would have felt a more complete woman” (Chakravarty 204).


Astha meets Pipeelika, a widow woman whose husband Aijaz recently has met a sudden death in an act of religious animosity. Soon there develops intimacy and friendship between them as condition of both women is same – one has lost her husband and other is deprived of what she expects from her husband. The meeting proves fruitful in the life of both women. Pipeelika enters into Astha’s life like the first few raindrops on parched land. “Astha’s slow discovery of her differences with her husband, her change from a hopeful bride to a battered wife and her meeting with Pipeelika leads her to an immoral, rather amoral, guilt consciousness of lesbian love rationalizing her outmoded morality.”(Sharma 2) Pipeelika renews Astha’s life with what the later feels wanting in her life. Her presence in Astha’s life fills the gap of Hemant in her life. She discovers the long forgotten pleasures of life. There follows a torrid affair between them. Both of them overstep social boundaries to find solace and understanding in each other’s arms. Astha begins to go Pipeelika whenever she gets opportunity for gratification of her sexual needs. Sexual satisfaction as observed by Joseph Bristow “Is a fundamental human need.” (Bristow 12) Both the women are benefitted of this relationship. While Pipeelika drinks the water of Leethe (i.e. the River of Forgetfulness) to forget her husband Aijaz making lesbian relationship with Astha, Astha takes a sweet revenge on her husband Hemant through the weapon of this relationship.  Astha’s choice of alternate sexuality in the form of lesbianism destabilizes the whole system of sex regulation.


The physicality of their relationship proves satisfying through their lesbian relationship because it is based on care, love and mutual respect for each other.  Instead of becoming the desired object of male hegemony, often distant and enigmatic, and not the subject of (not the one who experiences) passion, both Astha and Pipeelika go beyond their subalternity of position breaking the age old tradition which divides role of woman different from that of man and create their own domain violating tradition and social code. Lesbianism gives them escapade from desired objects to desiring subjects. Through this lesbian relationship they come under certain circumstances, there was no aphrodisiac more powerful than talking, no seduction more effective than curiosity. With this relationship Astha faces same difficulty of subalternity faced by colonial Indian women as specified by Spivak , “caught between tradition and modernization” finding herself torn between two halves-her desire for love and affection and her duty towards her family. However she tries to hold the grip of lesbian relationship firmly even after finding herself standing between the forces of traditional male hegemony and the desire of individuality over subalternity. 


Contrary to what Spivak asserts in her most celebrated book “Can the subaltern Speak?”, “the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” , (Spivak 271) Manju Kapur’s female protagonist Astha comes out from the shadowy life of subalternity challenging male hegemony. In the act of lesbianism both Astha and pipeelika act neither the subjective role of male hegemony nor the objective role of female subalternity, rather they play a role what Simone de Beauvoir has justified in “The Second Sex” , “Inversely, a woman who wants to enjoy the pleasures of her femininity in feminine arms also knows the pride of obeying no master…the association of two women can take many different forms; it is based on feeling, interest, or habit; it is conjugal or romantic; it has room for sadism, masochism, generosity, faithfulness, devotion, caprice, egotism, and betrayal; there are prostitutes as well as great lovers among lesbians.  (Beauvoir 431) Through reversal role of her protagonist Astha in terms of subalternity Manju Kapur reconsiders the institutions of love, marriage and relationship: “Manju Kapur has exposed a woman’s passion with love and lesbianism, an incompatible marriage and ensuing annoyance with passion to revolutionize the Indian male sensitivity, she describes the traumas of her female protagonist from which they suffer and perish in for their triumph.” (Kumar 165)


Astha in Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman, appearing as a new woman who is educated, self-conscious, and introspective and one who knows how to carve a life for herself and even one who conveys a personal vision of womanhood by violating current social codes, does not come into the class of sexual subalternity dominated by male hegemony. Astha neither corresponds to Connell’s idea of ‘Emphasised Femininity’ nor Schippers’ idea of ‘Hegemonic Femininity’. In both concepts, the status of woman is neglected. The main idea of both Connell and Schippers is based on traditional outlook that woman can never equal to man. The concept of both Connel and Schippers establishes the superiority of man over woman. Showing relationship between hegemonic masculinity and femininity, Charlebois argues, “(T)he relationship between hegemonic masculinity and femininity is not built upon principles of mutual compatibility and equality, but rather on the dominance of masculinity and subordination of femininity” (Charlebois 41). Discussing the difference between ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ and ‘Hegemonic Femininity’, Charlebois further states, “Crucially, a salient difference between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity is that men are empowered through embodying hegemonic masculinity, while women are disempowered by embodying hegemonic femininity.” (Charlebois 41)  In order to resist unequal gender relation, a non-hegemonic form of femininity may become a source of power.  For this, Charlebois suggests Messerschmidt’s concept of ‘Oppositional Femininity’ which “refuses to complement hegemonic masculinity in a relation of subordination” (Messerschmidt 206). In conformity with Messerschmidt’s concept of ‘Oppositional Femininity’, Astha in Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman is non-compliant with hegemonic idea of female subordination. She contests the unequal gender relation based on hegemonic principles of Connell and Schippers and emerges as an embodiment of oppositional femininity and in doing so, she hardly checks her action in pulling everything apart that comes on her way of personal freedom.



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