Last night was spent in forced piety. I was an unwilling participant to the liturgy of a devout neighbour. His hired negotiators beseeched and bargained in the darkness. Their prayers, inspired by raunchy Bollywood numbers blared on a screeching sound system till daybreak. Tossing and turning in my bed, I desperately begged Mata Rani to fulfill his wishes. No, not a case of neighbourly love, just that I can’t afford another sleepless night!
But this column is not about the way we inconvenience fellow humans in an attempt to please God. It is also not about Jaagrans, which are all-night vigils in honour of Hindu goddesses. The issue I am raising, and I believe it is a pertinent one, is how can females be simultaneously worshiped and abused in our culture. We seek the benevolence of various goddesses, Laxmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge, Durga for courage. We revere them and go to great lengths to please them but maltreat real women in offices, institutes, fields and homes.
A possible explanation for this hypocrisy, this false virtue has aptly been called the Devi Paradox. It is a state where particular women are put on a pedestal and respected for their ability to lead where as women in general have much lesser rights than men. The deification of women as goddesses who are feared and worshiped, pure and powerful, gentle and bloodthirsty, emotional and stoic, forgiving and vengeful, and any other stereotype one wishes to project onto the female sex has contributed to the persistence of these contradictory ideas about women. To put it simply, the notion of woman as goddess is a set of popular cultural memes that serve to believe anything about women and justify anyway they are treated and it is prevalent because it suits our patriarchal, male dominated society.
Manusmriti avers “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devata” from which it can be inferred that we live in a blessed land because we worship the divine as female. But this is far from the truth. It has, in fact, been observed that the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. This deification of women could take many forms, including worshiping them as goddesses and assigning supernatural status referring to some mysterious ephemeral quality. Such beliefs help to perpetuate the notion that women need to be protected at the cost of their own freedom.
The laws of Manusmriti don’t apply because what we practice is not what we preach. Look at how women are perceived in our country by both men and women. India had a woman Prime Minister who was respected for most of her tenure as a strong and determined leader. Yet, half a century later, women are still tortured and killed for witchcraft. More and more women are reaching their potential to take up high level positions in board rooms and research labs but the sex ratio continues to dwindle. Female feticide and infanticide is still practiced to escape perceived difficulties in raising girls in a predominantly male-dominated society.
No amount of legislation or state intervention can uplift the status of women because it is a social problem. No one can help us till we, women, help ourselves. The change has to begin with us. We have to stop blaming society and start looking inwards for solutions. With women’s day fresh in our minds and Basant Navratri on the horizon lets hail our mothers when we say Jai Mata di. Let’s resolve not to consider our daughters as parayadhan and daughters- in -law paraye ghar ki. Lets educate our daughters and make them financially independent before marrying them off and ensure that they get a rightful share of ancestral property. Let’s learn to respect the daughters-in-law identity and not insist that she change her name after marriage. She should not have to shun her maternal home to become a part of her marital home. And most importantly, let’s not raise our sons like a privileged lot. Let’s inculcate gender sensitivity in them and teach them to be fair to the fair sex. Only after looking inwards and onwards should we look outwards and demand support from the state and society. These steps, that seem so ordinary can help us redeem ourselves.
As I brace myself for nine nights of ear piercing Devi Pooja, I look around and wonder why we don’t honour the Devis amongst us. From the grit and brute strength of Sakshi Malik to the poise and beauty of Manushi Chillar, Haryana girls seem to have a lot worth idolising. They are determined to succeed, and they don’t ask for much…. just a chance to live. “Mhari chhoriyan kya chhorron se kam hai?” ( Are our daughters any less than sons?”) boasts the father in Dangal, a biopic on the medal winning Phogat sisters. With our sex ratio hovering at 900 girls for every 1000 boys, sadly but in all honesty, we will have to reply in the affirmative, “Haan, kafi kam!” ( yes, quite less)
( published in my column in the Haryana Tribune on 10/3/2018)