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In the Ramayana, Valmiki shapes his Sita into what has become the stereotype of an ideal Indian woman: chaste, submissive and replaceable.
“But even if I should want to be like Sita,
I would never want to be Rama’s wife.
Tell me, would you ever want to be Rama yourself?”
– Pattabhi Rama Reddy
A standard reading of the Ramayana offers two themes: The notion of the ideal king Rama’s personality and conduct as an ideal man. It comes across as an example for people. The other thing you notice is the perfect utopian society.
By approaching the text through a gendered lens, a key point emerges. That of the language of the Ramayana is gendered in such a way that it allows for the imposition of patriarchal gendered norms.
Here you see men as the saviours of the world and women their inferiors. Rama is portrayed as a strong and noble warrior, while Sita is the ideal daughter and wife with no identity of her own.
That men are the protectors of the society is evident in Rama’s reasoning that rescuing Sita and her virtue is protecting his honour and that of the kingdom. Ravana inflicts a significant amount of pain on Sita by abducting her, but that is not the action he is most criticised for by Valmiki. He is punished for trying to rape another man’s wife.
Here, the emphasis is not on the act of rape but the damage it inflicts on the owner, i.e. the husband. Sita, in this situation, is stripped of anatomy, and the pain she endured is side-lined in favour of how it affects Rama and his honour. Rama then desires to re-establish himself and his name by abandoning his wife. She sacrifices her happiness to uphold Rama’s ideal image of serving his people.
According to the Indian society, women’s bodies and female sexuality are dangerous and untrustworthy and must be regulated at all costs. A woman with sexual knowledge represents dangerous freedom which has not only to be avoided at all costs but extremely scrutinised.
This danger is shown as well as recognised by women themselves who uphold the pillars of patriarchy by denial of self-hood entirety. Women are de-sexualised bodies – in service of their family.
Even the texts such as the Ramayana attempt to define sexual relations and female sexuality in India. This is done firmly within the context of family and marriage – it is talked about by men, controlled and regulated by men.
Her only purpose is to serve patriarchy which drives the conservative Indian society. Sita is given as an example of a ‘good, ideal woman.’ She is portrayed as someone who had no need or desire to read, talk or learn about sexual behaviour or sexual pleasure.
Neither does she need to focus on her own body as a place of experiment other than for reproduction or male pleasure. Thus preserving the perspective of ‘man’ as the norm for humanness and ‘woman’ as the subordinate ‘other’ that descends from the norm.
In the Ramayana, Sita’s body is treated as sacred, divine. She is not to be touched. Sita is de-sexualised and is deprived of any pleasure. She is reduced to a daughter and a wife. And is stripped of her physical attributes and sexuality to the point where she becomes synonymous with chastity.
Sita’s life was never a happy one. However, she still is seen as an ideal woman. She is someone who follows the patriarchal values and through whom women may be taught to bear all injustice silently.
Sita becomes someone whose only identity is that of a wife, someone who exists only to serve the men in her life. The text prioritises the value of chastity and the status of ‘Royal Wife’ by completely disregarding her sexuality. It de-sexualises her to the point where she is only seen as someone whose only aim in life is to serve her husband as an obedient wife. Which is what makes her the idea woman.
Sita represents an attempt to construct an image of the ideal Indian woman, a de-sexualised yet material, delicate, submissive and dutiful. Valmiki shapes his Sita into what has become the stereotype of an ideal Indian woman: chaste, submissive and replaceable.
Picture credits: Still from Hindi TV series Siya Ke Ram
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