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Every year we celebrate Women’s Day. A symbolic way of saying “we are sorry, we’ve had to allocate a day to you because we are not quite sure what to fix ”.
Consequently, when issues degenerate to tokenism the solutions become platitudinous. Just as it has with Women’s day. Media on this one day will cover a variety of women’s issues, social media will be trending #womensday #girlpower and the most frivolously pitched solution #womensempowerment. It’s a special day that requires a contrived effort to tick the pre-requisite boxes that label us either as empowered or disenfranchised, modern or backward, social media savvy or not. Unfortunately, the buck stops there. On the 9th of March we will move on to the next token that will hinge on the façade of being charitable yet patronizingly will attach itself exclusively to the current trending issue. #Womensempowerment will stop trending, discussions on women’s issues will taper off and women will continue to survive in a world that has no clue how empowerment really works.
Of course, the importance of empowering women is not lost on me however what really is debatable is if our society provides a conducive environment for women’s empowerment to thrive. For it to push beyond the superficial boundaries of trending topics we must ask ourselves how can we expect women to be empowered without a change in our collective attitude towards women.
Collective attitude shapes culture and culture is the mothership of a civilization. Bharat today then by that logic having been one of the greatest civilizations on Earth should be a reflection of our superior collective attitude towards women. After all, this is the same civilization that established the practice of a Swayamvar, where the woman asserted her independence and free will in choosing a husband of her choice. The practice would not have existed if women had not had an equal status in society. The live – in concept of Gandharva marriage is yet another example of a practice that existed in a society that had a worldview rooted in the deepest understanding of the human psyche, that is in its essence complex, varied and driven by desire. Furthermore, the fact that our Divine Goddess is an embodiment of multitude of shades of character, ranging from her strength that subdues the strongest of men and fiercest of demons without resting on masculinity, rather embracing her feminity, her anger, her intelligence, her guile, her maternal love, it is a wonder how we as a civilization have managed to create an environment of insignificant judgments cast upon women on every aspect of their private and public life. From their personal style, their disposition, their choice of work, their habits. The perspicacity of societal remarks on a woman makes me wonder whose morality are we living with in Bharat today?
Last year, we saw a live witch hunt in Bharat, a civilization that found its greatness in its liberal and egalitarian human values, in its evolved understanding of life and death as well as higher consciousness. Unfortunately, what was apparent was that most of us had deviated from our core values and become nothing more than manic voyeurs. Without a shred of restraint, we acted on our cannibalistic instincts bringing together an entire nation baying for the blood of a young girl who fit their stereotype of a witch and a money hungry seductress. The media even named her Vishkanya and Dayan. She was hounded, defamed, salacious stories were made up, her family destroyed, their reputations in tatters, but people distributed sweets the day she was arrested for a crime that had nothing to do with the suicide of her boyfriend. It reminded me of the witch hunts in Europe that began in the 15th Century built on the foundations of the Exodus decree that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18).
She was far from a witch, she was just a young career minded woman, who enjoyed fame, joined a volatile industry, fell in love and had an unconventional lifestyle by conservative Indian standards; her biggest mistake in most probability was that she was ambitious. One would think that since men and women talk with such seriousness of women’s empowerment, ambitious women would be looked upon with respect not shame. What is empowerment if not the freedom to explore one’s full potential and pursue it?
However, the point here in question is not whether she was guilty or innocent; that should have been left to the investigation agencies. (The lead investigation agency, Central Bureau of Investigation, has still has not found anything that connects her to the murder, neither has Enforcement Directorate on any crime associated to money laundering). The question we must ask ourselves is where does this stereotype come from? Why does it exist in our imagination? And why are we so keen to stereotype an empowered woman?
The answers to these questions demand serious debate and deliberation. But our history has some indicators pointing towards our troubled past of Muslim invasions and the British Raj, which brought with it Victorian morality as well as the boundaries within which a woman must function. Entirely rooted in the Judaeo-Christian traditions, for instance, if one was to compare the Divine Goddess with Virgin Mary, I think we would find that the Indian expectations of what a woman should be vis-a-vis a man, what a woman’s most desired qualities must be, and what her role in society should be, would lead us more to Virgin Mary than to Durga or Kali or any of her other forms. Virgin Mary is primarily seen through the lens of her being the mother of God and praised for her perpetual virginity and immaculate conception. She’s called by very placid titles like Mother Mary, Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and our Blessed Lady of Sorrows. Even in Islam, which carried its ideas of a woman’s role into Bharat saw Virgin Mary or Maryam as the epitome of all women. Maryam has a whole Sura dedicated to her and she is in fact mentioned more in the Quran than in the New Testament. The honorific names given to her without surprise, are as mild in Islam as they are in Christianity. She is called “Siddiquah” – She who believes completely, “Tahira” – She who has been purified, “Quanitah”- constant submission to God and prayers. Maryam is also considered as being untouched by Satan, reinforcing not just the limitations of a woman but also the collective attitude of Judaeo -Christian civilizations towards her and therefore all women. In contrast, the Divine Goddess has many names depending on her moods, the situations, and her multi-faceted strong-willed forms- Durga- The Invincible, Vidya – The source of all wisdom, Vajra- The strongest and the most powerful one so on and so forth. The reflection of Bharat’s collective attitude towards women is evident in the difference in the scope of both the divinities. There isn’t a field of activity that the Divine Goddess cannot conquer. She is gentle and maternal as Parvati and ferocious and brutal as Mahishasurmardini. But in the end, she is the master of her own free will and destiny. Venerated and loved by all, in all the forms that she takes on. Ironically, in Bharat it is the same display of character and free will, seen in many empowered women, that is vilified through the lens of moral judgment and the weight of this prejudice sits squarely on the shoulders of not just men but women too. Women are more often than not the first ones to cast aspersions on other women. Patriarchy is only partially responsible for the state of women’s affairs in this country.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that these foreign criteria through which we view women have infused the national consciousness of Bharat has left our collective attitude towards women in shambles. We are conflicted between alien morality vs Bharatiya culture.
Before our civilization becomes a page out of one of Jane Austin’s books where our expectation of women is limited to them being demure, shy, and chaste, where their anaemic goodness is an extension of their helplessness, we must rethink our collective attitudes towards them beginning with expunging foreign values and Victorian morality. We must reclaim our civilizational values in their original form and adapt and accept them in the context of modern Bharat. Only then will women’s empowerment truly yield some tangible benefits for those women who are waiting to explore their potential but are limited by and living in fear of the collective attitude that this society will have towards them should they reveal all their facets- in all its glory- in the reflection of the Goddess.