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.