Thursday, 22 March 2012

Women's Day Musings


Narendra Nayak

When I was asked by the lady of the house(not to say that of my life too!) to go and speak to  students, in her place  about women's rights on the 6th March, it was partly my responsibility to do so! When the NSS officer of a college had telephoned the previous evening, I had received the call to inform the officer that my better half had a sore throat and would call back the next day. However, when there was no improvement in her voice even the next day, I asked her how she would give a talk to the students and she told me that I would- in her place! She was confident as I have spoken to thousands of the female gender in hundreds of interactions in women's educational institutions and other organizations till date. In fact when I am asked to give a talk, I ask for a minimum of two hours but generally it goes on longer and most of my interactions with women's groups have had to be stopped by the exigencies of time.

Here were a group of women’s college students, all members of the NSS (National Service Scheme for the uninitiated) willing to listen and interact and how could I refuse? So, I started my talk with telling them I am a man who is broadminded and has given full independence to his wife and treats her as an equal. They were very appreciative of that and applauded. Then came my standard query -why? They all replied - for my great job of giving her independence! Then I reminded them that independence and equality are their birth right and many times it is taken away! That is a surprise for these girls because they have always thought themselves as subservient.

Then I told them that it is religion which has made them so. That was news to them as they have never linked the two. Then I explained to them how Manu has branded women as those who never can be independent, how Islam treats women and all Abrahamaic religions blame Eve for the downfall of mankind. Then I told them about the concept of heaven in which the Muslim who dies for his religion in Jihad gets dozens of virgins, how the virtuous Hindu goes to heaven and watches the dance of the divine beauties and drinks somaras in heaven. I told them that their place would be only that of these dancers as there was no concept of any female heaven after death in any religion! It was an exclusive male preserve. Then came the talk of loyalties to the spouse- the concept of being a pativrata! There was the mention of this story of Sati Anasuya who was carrying her leprosy and syphilis stricken husband to his paramour's house on her head and on the way his foot touched a Sanyasi and he cursed him and said that he would die at sunrise. The sati laid a curse on the sun and said that it would not rise and her curse came true. This caused havoc and then the gods rushed to her and asked to withdraw her curse and she did that under the condition that her husband would be restored his youth and health! Again, the supposedly equality encouraging religion Islam talks about the universal brotherhood of man- but the woman is out of the picture. There are instances where a woman who was raped was stoned to death for adultery, sometimes coerced into marrying the rapist etc.

This led us into a discussion of marriage and its implications. I mentioned about the ad of an insurance company which exhorts men to save ' for their daughter’s marriage and son’s education'. I asked them why not the other way round? Since the college was an arts and science one I asked those girls about the hypocrisy of their parents who would have sent their brothers to better places for education and the better off people who would have sent their daughters for professional courses. The so called institution of marriage and the ceremonies are meant to keep the woman subservient to the male. The very fact of handing over the girl or kanyadaan implied that the girl was an object or chattel to be handed over to someone else like an act of transfer of ownership. The Hindu marriage rites have mantras handing over the bride to the various gods and then to the bride groom! I also told them that I had not tied the tali (the black ornament round the married woman's neck) to my wife as I felt that it was a sign of bondage. Probably, many of them would have wondered why she was not having it around her neck as well as the other signs of marriage like the bindi or the earrings which she wears only if she feels like! The other hypocrisy is about the wearing of flowers and bangles. Widows are not supposed to wear any of these. In the olden days their heads were shaven and their only apparel was a coarse red sari and their very sight would be considered as inauspicious. They were not allowed to enter temples or attend any ceremonies. But, none of these were applicable to widowers! There were no restrictions on them whatsoever, in fact they were encouraged to remarry as soon as possible to enable some father to a kanyadaan and get rid of his burden.

I brought up the points of the reproductive cycle of the women being an object of public information. I brought up the narrative of my presentation to the Nepal women's commission in which I was told to do some of the so called miracles on women during their periods to demonstrate that they too were like anyone else! But, I told them it would be an impossible for a male to have such a demonstration with a woman from among the public. Of course, some of our women activists may dare say so in public but that would not carry much weight as other women may say that they are our specially trained activists! So, I proposed that I would train some women to perform these and they could go and do the demonstrations at exclusively women’s meetings! The issue of misogynist gods was also discussed. There is the god called as Ayyappa allegedly born out of the union between Vishnu and Shiva (two male gods!) who is supposedly a misogynist, particularly at his abode at Shabarimala in Kerala! Though women are allowed at other Ayyappa temples, they are specifically prohibited from entering a radius of several kilometers from the main temple at Shabarimala. It is not that all women are prohibited but those of the child bearing age. The younger and older ones are allowed. There was this controversy of a Kannada film actor who claimed that she had gone on a visit to the shrine and a criminal case was booked against her! The custom of women having their periods being treated as outcastes and prohibited from entering religious places was also brought up. In fact in some of the houses where the elders were very orthodox, women having their periods were supposed to sit outside with a pot of water by their side as they were considered as untouchable at this time. The girls like all people who have heard or seen me- expect some demonstration of some so called miracle! So, I told them about chastity and its implications for women. In India it is always the woman who is supposed to be chaste and demonstrate that too. So, I asked them whether anyone would come forward to undergo any of these 'tests'! When none volunteered I had to coax two of them to come forward to have burning camphor put on their tongue! They were too scared to do that and so, I did it. Then reluctantly one of them agreed and when it was seen that nothing untoward happened, the other one too agreed for it. I explained to them how it was possible to keep burning camphor on one's tongue and not get burnt and it was comparatively easier for me to persuade two others to come forward for another test- keeping a burning flame on one's forearm! I explained to them how these are done and also that only the woman is expected to prove that she is chaste! Such tests are never demanded from men!

I raised the issue of the hypocrisy of religions in dealing with the sexuality of women- some of the religions making compulsory the practice of circumcision for the male which is supposed to enhance the pleasure of sexual intercourse while performing female genital mutilation which takes way all the pleasure of sex for the female and makes the sexual intercourse a very painful experience for them. The hypocrisy of the chauvinist male was highlighted by their experiences at home- how their brothers were given precedence in many things and how their father would tell his wife when something good happened that his son/daughter had accomplished that and how if something untoward occurred he would say- see how your son/daughter behaves!

   One very important question that was asked about the attitudes of the male as one young woman pointed out, she said even when the wife is more educated, well employed, earns more than the husband, her behaviour is always looked upon with suspicion. I replied to her that such an attitude comes because of the inferiority complex of the male. The men feel insecure when their wives earn more/are better educated/better placed than them. Some of these girls brought up the issue of 'moral policing' which is very rampant in this district. I told them that this was restricted to women! The moral police never dared to do that with men. What an adult woman does and who she goes with is her personal business and none had any right to interfere with that.

On the Women’s Day my message to these young women was only one- you are equal to all! You have the same rights as a man. Be aware, organize yourselves and fight for your rights. You have nothing to lose but your bonds. That is possible only when there is no suppression of rights. In a secular democracy, religion is an individual’s personal business and does not interfere with the human rights of any section of the population.

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