It’s again a Women’s Day and the whole world will celebrate the spirit of women, talk about women power, cite examples of the remarkable women round the world and of course shops will give discounts to women and restaurants will have “women” theme parties. Many corporates have started inviting dieticians and health consultants to come and give “tailor made” speeches to their women employees and give them tips to stay fit and healthy. All great things on a great day. But somewhere, there will be still a big disconnect between what we intend to do and what we’ve been doing since ages.
When I say “we”, I mean the men in general, the males who have been ruling the world for ever. It’s not a cliché that all societies have been predominantly male dominated. We were always the rulers, in India and elsewhere, and we’ve always seen women through our prism, a male prism. Will another or many more Women’s Day really change the status of women in our society? That’s not the premise of this article though. Rather, let us see what this male prism is, through which we’ve been seeing women all along.
India may fair pretty badly in most of the human indices related to women. Female foeticide, atrocities towards women in the form of dowry deaths, rapes etc. are indeed glaring things which stand out starkly. But there is much more than just the numbers and statistics.
Has it ever occurred to us that most of the cuss words in any culture and language and country are always female sexual organs that grossly objectify women, or men acts that intend to subjugate or dominate women, mostly sexually? The famous “F” work in English we can’t do without and which perhaps falls in all the eight parts of speech is nothing but a symbol of a violent sex with a woman. The intensity with which the term “Fuck You” is meant to be said is perhaps an indication of the intent with which it was coined as a cuss word. A compassionate sex with a woman is never called “fuck”. It’s not that men can’t be sexually abused or subjugated. But we don’t even have a word for that, forget making that a cuss word.
Back home, the “F” word is perhaps not that predominantly used as are the “S” and “C” words. “Sala”, the benign “S” word, is not even considered a cuss word. But we forget the origin of the word. Whenever we say someone “sala” we actually mean “I fuck your sister”. Coming to sister, that’s an integral part of cuss words, along with mother. Here too, father and brother are spared. It may be argued that the when it’s a sister or mother, the ghastliness of the acts justify their being considered as hard core cuss words. Here too, indirectly we’re saying that men can’t be subjected to such ghastly acts because they are powerful.
The ancient Greeks have been great thinkers and philosophers. They have been lauded for centuries for their open mindedness. Greeks were always an emancipated lot. Greek myths are sexually explicit. Many Greek myths are unusual. We’ve Oedipus who desires his mother sexually. Then there are lots of cases of incest. Zeus’ consort Hera happens to be his sister. Zeus also has sex with Calisto. Calisto’s friend Artemis is Zeus’ daughter – so Zeus has fathered his own daughter’s friend. There’s also a lot of male same sex love in Greek mythology. But comparatively, a lesbian theme is rarely found. It reminds me of a sarcastic dialogue from the film Ishqiyan, where Babban played by Arsad Aarsi complains to Khalujan, Naseerudin Shah, “your love is love and love is sex?” When it comes to homosexuality, males have the license, but for women it’s a taboo, even among the ancient Greeks.
Sappho, perhaps one of the earliest women poets of the ancient times, was ignored majorly by her Greek and Roman successors because of her homoerotic involvement disgraceful for a female. In other words it means she was considered outcaste because she was the first female LGBT activist of the world to talk about lesbianism. Wisdom prevailed in contemporary times when the term lesbianism was coined after Lesbos, the Greek island she was born in.
The Greek myth of Calisto perhaps represents all the motifs commonly used to depict women across the ages. She is first shown as a virgin girl, wild and boisterous, a huntress that runs around in the jungle. Then she transitions into a woman and mother. She has sex and gives birth to a boy. Then there’s a phase of extreme sadness and solitude when her motherhood is wrenched from her. She is turned into a bear and exiled in the jungle. The final element in her story combines both death and apotheosis. She is nearly killed by her son when Zeus rescues her at the last moment and enshrines her in the sky as Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation.
Stories of most women characters roughly follow this stereotype script. It's irresistible to not deprive a woman of her dose of sadness and oppression and struggle. To the advantage of the men, all top poets and bards have been always males, since the beginning of human civilization. It’s no coincidence that Homer, Vyasa and Valmiki were all males. So it’s not surprising that when they created “perfect” women characters, they too didn’t forget the doses of tragedies. They knew very well that “tragic queen” sells. It sold then, it sells now too.
Back home, it was perhaps not palatable for many to accept a strong woman like Draupadi. Rather, people were happy with Sita, a character that fits very well into the clichéd typecast of a woman we are so used to see. It’s as if, as we’ve seen in the case of Calisto myth too, unless a woman goes through a phase of extreme sadness and solitude, she can’t be a woman. Sita is a typical Indian woman. She is loyal to her husband. She rarely opposes her husband or in-laws. She didn’t say a single word when her husband decided to go to jungle and spend fourteen years. It’s perhaps not clear if her husband at all had asked her before taking the decision. Yes, it’s true that her husband was driven by lofty ideals and the sense of duty. But does that alone justify her ordeal?
To add to Sita’s woes she is kidnapped by a demon, and then when she is finally rescued and is ready to return home, with her husband, she’s left behind in the jungle on a very flimsy ground. In all this, she always maintains a stoic silence, as though as a woman anything and everything can happen to her and it’s her duty as a woman to endure it all. Calisto doesn’t have much in common with Sita. But both have been typecast in a typical way that would evoke sympathy. The Greeks never worshipped Calisto, but in India Sita is worshipped. She is seen as the ideal wife, ideal daughter-in-law and also an ideal mother, who raises her kids alone in the jungle. All throughout, it’s a sad story of sacrifice, solitude, exile and utter neglect.
On the contrary Draupadi is strong. She has five husbands and she manages all of them quite well. Though polyandry was not uncommon in India, still the symbolism of a woman married to five men is much beyond a mere tradition. It perhaps speaks of her position, her strength. She too goes through her share of pain, but nowhere she has been shown as helpless or left alone, like Sita. But alas, her position in the Indian pantheon is nowhere near that of Sita. The very fact that we’ve chosen to worship Sita and relegate Draupadi to a mere character in an epic talks volumes about our attitude towards women. But we shouldn’t be ashamed more because had Sita been a Greek character her fate wouldn’t have been different. We don’t like strong women, in general.
There’s one interesting thing about Draupadi which might have eluded most of us. It’s said that Arjun wins Draupadi at the swayamvara and the five brothers bring her proudly to their mother Kunti. “Mother,” they say, “see what we’ve brought.” At this point, it’s ridiculously claimed that Kunti thinks his sons have brought the daily provisions. She asks the five brothers to divide it equally among them – that’s the justification given for Draupadi’s marriage to all the five brothers. A writer like Vyasa couldn’t have written this. It’s said elsewhere that Kunti herself divides the daily provisions and that the provisions are never divided equally – Bhim gets half and the remaining half is for the rest of the family. This very incident of Kunti asking the Pandavas to share it equally is very likely a later insertion, in an attempt to justify a case of polyandry, and prevent Draupadi from being seen a strong woman.
Another very strong character, Kunti, has also been totally neglected in the same way. We have given lofty alters even to snakes and trees, as Gods and demigods, but we have failed to give strong women like Draupadi and Kunti any place in our exploding pantheon, where Sita is the uncontested Queen.
It's perfectly logical that someone like Sonia Gandhi would be the most powerful woman politician in our country. Natwar Singh, in his autobiography, has mentioned Sonia's life is like a Greek tragedy. I’m not sure if he too wanted to bring out the same point I’m talking about now – that Sonia’s popularity is greatly because of the perception in our minds that she is a tragedy queen. It also matches so well with the motif so often used to depict women. She had a fairy tale life, dating the son of one of the most powerful women in the world and the Prime Minister of India. After the Mills-n-Boons courtship and marriage, she suddenly became the first lady of India, after a catastrophe in her life – the assassination of her mother in law Indira Gandhi and the sudden accession of her husband Rajiv Gandhi to throne of India. This was the second stage of her life which was followed by the third stage of extreme sadness and solitude – she lost her husband. And then in the last stage we see her as the most powerful goddess in the political pantheon. It can’t be denied that her wide acceptance and popularity, which is no less than apotheosis, is predominantly because of her tragic life. We love to see women as tragedy queens. We loved then, we love now too.
Having said all these, India still fairs better than many other countries and cultures when it comes to dealing with women. Not many cultures have a powerful goddess like Durga who rides on a lion and kills the most ferocious and invincible demon. There’s a motif of a female riding on a lion found in a seal from the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex, an ancient civilization in the Northern Afghanistan (Bactria) and Turkmenistan (Margiana), contemporaneous to the later phase of the Indus Valley Civilization. It’s possible the idea of a strong Mother Goddess evolved from older concepts prevalent in the Central Asia anterior to 1500 BC. This doubtless makes cult o Durga one of the earliest instances of worshipping the power and strength of a woman, not her sadness, solitude and helplessness.
Maitreyi and Yagyavalka may be among the foremost writer-couples, having composed parts of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Most of this Upanishad is written as dialogues between the couple, who are shown to be discussing and debating deep philosophical and intellectual stuff. Even a very conservative dating of Maitreyi may lead us to 7th or 8th century BC, which makes her one of the earliest women writers in the world. There are not many instances in the ancient world where a woman is shown in the same platform as a man in the context of intellect and philosophy.
India has a long tradition of empowering women in various ways. The Buddha has been shown to attain nirvana after accepting milk-rice from Sujata. This may be mere legend, but given Buddha’s symbolism in many things, the importance of Sujata is indeed much more than a woman who had once fed the Buddha.
It may not be a mere coincidence that much later, India produced one of the strongest woman empresses in the Muslim world – Razia Sultan. That India allowed such a thing to happen, which would have been impossible to even think of in the Arab countries, does tell something about Indian women.
Despite the not-so-palatable state of status of women in the Indian society, women like the Goddess Durga, Maitreyi, Sujata and Razia do instil hope into the system. But most important is the need of a shift in the attitude of the men towards women. As long as ma and behen continue to play such an important role in our cuss-vocabs, as long as we continue to glorify apparently weak women, as long as we keep on shunning women from places of worship, just a token Women’s Day may be another whim of the MCPs.