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Of Palaces, Mythologies and Images Women carry

Posted: November 12, 2013

“Indian Mythologies and (nearly) all religions demean women. How can you out of all the women I know be religious”, said a male friend with whom I was debating about religion since the past two hours. We sat at an Indian Restaurant in the most Global city in the world (New York) discussing our Indian roots and their impact on women. This was just after the December (2012) Delhi Rape incident had taken place. And we were just reacting like any other Indian sitting anywhere on the globe was.

And then, here I was in August 2013 sitting and watching episodes of Mahabharata (the popular Indian Mythology dramatized on TV again) thinking how women have been portrayed in popular TV, magazines, films, advertisements and yes, books. This thought had taken me back to that and many more discussions of my life where I was debated with, agreed along by friends and acquaintances on portrayal of women everywhere around us. Suddenly, everything seemed wrong as I struggled with finding the roots of the multiple problems women face even in today’s progressive times.

Being a Hindu (by birth) doesn’t define my opinion about religion at all. I question and have questioned my parents, elders and even pandits at every point I have found illogical to me. From why a girl cannot light her parents’ pyre to why is it that during menstruation, women are not allowed to enter the temple. Who defines all this? When I look back, this debate takes me to my Women Studies class on Manu Smriti (the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmasastra textual tradition of Hinduism) who defined rules of action and laws of work for every person on the earth, shaped the way Women are to be looked at in society, their roles and rules of conduct thereby defined.

Religion on womenLet’s take a few for example from the Manusmriti text:

  • “Swabhav ev narinam …..” – 2/213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.

My Question: How do we see it today? Women are taken as mere objects of seduction. They are portrayed as mere objects.

  • “Matra swastra ………..” – 2/215. Wise people should avoid sitting alone with one’s mother, daughter or sister. Since carnal desire is always strong, it can lead to temptation.

Thought: And yes, is that the reason why no man feels strong enough to control his desire in front of women and ends up raping them??

  • “Shudram shaynam……” – 3/17. A Brahman who marries a Shudra woman, degrades himself and his whole family, becomes morally degenerated, loses Brahman status and his children too attain status of Shudra.

Thought: I have always questioned the caste system but this one is beyond my understanding. And till date, we accept that? (I know cities are changing but we know why honour killings are prevalent even in today’s India).

  • “Mrshyanti…………….” – 4/217. One should not accept meals from a woman who has extra marital relations; nor from a family exclusively dominated/managed by women or a family whose 10 days of impurity because of death have not passed.

Thought: And who defines this? Who is anybody to define the moral conduct of a woman and her interaction with others. If rules are rules, they should be for all: both men & women. (However, these don’t make any sense to me).

  • “Balye pitorvashay…….” – 5/151. Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.

Thought: And how does our world see the women who are independent? As characterless, as somebody who is breaking norms. Is she appreciated? No.

  • “Asheela  kamvrto………” – 5/157. Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.

Thought: Wow, and if you are still wondering how “Mera Pati Mera Bhagwan” dialogue comes from in all the movies, here is your answer.

  • “Ya to kanya…………….” – 8/369. In case a woman tears the membrane [hymen] of her Vagina, she shall instantly have her head shaved or two fingers cut off and made to ride on a donkey.

Thought: The classical virginity issue. Have we ever wondered who has implanted these thoughts in the minds of Indian men? Here is your answer.

  • “Panam durjan………” – 9/13. Consuming liquor, association with wicked persons, separation from her husband, rambling around, sleeping for unreasonable hours and dwelling are six demerits of women.

Thought: if that is to be believed, a majority of the world today is dwelling on demerits.

The more I read about Indian women and roots of our problems this is where I land on. Our religions have defined how our society has looked upon the women of the land, their rules and regulations, their doings and undoing, their sanctity and survival in this world where “Men define the rules”. And while I write this, I am conscious enough that we have a category of men and women who don’t follow it, but lets agree on the fact that this category is very small in proportion to define the societal norms, especially in rural India.

And as I write this, I also give another disclaimer to those who think it’s just Hinduism that degrades women. I have seen texts of origin in Muslims too. For me, the whole ideologies that these religions are based on are a slap to the very existence of women in the society. If your religion tells you, you need a son to light your pyre after death or you won’t gain Moksha (salvation), why won’t you kill female fetuses and infants in order to fulfill your desire for a son. When your religion tells you that a woman cannot enter the temple or kitchen premises during her ‘that time of the month’, why won’t even women around her make her feel impure and unhealthy to touch pickles? Justified? Not to me.

Our religion has shaped our society and thinking of the beings. Of these beings have arrived the people who have made tele-serials, movies, advertisements and written stories and books. The scripting has happened in such a way that the end product is in front of us. We have written the fate of women in such a way that all we see around today is rape, domestic violence, female foeticide, workplace harassment, and many more severe and less severe crimes against women. I feel happy seeing a change around when a woman becomes the CEO, when a woman becomes a Police officer, when a woman steps out and does something beyond what is expected behavior for her. Change is happening, but change is slow with respect to rising inhuman acts against women.

In today’s time, we are in need of “re-scripting”. We need to redesign the way women are looked at, redefine the boxed norms she is expected to live her life with, reshape her future. The whole decades and hundreds of years old script pre written for every woman needs a re-scripting, done by her, individually, as she wants. And in that process, revivals in the way stories are told needs to happen. We need more movies on liberated successful women, more novels depicting women as choice makers for themselves, more tele-serials where women move beyond dressing dolls and kitchen roles. I think it is for a woman to define what kind of role she wants: in the kitchen, or at a desk instructing people. Choices being personal, nothing is demeaning, nothing should be forced.

Let’s Re-script!

Pic credit: nathan rupert (Used under a Creative Commons license)

A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and

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  1. Dear Suchi

    I am shocked that many of our scriptures are so derogatory to women…on one side, we worship Goddesses and on the other hand “follow” our scriptures…it just means that all this is deeply ingrained in our society!

    As you mentioned, we really need to redefine a lot of societal practices..even if a few of us try to break free, we are labelled and criticized…despite all odds, we need to prove ourselves to the world.

  2. A wonderful article Suchi!!
    It is true that Manusmriti which was written in later vedic period is one of the most corrupt and perverted documents that ever exists. Research shows that women were revered in true sense during early Vedic Period and had democratic rights. They had a place in decision making councils like Sabha and Samiti. The female deity iconology and symbology stems from that era. We still have remnants of that tradition in the form of female deity worship. But the perspective has been lost.

    I still remember that as a teenage girl I was appalled when I read “Lakshmi Panchali” (which is common in Bengali Household)for the first time during Puja.The text was full of sexist terminologies and it laid the onus of “good behaviour” at the doorsteps of women only.Every word of it equated tradition with submissiveness in some way.I absolutely refused to read it as part of Puja routine which stressed my mother no end. And even after 10 years I have not been able to make my mother see sense that such a text/scripture is a slap on the face of an “accomplished” Devi like Lakshmi and it is my respect for her that stops me from perusing this perverted document.

  3. Hey Suchi,

    The post portrays how women have been treated since ages and the olden times. Though the times have changed but still the changes aren’t much in favor of women.Sad it is..!!

  4. Thank you guys. I believe that it is very important for us to understand and stop following the various roots of our problems. A friend of mine once told me that B.R. Ambedkar had once said that all the root problems of oppression of dalits stem from religion. While he was born a Hindu, he didn’t die one.

    I am not saying to shun religion at all. But developing an understanding as to what is creating problems for us is important. And here, my attempt was just that. Thanks for the feedback guys!

  5. I agree with the verses, but have heard different interpretations about some of them. Esp the one where it says girl is the custody of father, husband etc. The explanation is that it is the duty of the father, husband son etc to protect the girl (bcos even Manu knows that men are idiots and have no self control). And u shud also see the discipline given to a bramachari. Its as strict as the one given to a women and the punishments are as bad. Its only not highlighted by the society bcos bramacharyam is already gone from the society in the name of outdated customs. There is also a custom that once a wife bears a son, the husband shud worship his wife as he wud worship his mother, bcos he himself is reflected in his son. How many ppl wud accept this?
    So I wud say that our religion is strict on both men and women, but only the women’s rules gets highlighted and men escape.

  6. Its amazing how much religion effects the aspects of every day life. The same is written in scriptures that we follow in the west, but people don’t seem to adhere to them in the same way. Ancient customs seem a little more dated in western society and for the most part are ignored. Do you think that India is headed that direction? I have the feeling that scripture is still very much revered even by the younger generation. Please share questions and comments at http://www.oilseedgroup.com

    • Seeing India through the eyes of a western woman was enlightening Sarah.I feel the younger generation in India is still unsure what to do with this religion thing. Most have parents who have always equated tradition and religion with submissiveness and “don’t ask too many questions” attitude. So you would still find youngsters(both men and women) who think that a woman in mini skirts is “asking for it” !!!

      The Delhi case might be a tipping point and hopefully the collective conscience of society would now move itself towards equality without being judgemental.

    • Thanks for the reply. I don’t think its a problem adhering to a religion if that’s something that is very personal to you. I think there is an issue that part of the country is becoming so quickly westernized and there are many women wearing mini-skirts or tight jeans. That does seem a intimidating that so many assumptions can be made on a woman’s attire, but its the same way in the west.

    • I do agree with some of the statements. Indian history been distorted and rewritten by foreign invaders. What youare reading is distorted history. Indian’s are not a bad lot, I assure you, I live abroad.

  7. Thanks Suchi for writing this as many of us are bound by such unnecessary rules which has in no way benefitted the women. I was recently thinking of this – why a girl has to accept money from her brother during rakhi or such festivals which talks about brother-sister relationship. This gives a feeling that women are still economically dependent. If we all say it is love, then why can’t it be a mutual exchange of gifts rather than from one side.
    When one of my friends, who is with her in-laws, refused to prepare special dishes during week day festivals, because her work commitments did not permit her to take frequent offs, her husband and in-laws said she is more like an atheist. Now…what has food to do with faith. So….the man does not have contribution towards the preparation is it? Then is he an atheist. What about the able mother-in-law, who instead of waiting for the daughter-in-law to come home and do it, cannot she prepare at least some part of it? Prashaadh to God can be even milk sweetened with sugar and cardamom. It is with how much love u give this to Him is important.
    Something I find very odd is that culture and values are gender-specific. If rangoli is an art form, then why only women need to uphold the tradition and be blamed when that art form is forgotten. When women have started smoking and drinking, then it is felt that kali yug is fast approaching. But in reality, it had already started when men started smoking and drinking. Why burden the girls and women with upholding of the culture, tradition and family honor. When a boy or a man behaves in an unruly and irrational way, is not he jeopardizing his family honor. When he is aggressive, why is no one questioning his parents’ upbringing? If patience and amity are virtues, then why are men not taught these? Who told him not to be modest and if he is so, then does it mean he is passive and not ‘real man’. There were many men who did not have to use the ego to impress the others. (Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayanand Saraswathi, for examples)

    The criteria for a bride’s eligibility is slim, beautiful, homely and well-qualified. Nobody is talking whether she smokes, is a tee-totaller, drug addict etc. because it is taken for granted that many women will not resort to such things because of the Indian upbringing. But we are not able to use the same criteria for men, where his parents are also Indians. This basic criteria, unfortunately, cannot be applied to men, as it is almost impossible to find a man who does not smoke or resort to drinks nowadays. If men consider these, as not vices, then why not choose a partner who has such habits too. Why do they need ‘clean family background’ and give a lousy one to the girl. I am not saying all are like this…..neither am I saying women are embodiment of virtue. But the care taken by the family and society in reinforcing such values is greater towards the women than towards the men.

    Solutions may be:

    Change parenting style:
    1.) Strive to set the same rules for both sons and daughters. If culture like drawing rangoli is taught (to both sons and daughters) as an art, for its symmetrical and geometrical patterns, and aesthetic value, then it will come back with refreshed energy.
    2.) Highlighting to both sons and daughters that smoking and getting addicted to drinking is injurious to health and not fashionable.
    3.) Respect the grandparents of both paternal and maternal side. Both are elders and it is not that a man’s parents will only age!
    4.) By teaching our sons, that when they become adults, if he impregnates a woman wittingly or umwittingly from either side, that he is also EQUALLY responsible for the life in the womb. Just because the girl gets pregnant, it does not mean that she alone is responsible for the pregnancy and she alone need to think of the consequences. Just as a girl is taught the consequences of having intercourse, boys should also be taught about the unwanted pregnancies that he would endanger the girl into.

    Excuse me for the elaborate comment…feel that it would benefit many….thanks and All the Best.

  8. Here it is, from where all our norms come from.
    As an educated mother, you have to teach our daughters to be economically independent, know how to drive a car/bike, pay your bills and take care of herself, along with the household chores. And teach your sons to do all the household chores, and how to behave with women, along with all outside-house chores(office work,driving,paying bills etc).

  9. Hi Suchi,

    I am in love with your article.

    I am highly in contrast to all what is mentioned above and at times raise this issues at home. But our mother also follows what is being followed. its been ingrained in the minds of all of us since our birth. this is what we are supposed to do or not.

    i found it really surprising when any diya lightening has to be done by male members only even if they are younger than females of the house on any special occasion be it Diwali also…. or mothers opening their fast only by male child member…

    this all makes me feel degraded. Yet i cant do anything in it as we are suppressed….

    I wonder when we all be uplifted from all such thoughts and these manuscripts.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree on how tiny things and rituals if looked at carefully make us feel degraded and yet all women continue following and intact asking their children to follow them too! Its sad that our texts reinforce this and so we need to work on it now before its too late. My funda is, I question! always always!

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