Monday 16 November 2015

Dissecting the Indian 'Goddesses'...and 'Gods' by Mansi Jhingran

The festival of Navratri just went by and this year too I couldn’t help but wonder at the irony that accompanies the idol of the Goddess.

I watched the joyous celebrations, fervent worshipping, shopping and the crowds thronging at the Durga Puja pandals to seek the blessing s of ‘Ma’, and to celebrate the life-giving, pulsating, creative and divine feminine form thereby acknowledging that life and creativity would not be possible without her. But if they were worshipping the Goddess idol or the great divine feminine then why were they harming, abusing, molesting and raping the real-life female?

Three days into this festival and news came that a toddler and a five-year old girl had been raped in Delhi. But we choose to ignore the obvious misogyny around us while we immerse ourselves in nine nights and nine days of celebration, maybe because we don’t know how to deal with it.

Almost 37,000 rape cases were recorded in India in 2014. And that is the statistic for just ONE of the SEVERAL CRIMES perpetrated against women and young girls in India on a daily basis that HAS BEEN RECORDED. So who can deny the misogyny here?

And we’re talking about this treatment of women in the same country where the divine feminine is worshipped over nine days and nine nights in her nine different glorious avatars. How ironical!
Maybe this is where the problem lies - that our culture idolizes women.

Yes, maybe the problem is that we idolize and worship women in India. And then when a woman strays far from our idolized version we simply want to “teach her a lesson” or “put her in her place.”
I’m not making this as a blanket statement for all those who worship Durga and/or other Goddesses, but questioning the cultural and social norms that shape our beliefs and behaviors.

Worshipping girls is deeply rooted in our culture. We derive our cultural and traditional values from this worshipping of pre-pubescent girls or ‘kumaris’ (meaning a virgin). During Navratri it takes place on the last 2 days and is called Kanya Puja. Because before a girl gets her first period, she is a symbol of purity and is expected to take on the role of Parvati as a wife and mother, Lakshmi as a housewife, Saraswati as the first guru of her children, Durga as the destroyer of all obstacles for her family, Annapurna as the food provider through her cooking, Kali as the punisher to bring the members of the family on the right track, and so on.

Add to the list the modern-day expectations from her to complete her education and earn for herself if not for her family. What high expectations from someone, at such a young age, who is probably not even aware of these roles and responsibilities!

The second damaging aspect of our culture is that we tend to give ‘respect’ to a woman almost always in relation to the man/men in her life; as someone’s wife, mother, sister or daughter. The individual is hardly ever considered an entity.

Therefore, every time I hear a man say - “I respect women” I feel like asking him – “how do you respect her? As someone else’s property or as an individual?” I have heard this enough to know that my individual identity is hardly seen as something to be ‘respected’.

I too was worshipped. When I was a pre-pubescent girl I would be in great demand at this time of the year. Women from the neighborhood would request my mother to send me to their homes to be fed. (Only some would invite little boys as well) When we would go to their house they would wash our feet, give us delicious ‘halwa-puri’ and money! I was treated like a Goddess once a year by the same aunties who would scream at me and my friends for running and making a noise outside their homes the rest of the year. But come the last 2 days of Navratri and their sour acrimonious attitude towards us would turn sweeter than the desserts that they served us.

This annual Goddess-like treatment stopped once I turned about 9 or 10 years old. And I was ok with that. I didn’t want to be treated like a Goddess anymore. It wasn’t like they were worshiping my younger brother as a ‘God’ after all (and this is where the gender inequality among children probably first starts in most households.)

It is a great thing to take a moment to acknowledge and worship the feminine in a hyper-masculine world where everything has to be big, loud and physically strong; where vulnerability and sensitivity are considered to be weaknesses; corporate ladders, go-getter attitudes and capital hungry sharks rule our world. But the very fashion in which we celebrate Durga Puja or Navratris is big and loud, almost too ‘masculine’. Does the Goddess approve of this show? Or does she prefer something more ‘feminine’, subtle and low-key because femininity by its very definition is supposed to be gentle, subtle and not-loud. “Ladies should be seen, not heard” – we would be told in school. Similarly when a boy does not fit into the strong and masculine mold that the society expects him to, he is teased and even bullied for being “like a girl”.

But if we worship the feminine in India then why do we have the lowest female to male population ratios due to infanticide and sex-selective abortion?  While the devotees lavish money at the feet of the Goddess, a girl in India still needs to give the groom dowry to marry her.

The very concept of idolizing women is anti-feminist to its core. The moment you idolise someone you take away from them, the right to be a perfectly imperfect human being and put on them pressure to be perfect.  (It works the other way also when a man is idolized as ‘Maryada Purush Shri Ram’).
The chauvinistic society began perpetrating this fraud against women the moment they put women on a pedestal. Women may think that they enjoy a position of great privilege and honour, but in reality it’s just easy for men to keep a watchful eye on them.  Remember the idol in the temple? Someone is always guarding it day and night.

So isn’t this a brilliantly devised strategy for subjugation of women by the male authors of our Hindu tradition (and almost every other tradition in the world). Terms and conditions are in fine print when the respect agreement is signed upon. If a woman crosses the Lakshman Rekha she’s punished.
So if a girl asserts her mind or rebels against a patriarchal system she definitely pays the price for doing so. If she goes out alone at night, drinks alcohol, is open about her sexuality or has a boyfriend, wants to marry outside her caste then she does not deserve respect, because this is no Goddess behavior after all.

I know that it’s just symbolic this worshipping of little girls, just like the idol of Durga is symbolic for female power and divinity, but it’s long –standing psychological impact seem to have outweighed logic.

By embodying the Indian woman as Lakshmi, Parvati, Sita or Saraswati the man expects from her all the divine qualities of the goddesses that he so fervently worships.  What pressure on a woman to be the perfect mother, wife, daughter and sister! Festivals like Karvachauth and Rakshabandhan ensure that there’s no escaping this cultural trap. When a new bride is compared to Goddess Lakshmi she’s expected to bring home wealth with her; if she doesn’t then she can be burned alive.

The modern woman simply cannot meet these highly dated expectations of the Indian man. Is this what’s leading to rampant misogyny? Quite possible.

When he’s a little boy the Indian male sees his sisters literally being worshipped this is the message he gets - girls are to be worshipped, valued and respected solely because of their gender and not for their personalities, talents, character and intelligence. Girls are made into some kind of special divine creatures in his eyes and if he is a good boy, represses his sexual desires long enough then he can have a special divine virginal creature too, for himself, when he grows up (one who will also pay him to marry her) But only after he has shown sufficient restraint that is! Oh the rude shock that a boy gets when that beautiful divine creature turns him down. No wonder that it results in so many cases of the suitor throwing acid on the woman’s face, unable to take rejection from her.

 In not so violent circumstances he pursues the girl relentlessly to win her affections. But there’s a thin line between wooing and stalking. When that line is crossed sexual harassment takes place. Rape is the result of a man not being able to see a woman as an individual capable of thinking for herself. He was conditioned to believe by the patriarchal system and the popular media that he has a prize to claim for himself, in the form of a girl. No wonder so many men handle rejection so poorly.
When are we going to stop punishing our boys by setting up this twisted fairytale for them?
God is in everyone and everything. God is in a woman, a man, a child, in nature, in the rivers and the trees. Not just women but every living being deserves to be respected regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race, their personal choices in life and skin colour.

Respecting women is the need of the hour but now it’s clear that this argument is redundant and weak as it has proved to be over the years, that is until we learn to give respect to all genders.