Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Female Icons: Cultural coercion
Many a time I have come across references in the serious discourses on the women’s question that Sita( of Ramayan) is considered as an ideal for women in India. This idea, having been repeated thousands of times and over hundreds of years has oppressively and successfully swept aside all other female iconic possibilities. Even in academics, it is easy to fix an idea and then proceed to other presumptions or conclusions on the basis of the fixed idea. People have more often than not inclined to follow this pattern of discussing the questions on women and their status in India. This appears to me a fatal blow to the studies on women in India. Unconsciously this may also be a method of coercion on other studies, albeit a cultural one.
We may proceed logically, to test the validity of the projecting Sita as an ideal and an icon. First there are millions of illiterate citizens in India who do not read a word. Further out of those who are literate enough to read, only a very small percentage think about ideals and icon that they have to follow. These belong to chattering middle class lazy people who do not contribute to the economy in creating physical assets that forms actual backbone of the economy.(This may perhaps the primary reason that they are considered to be the cultural voice of the community)The other classes do not bother about following this or that icon. They have too many difficulties in life to pursue cultural icons except paying lip service while others, normally the chattering classes, talk about these icons. This is the hard reality in India.
In a perceptive book about Indian widowhood, Prof. Uma Chakravarty (of Delhi University) has done a study that shows as to how the norms for widowhood are different for different classes, particularly those of women who belong to working masses and those of women who belong to propertied classes. Therefore it needs to be stressed that all the icons and ideal women many talk about is only a reflection of their class rather than the reality. (Remember Roshoman?). Why do these studies exist? 1.Those who study women’s question invariably belong to the chattering classes that also includes intellectuals in the universities.2.It is easier to proceed from a stable, clich├ęd, safe and neat assumptions than to do field studies across populations. 3.One subtler reason may be that having eulogized Indian culture as in opposition to western culture that allows divorces freely and after having trumpeted about the stability of Indian Marriage, the intellectuals have a need to reconcile the existing reality that they have ignored so far and the cultural image they have built about widowhood and marriage in the books, discourses etc. The fact of the matter is there is not a single cultural icon or definition of ideal women India.
For example, in a single language cultural space of Tamilnadu, there may be many icons. One is that of Kannagi, the wife of a betrayed merchant who was murdered on being accused of robbery at the kings place. Kannagi, after coming to know of her husband’s death, challenges the king and the king dies on coming to know of the unjustified killing on kings orders. Then she proceeds to burn the city of Madurai and goes to heaven. This is basically a revenge story. She is one of the icons who is cited as an example of loyalty to the husband. The queen in the story is also cited as an example of loyalty to her husband because he also died on her own volition on seeing her husband dead. Thirdly, the mistress of Kannagi’s husband Kovalan had a daughter and she was groomed to be a religious women who spurns marriage and devotes her life in the service of the poor. She is also an icon. All these are stories in (or connected to ) the epic of Silappathikaram. A tamil poet Avvaiyar prefers to live single, in an age and place where it may well look, impossible.
There is another point I wish to make, those who propagate the myth of single ideal women, have their own agenda and like history there no one narrative. An ideal may be a confluence of ideas and there may not be any individual who fits into those ideas. But to repeatedly cited Sita or Kannagi or any other women as ideal, is not appropriate and this in a country of million gods and goddesses where ideal women are too many to count .
Last but not the least, in the recent case of Muktar Mai of Pakistan, she was initially portrayed as an ideal and later dropped. This is a perfect example of myth making and how the myth is treated after some event that is not palatable to the media or women’s organisations.