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Women have been central to the civilisational discourse of many nations from ancient times. For Hindus, the creator-gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiv are incomplete without their female counterparts – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Shakti. The Western civilisations have their own female ancestors. It was Pandora for ancient Greeks and Eve for Judaeo-Christians. If the beauty of Helen was the cause of the Trojan War in ancient Greece, Hindus had their Sita and Draupadi at the root of the wars in Ramayana and Mahabharata.
However, the portrayal of womanhood in different traditions has been different. The stories of Pandora and Eve have greatly influenced Western traditions. Take the story of Pandora:
“The Titan Prometheus was once assigned the task of creating the race of man. He afterwards grew displeased with the mean lot imposed on them by the gods and so stole fire from heaven. Zeus was angered and commanded Hephaistos and other gods to create the first woman Pandora, endowing her with beauty and cunning. He then had her delivered to Prometheus’ foolish younger brother Epimetheus as a bride. Zeus gave Pandora a storage jar (pithos) as a wedding gift which she opened, releasing the swarm of evil spirits trapped within. These would forever after plague mankind.”
This theme of a ‘beautiful and cunning woman’ continues in the story of the Trojan Wars in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. Iliad was about a beautiful woman named Helen, queen of Sparta and wife of king Menelaus. She elopes with the Trojan prince Paris at the prodding of the capricious goddess Aphrodite. Enraged Menelaus dispatches his brother Agamemnon with a fleet of more than thousand ships to avenge the action of the Trojans. Agamemnon brings back Helen after killing Paris and destroying the city of Troy. All through the Homeric narrative, Helen comes across as a hapless and weak woman.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, portrayal of Eve, the female companion of the first male, Adam, in the Book of Genesis, led to a profoundly negative impact on women in the West throughout the history of the last two millennia. Genesis in the Bible projects Eve as a quintessential evil, who disobeyed God. Eve’s sin was to come under the evil spell of the serpent and encouraging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit in defiance of God’s injunction. God punishes both for their disloyalty and expels them from the Garden of Eden. However, a greater punishment was reserved for Eve. “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband; and he shall rule over you”, God commands.
Such narratives led to the Western women endure great discrimination and repressions at the hands of the religious establishment as well as in the lay Christian societies. They were not allowed to open their mouths in any assembly, not empowered at the pulpit and generally treated as lesser humans. Thousands of women were branded as witches and put to brutal death in medieval Europe.
There was nobody to challenge the traditional repressive interpretations of Genesis, hence women themselves had to take up cudgels against it. That was how the Western feminist movement was born, which started challenging the misogynist and patriarchal interpretations of the Semitic religions. Renowned Australian feminist Geena D Andersen puts it very beautifully: “Feminism is not about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives their strength”.
Indian women did not face such challenges. Portrayal of their ancestors in Hindu tradition was one of courage, freedom and wisdom. Sita of Ramayana was a woman of self-dignity who refuses to return to Ram and instead chooses to go back to her mother, the Mother Earth. Draupadi in Maha Bharata was a feisty and ferocious woman who refuses to accede to anything short of the blood of Dushasan even if that meant an epic war. Maitreyi engages in a scholarly debate with her husband Sage Yagnavalkya on the issue of the Omnipresent and relents only when the sage warns that she had reached the question of the questions beyond which no more questions exist. After declaring her husband Mandana Mishra the loser in a debate with Adi Shankara, Ubhaya Bharati challenges Shankara to debate with her on Kama Vidya – the science of sexuality, forcing him to retreat for a duration and return with that knowledge. Chivalrous Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Philosopher Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore lead armies from the front against the British. In Mill’s History of India, Prof. H.H. Wilson says: “It may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst Hindus”.
But the contemporary Indian society has drifted away from those ideals in its treatment of women. Pendulum swings between objectification and over-restriction for Indian women today. Contemporary moralism in India was a Victorian-era import, which was rejected as anti-women by the colonists themselves. Security of women became a very patronising chauvinism leading to denial of choice to them. Dignity, freedom of choice and equity, the traditional values of Indian ethos, thus elude Indian women today. The result is that while India ranks 18th in the world in terms of political empowerment of women placing it ahead of many other countries, including ‘developed’ ones, it tragically ranks 150th in women’s health and survival, 112th in education attainment and 149th in economic participation and opportunity.
How would it change? In a letter written to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur in October 1936, Gandhi, a Sanatani Hindu, had this advice for the women of India: “If you women only realise your dignity and privilege, and make full sense of it for mankind, you will make it much better than it is. But man has delighted in enslaving you and you have proved willing slaves till the slave and holders have become one in the crime of degrading humanity. My special function from childhood, you might say, has been to make women realise their dignity. I was once a slave holder myself but Ba (Kastur ba) proved an unwilling slave and thus opened my eyes to my mission”.
Gandhi’s call was for women to take up cudgels like their Western counterparts to ameliorate this situation. But, while doing so, they shouldn’t fall victim to the Western discourse. Women issues in India should be placed and reviewed in the Indian context. Terms like ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’ betray only a partial challenge in the Indian context. If empowerment means a tokenism like women securing some positions – political or otherwise, India is probably performing better than others. Do those words merely mean that an equal number of women should occupy positions as that of men while all other women remain in a choice-less patriarchy? Or the real issue is about dignity, freedom of choice and equity rather than imposed equality? Amanda Gorman, the young Black American girl who recited at Biden’s inauguration, has said that her opportunity doesn’t reflect the general condition of the Black American women. India’s women’s movement needs to revisit these issues through a purely Indian lens.