Be like Sita? Hell No!

visharda
Posted November 14, 2016 from India

Imagine if I told you that an ideal woman is she who is coy, demure, self-sacrificing for her family, giving up her dreams and aspirations, has no opinions and is denied agency at every level. And further imagine that I had to call my engagement off because the man in question believed that I was too outspoken and opinionated for a girl and did not imbibe in me the values described above.

I told you to imagine this scenario. But the sad truth is that most often women in India are expected to conform to these ideals and values. And the moment she challenges this culture of patriarchy, she is not only a threat to the society but the evil force responsible for destroying the cultural fabric of a family!

I am sure you are thinking what is the basis of such values and where do they actually stem from. And to answer this question, I will have to take you back in history (not herstory, isn’t the bias evident in this nomenclature itself!) to understand how the religious and artistic representations across social texts have greatly influenced the iconization of women in India.

In India, it is not uncommon for a woman to be compared to the ideal archetype of ‘Sita’, the central female character of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Married to Prince Rama, the eldest Prince of the kingdom of Ayodhya, they symbolize the ideal heterosexual union in the cultural and political history of India (to the extent that even today one observes people celebrating them and worshipping them). After their marriage, Rama is forced into exile for 14 years and as is expected of a dutiful wife, she follows her husband thus, invoking the values such as self-sacrificing and benevolent. She is then kidnapped by the demon King Ravana, who takes her to his kingdom in Lanka, where she is held captive for a year only to be later rescued by her husband and his army of monkeys! And they lived happily ever after, not until Sita proved to the world her chastity and purity (as she had lived for a year in another man’s abode) by jumping into the fire and coming out unscathed.

Sounds like a fairy tale right? You have a Prince, a Princess who is the damsel in distress and a demon who the prince fights with to save the Princess. But the Ramayana is much beyond ‘just a story’ as any references from this text tends to gain legitimacy among the people. I say legitimacy because these epics are not just mythological references but also act as a guide to the everyday conduct of life. I remember as a child growing up in a joint family together with aunties, uncles, and cousins, watching the televised version of the Ramayana was a ritual. And my grandfather would tell us the importance of following the epic and imbibing in us the values it prescribed. Any questioning was met with resistance to the extent that for a long time I thought I was at fault to think differently.

One would think with time and awareness, the influence of such texts would significantly go down. The following examples will make you rethink!

A classic case in point are the recent statements made by the General Secretary of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), that is widely regarded as the parent organization of the current ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“There is nothing called marital rape. Marriage is a sacred bond. Co-existence should lead to bliss. If we are able to understand the concept of this bliss, then everything runs smooth.”

“Women, instead of fighting for rights, should focus on their duties, on how they can hold the society together, impart patriotism to their children and family members,"

- General Secretary, Rashtriya Sevika Samiti.

“Women should be just housewives and husbands should be the breadwinners”

- Chief, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

There are other instances:

A judgment issued by the Bombay High Court in 2012. Taking a leaf straight out from the Ramayana, Justice P B Majmudar and Anoop Mohta, while hearing a divorce petition filed by a man on grounds that his wife is unwilling to relocate to his new place of work, observed that married women should take a cue from Goddess Sita who followed her husband even during his exile into the forest for fourteen years.

Be it statements made by organizations like the RSS or the man who accused me of being opinionated or the plethora of judgments in cases involving women and attack on girls failing to comply with the normative code of conduct, the inherent culture of patriarchy is clearly evident. An attitude that stems out of the belief where women are considered as mere objects, objects that need care, that need to be protected, that need to follow the instruction manual and that have no life or purpose of their own!

It is sad that institutions that are required to further empowerment and encourage women’s emancipation have themselves been instrumental in subscribing to the dominant values and ethos that confine women and hinder her progress and anchor her back into this skewed mold of an ideal woman. It thusis necessary to constantly challenge such narratives and plant seeds of change forcing people to question and challenge the status quo and in the process, create narratives that encourage thinking, narratives that are more inclusive, narratives that celebrate diversity and most of all narratives that are more human.

This story was submitted in response to Share On Any Topic.

Comments 20

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Kirthi
Nov 14, 2016
Nov 14, 2016

Sharda! This was such a powerful piece. Your references to mythology and the powerful articulation of how they are not mere mythological references but also act as a guide to the everyday conduct of life is spot on! Thank you for your beautiful mind <3 :) 

visharda
Nov 15, 2016
Nov 15, 2016

Thank you sooooo much Kirthi :) <3 

Natasha L
Nov 17, 2016
Nov 17, 2016

Hi Sharda -  your piece is written with passion and a descriptiveness that raises awareness in a vibrant and determined way.

Your examples of statements made by government officials serve to emphasize the comparison of women to the ideal archetype of ‘Sita’.

Your words "It thus is necessary to constantly challenge such narratives and plant seeds of change" is a rallying cry for all women in India and around the world.

Thank you for speaking loud and clear.

Natasha

visharda
Nov 18, 2016
Nov 18, 2016

Thank you so much Natasha :) <3 

Dhara Patel
Nov 18, 2016
Nov 18, 2016

good job that You added some statements.   well, many regional Journalists written article on gender equality within these 2 months. As per them foreign organization are trying to demolish our culture and our Indian tradition by educating girls / women's about gender equality. since ancient time duty has been decided for both men and women. women have to take care of household work and children and elder person of the family (husbands parents). and it should be as it is otherwise the system of family will be disturb.    After reading this kind of article, I can't understand what should I do , how should I react and even if I , what impact will it make.

visharda
Nov 27, 2016
Nov 27, 2016

Hi Dhara,

Thank you for your message. I think it is important to question the fact that roles/ duty has been decided for both men and women. Why should someone decide roles for men and women or any individual for that matter? One can choose to do what one wants to do. And gender equality in no way disturbs the social fabric of family. It is unacceptable that women be discriminated on any grounds. And if one argues that treating women equally disturbs Indian culture and the social fabric of family, then it becomes even more imperative to question this definition of culture and family as an institution. Gender discrimination on any grounds in not acceptable. 

LuxG
Nov 19, 2016
Nov 19, 2016

Such a well written essay exposing the dangers of merging mythology with reality! Growing up in a Hindu household, I too was subjected to the overtly sexist material that people would tout as 'virtuous'. It's funny how the oppression and silencing of women are noble acts in various religions, and it's also funny how they think we should just let them define morality when they themselves go out of their way to be immoral, partial and intolerant.

visharda
Nov 27, 2016
Nov 27, 2016

Dear Lux,

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree on the entire questioning of morality and the way it comes to be used to silence women. 

Ashwani Gupta
Nov 28, 2016
Nov 28, 2016
visharda
Nov 29, 2016
Nov 29, 2016

Hi Ashwani,

I love "Sita Sings the Blues". A beautifully done movie :) 

The SAR Foundation
Nov 28, 2016
Nov 28, 2016

So true, Sharda! When I read your first few sentences, I thought to myself I don't need to imagine. I know those women and then your next lines were this is a reality for many women. Its so true that women are expected to live with rules and be coy, demure and everything womanly. Society cannot function with a separate set of rules for men and women. As much as women are expected to live to a norm, as are men: don't show emotion, don't cry, be manly. All of this leads to where we are right now! Great piece, really got me thinking! 

visharda
Nov 29, 2016
Nov 29, 2016

Absolutely Rupande. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts :) <3

Marne
Nov 29, 2016
Nov 29, 2016

Beautifully written Visharda and great first post.  I especially liked seeing examples of how these epic stories continue to be reinforced in court rulings and laws, adds such insight into what work needs to be done.   

visharda
Dec 14, 2016
Dec 14, 2016

Thank you so much Marne :) Really appreciate your inputs :) <3 

awuorbeatrice
Dec 02, 2016
Dec 02, 2016

What a great piece right there Visharda. A woman's place is not only in the kitchen. We also have wings to fly.

visharda
Dec 14, 2016
Dec 14, 2016

Thank you so much Beatrice :) <3 <3 

Kimthomasin
Dec 21, 2016
Dec 21, 2016

Hi Visharda,

What a wonderful and informative deconstruction of Indian patriarchy! I really enjoyed reading this and felt like I learned so much from it. Our shared mythology affects us in the present, and I feel like nowhere is there more true or relevant than modern India. Thank you so much for sharing this piece!

 - Kim

visharda
Dec 24, 2016
Dec 24, 2016

Dear Kim,

You are right in highlighting how our (shared) mythology continues to impact our lives and legitimize norms and traditions that relegate women and perpetuate stereotypes. Thank you very much for your message and sharing your thoughts :) <3 <3 

Kirthi
Jul 13, 2017
Jul 13, 2017

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, dear friend. I wish we lived in the Utopian world where marital rape would be a myth - but the truth is, no matter how much you consider marriage to be sacred, no matter what basis you build for the rationale of keeping the bond of marriage, it does not erode or take away the sanctity of personal agency or individual freedom of a woman. If a woman does not want sex, she has the right to say no and her husband must respect it. 

visharda
Jul 13, 2017
Jul 13, 2017

Dear Phonemantra,

Marriage does not mean consent. And co-existence again does not mean consent. Irrespective of it being a sacred bond or any other bond, it is imperative that a woman's right to personal agency be respected. No means no and no bond can change that.