It is a welcome change that the RSS has begun to feel the need to address itself to what is generally known as ‘women’s issues’. Women’s issues span a vast canvass – sweeping across religion, culture and tradition, economics, societal attitudes, family and nation. Some of the more important issues that demand immediate attention are: to craft a well-articulated position on the changing roles of women, to acknowledge and analyse the reasons underpinning the growing pressures on family and marriage, to examine and understand women’s self-image, to examine the truth or otherwise of the popular conceptions and mis-conceptions about women inherited by tradition from our classical texts, particularly our ithihasas, and to examine if this inherited image is a strength or a burden and if status quoists are manipulating the image to be an absolute truth; denial of which truth brands women as ‘feminists of the Oxbridge variety’.
Why should the RSS study women’s issues? It has been asked sporadically, “Should the RSS study women’s issues at all”? How can the RSS claim to work with and within Hindu society without acknowledging that there are issues concerning women which are society’s business and therefore the business of the RSS too? Persistent attempts have been made in the past to thwart any attempt to get the RSS to involve itself in what is considered ‘women’s issues’. Personal opinions of individuals and their experiences came to substitute informed policy within the RSS with regard to these issues. To put it bluntly, I am totally relieved that the RSS has indicated that it is willing now to accept the challenge of confronting women’s issues. Let me begin with a few horrific examples of what some Hindu intellectuals have said about women in my presence:
• Upon being asked to speak in a Women’s college on patriotism. “What is there to speak to women about patriotism? They can only produce patriots”.
• There is a need for all of you to work with families and interact closely with all family members. There is a need to educate women on why they should observe the menstrual discipline of segregation.
• Upon seeing a woman picking up the plates and glasses after a meeting, “Now this is more in line with what women really should be doing”.
• To a woman who holds radical and even ‘heretic’ views on the ‘ideal woman’ fixation of our men, “If these are the kind of opinions you hold about women’s issues it will be very difficult to work with you in public life”.
• On why the RSS has so far failed to deal with women’s issues: “The RSS just doesn’t have the time to concern itself with these issues. And even if it did have, it shouldn’t”.
These are tasteless and wholly sexist remarks, to say nothing about being antediluvian. Make no mistake, whether said in jest or completely seriously, if Hindu ‘intellectuals’ hold opinions like these about the role and place of women, and have no qualms about airing them in the open, then they need to be shaken ruthlessly awake into the real world.
Are we caught in a time warp?
The feeble attempts so far at discussing women’s issues has been characterised by stereotyped idiom and language of ‘matru shakti’ and ‘stree shakti’ and an unwillingness to boldly break new ground. The ugly truth is that most women have no consciousness of their ‘shakti’, matru or otherwise. They feel oppressed, weak, without an assertive and assured self-image, without a purpose in life, and with no avenues for expressing their grief, discontent and anger. Most women-at-home find mere house-work sheer drudgery. They have been made to feel that expressing anger and discontent is somehow not being true to the inherited image of an ideal woman who is happy tending to her home and family. The unwillingness to discuss women’s issues and when we do, to do it within the stereotyped parameters of ‘ideal woman’ reflects a fear to confront the truth that in the real world, there are very few ‘ideal women’ just as there are very few ‘ideal men’; we also need to acknowledge that the stereotype of the Sita and Savitri mould is being increasingly and decisively broken. I say ‘fear’ because we think that when women break themselves free from these moulds, they will become de-culturised’ and ‘rootless’ and this will impact upon the stability of the institutions of marriage and family. We must examine the truth of this belief but if it does, it does. Not acknowledging this reality or continuing to harp on a tradition with which a specific segment of women do not identify themselves does not help the RSS to assess the reality of Hindu society. It is however my belief that this disenchantment of the upper-middle class and upper class women with family and marriage is a temporary phase and as men and women confront the spectre of increasing broken marriages and troubled children, they will be forced to change their attitudes if only to retrieve the emotional security that a stable family alone can provide.
I view the ‘grihini’ movement in Coimbatore as being typical of this fear and unwillingness to confront the truth. The very name suggests that we are not ready to break free from our dogma that a woman’s place is in the home, worse, only in the home. The ‘grihini’ movement was supposed to be a corrective to some perceived erosion in family values. But where this movement proved conceptually inadequate was in trying to persuade women to re-discover the charms of family and marriage without attempting to confront the reality of changing value systems, life styles, the causes behind them and thereafter effecting changes in attitude in both men and women, young and old to marriage, family and work. Reinforcing the ‘woman-at-home’ does not get to the root of the problem about why marriages are breaking up and families are shrinking. It will be a good beginning to swallow the bitter pill that there is more to women and their self-image and more to what they want than being mothers and grihinis. The next step is to acknowledge that wanting to be more than mothers and grihinis is not a heinous crime.
What do women want?
What women want is linked inextricably with their self-image. Oftentimes their self-image is torn between the truth of what they know and what they feel about themselves and the image that they have inherited through conditioning. What women want is both good and bad just as what men want is both good and bad. I use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ not in any judgemental way but in the sense that what women want or desire has both good and destructive consequences. But what most women want is to be empowered to provide for their family and to be economically independent in the event of widowhood with dependent children, being deserted by their husbands or if for some reason the husband/father is unable to earn. Most importantly and not acknowledged frequently enough is the woman’s desire for empowerment for self-fulfillment. Women also want the self-esteem that such empowerment (which includes education, role in public life, financial independence and the consequent decision-making power) brings and above all women want the right to decide the course of their life.
The focus of this paper is that segment of women whose lives are increasingly being subjected to changes which spill over the confinements of tradition and acceptability and which is impacting on family and marriage – the upper middle-class women and the new affluent higher income segment of career women. The attempt in this paper will be to detail and examine some of the issues raised above. This means I will first detail reality with regard to women’s self-image and their needs. Later on in the paper I will attempt a feminist critique of this reality.
If we have to make sense of why marriages are breaking or why the institution of family is under pressure, it is important first to look at reality squarely instead of operating from the point of view of unreal and impractical idealism. Families and marriages (at least the middle-class and upper-middle class families and marriages) rested primarily on a compliant wife, a dominant husband or father and a stay-at-home wife and mother. The stability to family provided by the stay-at-home mother and wife was achieved either because the woman had no education that would make her eligible for a competitive job outside or in spite of a good education, the idea of a working woman was anathema. In short this stability was achieved because the woman had been given no choice to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Her parents got her married when she was young enough to be compliant and still frightened of rebelling against her own parents. And her compliance or lack of resistance to injustice, inequality or even discontent is rooted in her financial dependence on her husband. And oftentimes she puts up with the humiliation of financial dependence and possibly other humiliations for the sake of her children.
The second possibility is also equally true – the inherited image that women receive about their role in the family and in society. That it is the woman who keeps the home while the man provides for it, that the stay-at-home wife is the tether to which the move-about husband is tied. There are any number of women who buy this argument and who are truly happy being ‘sahadharmini’. It wouldn’t even enter their heads to question the patronizing connotation to ‘ardhanareeshwar’ or ‘sahadharmini’. These women believe and are happy in their belief that a woman’s place is indeed only within the home.
Women and higher education
But all women, whether of the first or the second category, if they could bring themselves to be critical and honest would admit that there is more to being a woman than merely the home maker. They have realized that contemporary life exerts undue pressure on the woman and oftentimes she is called upon to fulfill tasks which were hitherto considered the responsibility of the man. They therefore want to equip their daughters with the skill and education required to deal with these new responsibilities and hence want a ‘good’ education for their daughters if only to provide them with the self-assurance that education gives a person. More and more middle-class and upper middle-class urban girls, cutting across caste and religion, can therefore be seen in colleges today. Not all of them pursue higher education for a career it is true. But higher education, for the first or second generation college-goers in the family, even if it stops with graduation or even post-graduation, nevertheless adds to their self-esteem. Besides, a good education is an important factor in marriage calculations and not something to laugh about or cavil at. A well-educated groom who is well-employed ensures a good or even improved standard of life for the family. A well-educated groom who is well-employed also seeks an educated bride for several reasons, partly good, partly chauvinistic.
But what follows naturally from such a marriage is the willingness of both men and women as parents to consider some kind of employment possibility for their daughter once she is done with her college education. Sometimes this employment progresses to a career, sometimes it terminates with marriage, often because of the deep-rooted and inherent bias on the part of the husband or his parents to the idea of a woman working outside the home. This bias is rooted not so much in any profound religious or cultural tradition as in the refusal to change attitudes, refusal to accept new responsibilities and a new way of life. It is this refusal to change which is causing the turmoil in marriages and families. But more about this ‘employment’ and the attendant bias later.
There is another emerging trend too. Increasingly, from among this segment, women intellectually or creatively inclined also pursue higher education seriously or pursue skill-oriented education in Arts which includes performing Arts and Theater, with the intention of seeking intellectual or creative fulfillment. This need for personal fulfillment in women and the pursuit of a particular skill or education as an end in itself for the evolution of their self-image is something which most families in this segment are still not comfortable with and worse, do not acknowledge. But this change is indeed taking place in urban societies.
Working women and career women
‘Individual as consumer’ is an inevitable consequence of increased economic prosperity. Consumerism is the resultant culture. A globalised economy opens new frontiers for the educated and these frontiers include new job opportunities with an income which makes affordable at least some of the luxuries which were hitherto unreachable for the middle-class and the upper-middle class. And as education and higher/specialized education becomes the vehicle for this improved standard of living, parents invest in good schools and good colleges for their children. Girls thus educated are no longer willing to be stay-at-home wives and mothers. Secondary school, college and later higher education have brought girls out of the confines of the home and this itself is a physical liberty and freedom newly achieved and once achieved, not easily given up; and if against the wishes of the girl she is forced to give up this sense of liberty, it leads to serious discontent and even disenchantment.
This exposure to the larger world outside the home breaks several mindsets and erodes the conditioned responses fashioned by the home. Young girls who have seen women becoming providers out of necessity in the previous generation and who have chosen employment and jobs/career for the financial independence it gives them are not only demanding the kind of respect that was/is reserved for the earning man but also want men to participate more actively in child-rearing and home-making. And when men, married to employed women or career women refuse to change their attitude towards child-rearing and household chores, tensions begin to build between married partners. And if career or work demands do not permit man and woman to resolve the tensions in a marriage it inevitably leads to separation and even divorce.
A man coming home late is a hard working man but a woman coming home late is a wife/mother neglecting her home and children. A man returning home from work has so far been accustomed to a wife waiting in attendance on him with coffee and refreshments but a woman returning home from work cannot and ought not to expect similar comforts. A man returning home late from work does not expect to be questioned about his whereabouts and expects his dinner to be laid ready for him but a woman returning home late from work is subjected to an inquisition first and then expected to get dinner ready for the man and for herself. And if the household includes elders, then while the mother-in-law would be quite happy to wait in attendance on the son, it would be sacrilegious to expect her to do the same for a tired daughter-in-law everyday. If a child falls sick the career mother is expected to take off from work while it wouldn’t occur to the employed father to do the same. And the heavens fall down if the child of a working mother brings home a bad report card. Small irritants? Yes, but if they occur repeatedly, these create and build tensions in a marriage. And it is for these very small reasons that in most homes the concept of a working woman continues to be unacceptable unless ‘absolutely necessary’. When and if it becomes ‘absolutely necessary’ for the woman to provide for the family then none of the ‘small things’ mentioned above is of great consequence. It is all in the attitude as I said earlier.
But the most amusing of all in a home where you have a career or employed woman by choice and not out of ‘absolute necessity’, - if the husband or the elders at home are not happy with the idea of a working woman and the idea of a financially independent woman sticks in their throat, but the salary she brings home is really quite useful even if not ‘absolutely necessary’, no opportunity is lost to point out to her and the rest of the world, “We really don’t need her salary you know, it is just that we have given her all the freedom she needs to pursue her career”. But financial independence in women is still considered to pose the biggest threat to a ‘stable’ family and fathers and brothers who have resisted and would resist an ‘independent’ wife naturally deny their daughters and sisters the means of such an empowerment.
Traditionally/culturally acquired image
The image that Hindu society has inherited of the woman and her role within the family and society has the following main components: Woman must be protected, woman’s complete fulfillment is in motherhood, woman must be invisible and voiceless, woman is ‘natural home-maker, woman is emotional, irrational, impulsive, likes gossip, likes gold even more, woman is vindictive, scheming, frivolous, flippant, flighty and so on. Hindu culture while pervasively negative and unflattering about women as a whole however sings eulogies to ‘mothers’. Whatever is denied to ‘woman’ is granted to ‘mother’ as a matter of privilege. It is amazing how they can make this disconnect between ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ and speak of both as if they were two different species. But these unflattering and generally prevalent opinions about women have been derived from some basic propositions in our tradition.
Let us consider the gender bias in our religion. The cosmic person is ‘cosmic man’. The ‘purushasuktam’ describes the cosmic man, not cosmic person. If ‘purusha’ in purushasuktam and purusharthas is generic and not gender then how do we explain purusha/stri, purusha/prakriti? How do we translate pourusham, purushatvam and in what contexts have we used these words? The man is also the ‘protector’ or even the ‘lord’. ‘Rashtrapati’, ‘bhupati’, ‘pashupati’, ‘ganapati’, ‘gajapati’. They are all male, please note as is the ordinary ‘pati’ who naturally becomes husband – the protector and lord of his wife. ‘Pati’ and by extension the son is always the protector; ‘pati’ or protector/lord is never the ‘wife’ or the daughter. While ‘pati’ is not merely husband but also connotes protector or lord, ‘patni’ on the other hand is only wife. She has no larger connotation. And because ‘patni’ has no larger connotation and because ‘pati’ is gender specific I worry about what we will call a woman President of this country if ever we see the day.
Our tradition has also made man the ‘giver’ always and the woman the ‘receiver’. In ‘ardhanareeswara’ Shiva/cosmic man/Ishwara has ‘given’ half his body to parvati/woman/prakriti. She is therefore ‘ardhaangini’ or the ‘given’ half of the body whose primary and essential gender is male. This ‘giving’ has caused the other dualism, purusha-potential-prakriti/maya-manifest where the potential is male and the manifest is female. Typical of the devaluing of the female component is also the understanding that while ‘purusha’ constitutes the real, maya is unreal or even imaginary.
Similarly, the man has made his wife ‘sahadharmini’ – he has allowed her to be a partner in ‘his’ dharma. The man is always the giver because in both ‘ardhaangini’ and ‘sahadharmini’, the words connote the female. The ‘giving and receiving’ extends to other domains too - from respect, dignity and freedom to means of survival. The woman always waits to be ‘given’.
The absolute truth of Hindu religion which is nirguna, not because it has no ‘guna’ but only to discourage definition because any description can only be limited, has been made gender-dichotomous in common human understanding and language. If we can ignore the gender bias in the basic dualism, then the cosmic person is both male and female – meaning, that from which all Creation is emanate has both elements in it; and so, that which creates and Creation itself is both male and female. Purusha/Prakriti cannot be separated into the male and female. Separating the two demands the reconciliation that they are ‘complementary’. The two are not ‘complementary’ but inherent components of existence. Just as you cannot say the eyes and ears in a human body are ‘complementary’. Our understanding must be that both the Potential and the Manifest have the male and female elements in them if we really must use the words ‘male and female’ for easier understanding.
Flowing from this basic dualism are the other dualisms which we caused in tradition and culture – Ishwara-Maya, man-woman, mind-body, reason/intellect-emotion, public space-home, gnana-bhakti, provider-caretaker, independent-dependent and so on. We have no way of knowing if Hindu society ever treated women as partners but we have every reason to believe that our ithihasas, dharma shastras, bhashyas and puranas – the bedrock of our culture, have been authored in the main or almost entirely by men. So while the absolute truth may be nirguna, all else has been coloured by gender bias. The bias varies from the gross to the subtle. We only have to examine the dualisms presented above to realize that all qualities on the left are associated with men while those on the left are associated with women causing immense confusion besides providing men with a handle for oppression. Our tradition determined that the gnana marga for self-knowledge was the sole prerogative of the man while for the woman self-knowledge or moksha could be attained only by ‘seva’ and her ‘pativrata’ dharma. It is amazing how similar was the treatment meted out to both the woman and the untouchable by the men in Hindu tradition – from denying them voice, denying them presence in public life, defining their dharma for them, and denying them the gnana marga. Hindu society is still in the process of correcting the gross perversions in Hindu tradition which these attitudes have caused and we have to accept the fact that both the woman and the harijan are seeking empowerment to uplift themselves. In the process some women and some sections of the harijans are distancing themselves from Hindu society and even the religion as a whole.
Woman as body
The stories of Renuka and Ahalya are but the natural outcome of the mind-body dualism. Almost every humiliation and oppressive act of Hindu society against the woman including domestic violence and rape has its direct cause or root in this dualism. We need an honest intellectual approach to the issue of chastity and ‘pativrata’ in women. If chastity is an intrinsic merit then it ought to have applied to the man as much as it did to the woman. Truth is, chastity was never an absolute virtue for all Hindus nor was it an intrinsic part of child-rearing in men whereas it was made the central feature of the upbringing and conditioning of the girl-child, of young women and soon-to-be wives.
Central to the whole issue of ‘pativrata’ is the woman’s child-bearing capacity. It is the woman who reproduces the vamsa, the caste, the religion and the nation. A woman’s body is not so much sacred as protected. Even as the girl child approaches puberty, the family begins the conditioning process. The girl is treated like a sensitive defence installation. Her body is wrapped up, her appearances in public spaces is limited, she is told never to venture outside her home needlessly, not to be seen to be loitering and so on. The list of do and don’ts grows longer. The girl/woman’s body is treated not so much as sacred as vulnerable. From then on the lines between control and protection of the woman begin to blur.
It may be worth dwelling on this point in greater detail. The prelude to the Valmiki Ramayana describes the characteristics of ‘kaliyuga’. And one of the symptoms of kaliyuga is the ‘degeneration’ in the character of women. And this degeneration is described in minute detail – women caring for their bodies and hair at the expense of tending to their husbands and family, women spending more and more time outside their homes in gossip and empty talk, a quarrelsome wife… in short when the woman begins to attend to her body as something more than merely an instrument for motherhood, when she refuses to be invisible and voiceless, we can take it that we are living in kaliyuga.
There is an element of truth to this proposition because the fundamental truth is that a woman’s body has been created to undertake a divine function – to nurture and deliver life. This function is divine because it is the woman and woman alone who reproduces and sustains Creation and gives form to new life. Her body is therefore sacred in the extreme. But we need the honesty to acknowledge that this feeling of sacredness of the woman’s body because of the intrinsic sanctity of all life is sadly absent not just in men but in women too. Hindu society has failed to impart to Hindus the overwhelming feeling of sanctity of all life. In spite of being mothers, most women are ‘mothers’ only to their children without developing and evolving the all-encompassing quality of ‘motherhood’ or nurturing which alone makes the woman different from man. Not only are women more and more ‘mothers’ only to their children alone but there is an utter absence of compassion or karuna for other life forms. There is no sensitivity towards non-human life forms and an abject lack of consciousness to protect and sustain them. Women have failed to understand the divinity of their role as much as men. While I think this increasing attention being paid to the body is the beginning of a reactive process to the extreme repression suffered by them because of their bodies, I also believe the phase is temporary. But just because there is an element of truth to the traditional proposition that society will slip into anarchy when a woman tends to her body without the consciousness of the sanctity of her body, it cannot be corrected by coercion or force. Enlightened women alone, not men, can correct and reverse the trend.
The woman’s body is the symbol of the fertility of the vamsa, jaati, village, and the nation, the symbol of the capacity of society and community to propagate itself. A woman’s body, to put it bluntly symbolizes the physical space and boundaries and the numerical strength of the vamsa, jaati, village, community and nation. Women are therefore the ‘precious commodity’ of the group who need to be protected, guarded and defended by men the ‘pati’. And that is why a woman is the most vulnerable target of the enemies of the vamsa, jaati, religion, village, community and nation. And because a woman’s body is vulnerable to violation by enemies, the emphasis on rearing the girl child is to care for the body to make it fit for motherhood but not to tend to it in a manner which would make it so attractive that it would draw unwanted attention. ‘Pativrata’ dharma was made the overarching virtue for woman to deter her from putting her body to use for anyone else other than the family, the vamsa, the jaati, religion and nation. And that is why women have often been the cause for family feuds, inter-caste hostilities, and wars between communities and nations. These feuds and wars are struggles for power by the guardians and protectors of women and by extension the physical boundaries of their village or nation.
And that is the core of the issue – the so-called sanctity of the woman or motherhood is rooted only in her capacity to propagate a group or a community and the qualities of motherhood are primarily the ability of the mother to rear her children to fulfill the traditional roles envisaged by the group to which she belongs – girls to become future ‘good mothers and wives’ and boys to become good providers and protectors. If motherhood were indeed sacred and if men had been reared to revere motherhood then there would be no instances of wife beating, domestic rape and domestic violence and no violence against the woman within families, jaati, villages and the nation. Truth is, for most men, only their mothers are mothers. They make the disconnect between women and mothers so conveniently that they can justify violence against other women in the family and outside. It would be difficult to locate any abuse or act of violence against the woman outside of this framework. This framework encompasses all past and prevalent attitudes. Ravana forcibly taking away Sita, Sita being asked to enter the fire, Draupadi’s vastraharan, beheading Renuka, and turning Ahalya into a stone are all rooted in this conceptual framework and the perpetrators of these heinous acts are all men. The horror of widowhood and Savitri reclaiming her husband from the clutches of death are also rooted in this framework. Hindu tradition had no use for widows or the infertile woman. Both are considered even today to be ‘amangal’ and it is expected that they will efface themselves in public functions.
What do we do?
We are discussing women’s issues against the backdrop of hindutva. Let us look at the problems of modernism and feminism. Both –isms are a reality and denying them or bad-mouthing them is not going to help us deal with them. Intellectually analyzing the cultural and traditional roots of discrimination and inequity with regard to the woman serves two purposes – to evolve a theoretical framework for discussion and also to provoke us into looking for answers to the problems posed by tradition, within tradition itself.
• Urban women more and more are beginning to look at their bodies as more than vehicles of motherhood. They use their bodies for self-expression. In extreme cases this self-expression flaunts the body in a manner bordering on the provocative. This is eroding whatever vestiges of traditional respect that our culture accorded the woman’s body resulting in increased violence against women.
• Women are stepping out of their homes for several reasons and are increasingly refusing to be stay-at-home wives and mothers.
• Women are seeking financial independence to be seen as partners in a marriage and this is weakening the traditional ‘dependent’ glue that kept marriages and families together.
• Intellectual women are beginning to question the propositions underpinning the image that they have traditionally inherited of their role and place in family and society.
• It is these intellectual women who, having rejected traditional values and institutions for being patriarchal, are today providing a de-culturised leadership to non-governmental organizations and movements working with economically and culturally deprived women. These head either the Marxist (economic ideology) or atheist (cultural ideology) NGOs which today pose the greatest danger to family, marriage and nation.
• Women are ambitious, they like power and they can also be ruthless/determined in the pursuit of power and their ambitions/goals. How do we place this reality within the ‘motherhood’ idiom/illusion?
• More and more women are today openly acknowledging that there was life, there is life beyond husbands.
• These are the woman we get to see increasingly in public life – in work places, in white-collar jobs hitherto a male bastion, in politics, in the arts and in professions. These women will settle for nothing less than partnership in marriage and equality in public life.
There can be no two views about the need to preserve the inviolability of marriage and sanctity of family. Marriage and family are the foundations upon which all society rests and grows. Unstable families cause unstable societies and rootless individuals people a de-culturised nation. The USA is the most glaring example of this kind of society. Patriarchy or not, freedom of the individual notwithstanding, America is re-discovering the value of religion and family. We need to start the process of correction without suffering the same fate. We need to discuss to find out if our culture, tradition and religion offer these correctives. And even if we cannot find correctives for the aberrations within tradition can we reconcile with our traditions without negating or denying them? Can we retain our culture while at the same time we jettison abhorrent practices and attitudes? Can we cleanse our minds of inherited prejudices and opinions without throwing the baby out along with the bath water? Can we liberate our women from the oppression of cultural and traditional invisibility and silence without de-culturising them?
If we can begin to think honestly along these lines we may yet deal with women’s issues within the hindutva framework. But first we need to realise that women’s issues are not just women’s issues. We also need to go far beyond the clichéd ‘matru shakti’ and ‘stree shakti’ discourse. Even these concepts serve only the cause of tradition-determined role and place of women as described above. If we continue to play ostrich, more and more women will reject the culture and tradition which denies them agency. And we would be paving the way for the kind of anarchy that prevails in American and other western societies.
13th January, 2005.