Book Extract

Women can be both Kali and Sati-Savitri

Veteran journalist Sagarika Ghose takes a critical look at age-old and persisting sexist attitudes of Indian men towards women

Sagarika Ghose

India’s liberal founders regarded a progressive and modern identity for women as one of their foremost missions.

Misogynist ways have always been powerful and existed in strong competition with progressive values. The liberal founders were committed to the fight for progress, a fight which the present generation will need to fight too.

Yet today, after over six decades of independence, the lamp of progressive modernism for women is flickering. Sometimes, it seems almost extinguished by a backward-looking society seemingly entranced by a treacherous romance with the past.

In the past generations, many women have cried out against traditional texts like the Ramayana and voiced scathing criticism of Rama in the context of Sita’s Agnipariksha. In fact, Hindu traditions provide myriad instances of non-elite women speaking up for liberal values which present-day bigots would like to ignore.

In the epics, there are the Kauravas and Pandavas, there is both good and evil. Duryodhana and Dushyashana were as much a part of the Mahabharata as Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjun. The figure of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita illustrates that even gods have limited powers of persuasion over humans.

The Sarsanghchalak (head) of the RSS, (the RSS being the ideological parent of the current BJP-led government) Mohan Bhagwat has said that Hindu women should perform their household duties without getting ‘distracted by anybody’. The BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh Kailash Vijayvargiya once declared that women should dress according to Indian culture and not wear clothes that provoke others

Hindu mythological narratives typically show the eternal struggle between good and evil, and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita shows that individuals must voluntarily choose to believe in what is just and voluntarily choose the righteous path. Stories from the epics show that to be human is to constantly make choices between good and evil. The present claimants to tradition have chosen to opt for Krishna’s invincible army of state and government power, instead of choosing Krishna himself, who reflected the good and the just and continually held up free moral choices.

In 2014, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar suggested that the way women dressed was responsible for the crimes against them.

“If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way . . . if you want freedom, why don’t they just roam around naked? Freedom has to be limited. These short clothes are Western influences. Our country’s tradition asks girls to dress decently.” he had said.

Khap panchayats, according to him, ‘make sure that a girl and a boy do not see each other in the wrong way’. But khap panchayats are known to be implacably against freedom for women! In Uttar Pradesh in 2014, a khap banned girls from wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones. In 2007, another Khap had ordered the killing of newlyweds Manoj and Babli. Given these unconstitutional primitive diktats, should a constitutional functionary like a state chief minister publicly applaud a khap world view?

In 2017, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath wrote in a blog post: “Considering the importance and honour of women . . . our scriptures have always spoken about giving her protection... As energy can go waste and cause damage, if left free and uncontrolled, women power also does not require freedom, but protection.”

The potential damage that this feared female ‘energy’ can cause is not just to society, but also brings to the fore the visceral male fear of possible loss of social and sexual power. Shakti is typically depicted in intimidating female forms like—Devi, Durga, Kali. On the other hand, goddesses like Lakshmi and Saraswati are depicted as demure and soft. To prefer one over the other is not only a distortion, but smacks of a vested interest. Why can’t Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati exist as avatars of the same woman, possessed with the dignity of a complex individuality?

Why this need to split women up as either nurturing or destructive figures? In the same blog, Yogi quotes from Manu: “[Her] father protects [her] in childhood, her husband protects [her] in youth, and her sons protect [her] in old age.’ A woman is thus never fit for independence.” What a complete contrast from our liberal, progressive ancestors!

The social conservative is perpetually fixated on suitable behaviour and dress for women because he is convinced that crimes take place because women lure men into committing crimes.

Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State for Culture in 2016, advised women visitors to India to not wear short skirts or go out at night to stay safe. He did not think to advise Indian men not to harass, humiliate or molest tourists.

Can we forget what BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj said in 2015? “The concept of four wives and forty children just won’t work in India but it is high time that every Hindu woman produces at least four children to protect the Hindu religion.”

Protect the Hindu religion from what exactly? After centuries of various forms of rule by Muslim rulers in different parts of India, Hindus never seemed to have felt as threatened as they apparently do today, at a time when Muslims have been the most marginalised, politically and electorally than ever before.

There is a manufactured fear of what Muslim men can do to Hindu women. There is also a manufactured fear of what may happen if women venture out of the house too much.

Perhaps because of the rising tide of conservatism, Indian women are increasingly choosing not to work.

Contrary to global trends, women’s participation in the workforce in India has been declining in recent decades, making it more difficult for women to seek independence. Today, India has one of the lowest rates of women’s participation in the workforce in the world, with 65 per cent university-degree-holding women out of work. In other Asian countries, more women are working. In Bangladesh, 41 per cent degree-holding women are out of work. In Indonesia, the corresponding figure is 25 per cent.

The Hindutva nationalist who is mostly also a social conservative likes to see women as perpetually confined within a Lakshman Rekha. She must always be seen as a traditional housewife in a sari, mangalsutra and sindoor as the flags of her unbending traditionalism and repudiation of western culture. As already noted, most women in mainstream political parties, notably in the BJP, dress in this way, presenting themselves as archetypal Bharatiya naris with tokens of Hindu culture emblazoned on their bodies.

In fact, the politicisation of the sari was evident when actor Raveena Tandon tweeted the following in June 2017: ‘A sareee day . . . will I be termed communal, Sanghi, bhakt, Hindutva icon? if I say I love wearing the saree and I think it’s the most elegant [sic].’

Apparently, Tandon thought, entirely misguidedly, that by adopting the sari she was thumbing her nose at ‘liberals’, that she was being a Hindutva icon in the face of liberals’ jeans-clad hipness. This is an absurd construct, showing that for social conservatives the sari is apparently a symbol of cultural and political assertion and a shriek against so-called ‘Westernised liberals’.

Little do they know that India’s so-called Westernised feminists liberals have more often than not worn saris. CPM leader Brinda Karat is always in a sari. Most Indian politicians from Sheila Dikshit to Mamata Banerjee always wear saris, and Indira Gandhi’s saris were always on dazzling display as prime examples of Indian handloom traditions. Arundhati Roy, the arch enemy of Hindutva ‘nationalists’, wore a sari to receive her Booker Prize in 1997. It was the RSS, apparently the torchbearer of ‘Indian tradition’, which first chose to wear Westernised shorts and then full trousers, both foreign imports, even as it claims to be the gatekeeper of Indian traditions. Hindutva social conservatives have got it all wrong.

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes how the traditionalists’ perverted hatred of a woman’s body places modern women on a collision course with religious conservatives of all hues, because ‘to be modern is to set the woman free’.

The free modern woman is the prime enemy of religious orthodoxies, whether Hindu or Muslim.

The Sarsanghchalak (head) of the RSS, (the RSS being the ideological parent of the current BJP-led government) Mohan Bhagwat has said that Hindu women should perform their household duties without getting ‘distracted by anybody’. The BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh Kailash Vijayvargiya once declared that women should dress according to Indian culture and not wear clothes that provoke others.

How different are these Hindutva voices from Islamic clerics issuing fatwas on Sania Mirza’s tennis skirts or insisting women stay in purdah?

In fact, purdah among Hindu women continues to be practised in some parts of north India where women are seen with their pallus pulled down to the chin.

For the militantly traditional, a woman is either virgin or whore, devi or dayan, bikini-clad vamp or sari-swaddled Sati-Savitri.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.