A lot of us may have heard of that infamous passage in Manusmriti that goes, “Pitah rakshathi koumare, Patih rakshathi youvane, Puthro rakshathi vardhakye, Na sthree swathanthram arhati“. Ranting against that can be quite a fulfilling exercise of passionate rage, but for the purpose of this article, we need to discuss an article written in defence of it.
“In Manu’s perception, a woman is, by her very nature, so divine and unique that she should never be left to fend for herself. It is the duty of society to protect and take good care of her — by her father during childhood, husband in her youth, and son in her old age”.
The author says that women, according to Manu, should not need independence because they are divine. Whether he is right or wrong is a matter for the experts, but the concept that women need to be respected for their so-called ‘divinity’ is quite conflicting.
The divine homemaker
It is tempting to think of a woman as a goddess. After all, an average Indian woman does over five times the household chores than a man does. All that tiresome work almost always goes unacknowledged. Yet, ‘bhoomideviyolam kshama olla sthree’ brushes it off and repeats it all over again every day. A woman bears the pains of childbirth, raises the next generation of human beings, educates them in primary culture and sends them forth into the world. Old times that.
There are several reasons why such a one-dimensional view of parenting does not fit into the real world. Such ideals completely ignore the role and the sentimentality of the father in raising children on one extreme and on the other, which drops the entire responsibility of childbirth on a woman. Hence it becomes her fault if the child isn’t a boy and her fault if he/she grows up to disappoint. Can you believe that there are people who believe in the sexist concept of ‘the mother’s fault’ even today?
Divinity as a brand Image
Also, note how accepting divinity is tantamount to accepting a brand image and the average Hindu goddess is not someone an ordinary, mortal woman can easily imitate. Distant speculation is good, but once someone attributes divinity to a woman, she becomes obliged to be extraordinary. Her emotions, tastes, and outbursts are supposed to occur within a framework of what the brand dictates. Anything more that gets expressed becomes irrational, unacceptable, heresy even. Can you imagine any goddess filing cases for abuse?
What do divine people wear?
Now move on to apparel. Of course, there is a certain way you’d expect divinity to dress. So if the ‘divinity’ before your eyes does not wear what you expect it to wear, then there is a problem. Women begin to struggle between freedom of choice and divinity that they never asked for. The same is true for all other matters that include the making of a choice. All choices of a woman would be governed by an invisible code of conduct that used to be applicable to women/goddesses from ages long bygone.
Do you think women require the divinity that strips them of choice?
Is being divine in any way useful?
Not only is such an attitude a blow on the face of women calling for equality, but it is also highly hypocritical. Women, like every other human being in this world, require unbiased autonomy. Women do not need to be divine or somehow pretend to be removed from the chaos of the world when we clearly live in it. Women do not need to be superior when all that gives them is a position on an over exalted pedestal that reduces them to mere vessels. Women still get abused and victim-blamed while patriarchy celebrates misogyny. Girls still get raped and burnt away to eradicate evidence in favour of the rapists. Women still suffer sexism in all manner of professions. Women still get belittled by their husbands for being ‘just a housewife who doesn’t know about life’.
What women need is equality, in terms of respect, choice and opportunity. Instead of this, Indian patriarchy hands women a generous dollop of divinity which at once functions as both a religious excuse to keep those that expose such obsolete ideals at bay and as a leash to manipulate women into submission. Women must strive to avoid such pedestals as much as they would avoid gender stereotypes.
Besides being just a dialogue from that overly eager friend who wants to pretend that they respect women and compensate for subtle sexism, “sthree devi ann” also has a more literal meaning in several parts of India and Nepal. Girls are made to be goddesses and are worshipped for a short while. Many ardent followers of such traditions, including the girls themselves, are convinced of the spirituality of this ritual. Yet, more often than not, we can find women forcefully inducted into the process. An example of religion being used to hide immorality is the devdasi system that still gets practised despite being banned in 1988.
Read below an excerpt from Kannada writer P Lankesh’ translated poem ‘Avva’.
Here he describes the antithesis of the concept of divine woman an ordinary woman who has human struggles, a human temperament and a human life. She is free, and despite all her struggles and lack of divinity, she is equal to her peers. If this opportunity to be free and fulfilled isn’t the equality feminists clamour for, I don’t know what is. Read the full poem here.
“…She was no Sita,
neither Urmila nor Savitri;
No, she wasn’t any holy wife –
docile, dignified, graceful – you
find on the pages of histories and epics;
no, you can’t even compare her to
the great wives of Gandhi and Ramakrishna;
she didn’t pray, like good wife
she didn’t even wear
the sacred kumkum on her face.
Like the wild bear,
she bore her kids, reared her husband,
and, saved some money for hard times;
like the hurt bitch,
she growled and fought too;
petty, cheap, she picked faults,
bickered like a baboon;
she did everything, to save
her house, husband, kids.
She would flare: when her son
went wayward; and her husband
sniffed here and there.
The wild bear
needs no book of doctrines,
and none of your holy Gita;
my mother lived for grass and grain;
for her kids and hard work;
for rice, a roof over head,
and a blanket to cover; and,
to walk equal with her peers…”