|HER WORLD||Sunday, December 16, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
"Monks, whosoever clings to a woman's form - infatuated, enslaved, enthralled - for many a long day shall grieve, snared by the charms of a woman's form..."
THESE were words of advice by Lord Buddha to the monks who were seeking the path of enlightenment through renunciation.
Viewed in isolation, these words from the supreme head of a religious institution have led to the denouncement of women as temptresses. Similarly, a verse in the Koran exhorts the wives of the Prophet to "stay in your houses and display not your beauty". And in a passage in the Bhagavadagita, Arjuna expresses the view that when the women of the family become corrupt, the family name is corrupted and society at large degenerates.
These words, however, need to be read in the context of the social, cultural, educational, moral and religious milieu of the time in which they were first enunciated. Because even a cursory examination of the interpretations of the scriptures, from which these comments are taken, would reveal that equal dignity is afforded to men and women by all religions.
According to some interpretations, if the Koran advocates donning the veil for women, then for men too looking at a woman's face with lustful intentions is not permitted. If a man encounters a woman with whom he has no other dealing, he is supposed to cast down his eyes.
Besides, there are several views on the origin of the purdah itself, ranging from the opinion that it originated in Medina with the upper class women or free women (as opposed to slave women) wearing it to define their status and later it spread to the rest of the community.
Therefore, it was not a religious diktat which accorded the status of second class citizens to women. Any references that were made in religious scriptures were in keeping with the societal growth of the times and were not necessarily commandments. For instance, it was societal pressure in Europe in the Middle Ages that decreed that women be bound in the 'Chastity Belt'— a device used to control their sexuality while the knights went off to battle. Women's lack of education and economic independence left them with little choice but to silently live with prevalent attitudes.
However, liberal thinking abounded in previous times too. For instance, history also describes the famed 'Swayamwars' where it was the woman who made the choice of her groom. Despite these interpretations, fundamentalists of all religions choose to pick elements that reinforce their agenda of controlling women.
Since religious fundamentalism itself is a reaction to the disintegration of power it naturally follows that fundamentalists would seek to reverse the course of history in favour of dogmatically pursuing a mythic past. As Reverend Dr Donald H R De Souza, Deputy General Secretary, Catholic Bishop's Conference of India (CBCI) puts it, "Religious fundamentalism itself is an aberration. Fundamentalists are not the true interpreters of religion and cannot hold authority over the large majority who follow the right path."
He elaborates further, "The Bible teaches us religious truth and not scientific truth." He relates two instances to substantiate his point: The mention in the Bible that the earth was created in seven days which is not a scientific truth but mythical parlance; and instances cited in the Gospel, according to which certain diseases like heart attacks and fever are identified as demonic possessions of the human body and Jesus commands the demons to leave the body.
The Archbishop of the C.B.C.I., Rev. Oswald Gracias further clarifies that between the Old Testament and The New Testament there is a clearly visible ideological change since the Old Testament describes the man as the head of the family but in the New Testament Jesus breaks structures and through his own teachings and actions portrays sensitivities in dealing with women.
The evolution of religion and its interpretations notwithstanding, women continue to be the victims of fundamentalist ire. The intolerance has increasingly led to women becoming targets of brutal physical attacks and psychological terror and torture.
What makes women the sole focus of fundamentalists? Even Hinduism, which is not an organised religion, has proponents defining dress codes for women. Why? Says Madhav Gobind Vaidya, spokesperson for the right-wing Rastriya Swamsevak Sangha (RSS), "Anybody who does this is not representing Hindu society."
But what of the fracas which was created at colleges over girls wearing jeans, skirts and any 'western' mode of attire? His answer: "Every society has a certain minority that is against reforms and which always initially offers resistance before beginning to accept change."
Other religious leaders, however, have other explanations. As Father Donald says, "Women belong to the margins of society, along with tribals and Dalits and are soft targets who do not have much clout."
Yes, at the crux lies the politics of power because the 'Woman Issue' provides the fundamentalist with an ideological platform upon which to carry forward the political agenda.
It helps in building affiliations with political and cultural groups and helps in building a political movement around a religious agenda.
IT was one of those freak monsoon days in the last week of September last year. Bright and sunny through the day without any suggestion of rain. Then a sudden clap of thunder that preceded a blaze of lightning flashing across the skies, so bizarre in its suddenness and ferociousness, that the city shivered with fear. With good reason. That flash of brilliance took several lives back with it. One of them was that of a small nine-year-old boy. Little Akash was playing with his sister on a crowded beach in uptown Mumbai. His young parents, sitting on the sands, watched from a distance of barely six feet.
Both kids were in the water that barely covered their feet. Lightning struck. At that moment the daughter, older by a few years, dipped low to pick up a few shells. The lightning zipped across the sky struck the boy, skirted past the girl and the parents hit an old man and a coconut seller and zipped away. The boy and the coconut seller died instantly, the old man was gravely injured.
The parents didn’t see a thing. When the thunder clapped, the sound was so deafening that both parents and probably the rest of the people on the beach instinctively shut their eyes and pressed their palms against their ears. A few second later when they opened their eyes, the parents saw the boy lying face down on the water. The father assumed that the thunder and lightning had scared the child and he had dropped to the ground. He rushed to pick him up. But when he turned him around, he knew that his world had just crashed around his ears. The boy’s lips had turned blue and there was a hole burnt into the T-shirt near his heart. The devastating lightning had struck his heart and ripped its way out through his thigh.
A maniacal drive to the nearest hospital followed. A team of doctors attended on the child immediately, but it was a lost cause. Akash was dead.
For a parent, there can be nothing more painful in life than losing their child. For Akash’s parents, their world had come to an end. Shell-shocked, motionless and highly sedated, they went through the rituals.
Days later, the father emerged out of stupor, so crazed with grief that his friends and relatives prayed that he’d slip back into his trance-like state. The mother refused to cry. "Akash hated to see me cry. He used to tell me it hurt him if I cried. I don’t want to hurt him any more."
Grief. No amount of counseling can really help. So how does one cope? Perhaps finally, the strength to cope comes from somewhere within. The Bhagavadagita says that just as you step out of old clothes and get into your new clothes, the soul too steps out of its old, frail body and moves into another new body. There is no death, because it’s the soul that really matters and it lives on eternally. This theory may be comforting, but holds very little water for parents who’ve lost a young child.
Or even an adult. When Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, the ghazal king and queen, lost their only son in a road accident a few kilometres away from their home, the grief changed their life completely. For months, a shroud of utter despair and desolation loomed over their home. Finally, when it lifted a little, only Jagjit Singh emerged. His new album broke hearts. It was a heartrending cry of a grief-stricken parent.
Since them Jagjit Singh has made a conscious effort to immerse himself totally in his music. But for Chitra Singh, music had lost its meaning. After her son’s death, she hasn’t sung a single note. For several years, she had become a total recluse, learning to live within the four walls of a home. Now, on very rare occasions, she is seen at a music album release function. But never to sing, even a line. Her way of dealing with her grief, was to completely turn inwards.
Different people cope with grief in different ways. But after the disbelief wears off, it’s the anger against fate that runs its storm, but finally perhaps it’s the faith that keeps all of us alive.
Faith that finally, in the ultimate analysis, it’s the big boss up there who is pulling the strings and we are only the hapless puppets.
It’s perhaps only then that our surrender to the powers-that-be becomes total. For Akash’s parents, the faith in God made them believe that their son would one day come back to them.
Eleven months later, Shobha, Akash’s mother, is just back home with her newborn son. Call it fate, sheer co-incidence or God’s will, for the parents their belief that their son will come back to them remained unshakable. When Shobha came back from the hospital with her son, she stepped out of the car smilingly and told her friends who were eagerly waiting for her; "I’ve brought Akash back home." A counsellor who works with traumatised parents says, "Initially, the grief overshadows everything. It’s only after a while that other things come into focus.
The pain of the lost one is never forgotten, but time heals. Inevitably the trust and faith in God increases though one might believe that it would be just the opposite."
A number of grief-stricken parents turn to the occult. When a Parsi couple in Mumbai lost both their sons in a motorcycle accident on the treacherous mountain roads leading to Pune, they turned to the supernatural. They were convinced that they could communicate with the spirits of their sons. They even wrote a book on it and over the years had a lot of believers joining hands. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t.
But what was important was that the feeling of continuity, of the fact that everything had not ended helped them to cope with their earth-shattering loss.
There are a number of helplines in the country that network amongst one another, and always reach out to the distressed.
APROPOS of Vimla Patil’s article, "Can women truly change India?, there is no doubt that men have ruled India since Independence and even earlier. But they have brought nothing but political, socio-economic and cultural catastrophe. They have accentuated poverty, unemployment and squalor. At present, corruption, lawlessness and terrorism rules the roost. Such a dirty spectacle has been the product of the fact that men have proved to be vagrant politicians. They shout in and out of Parliament but have done nothing except changing the ideals into dogmas, enthusiasms into aggressions and achievements into masquerades. The fact is that they have brought chaos all around. Men have made women spiritual slaves because of their sense of paranoia.
The actual fact is that women have qualities or capabilities galore i.e., at least more than men. These qualities are love, trust, beauty, sincerity, truthfulness and authenticity—these are the qualities men do not possess sufficiently or in ample measure. The fact which is palpably felt is that women are women and men are men, and that there is no question of their comparison. Women are better than men and they are unique. They are paragons of virtue and goodness. And if they take part in politics, they would certainly prove "great men" to borrow Voltaire's remark.
This has now been clearly proved by the fact that in Maharashtra, they have played a historic role in the development of the state by running schemes like Mahila Bachat and the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan. The women in Maharashtra have brought about a great upheaval in the villages of Maharashtra. The Mahila Mandals have acted as a powerful pressure group against the widely entrenched corruption and wrong-doing in the bureaucratic set-up.
The fact is that women, if they happen to know their inner strength, can create an upsurge in the life of the country and can change the face of India by bringing about a new politico-social and economic metamorphosis. They can wipe out gruesome poverty, unemployment and other such social evils.
Thus, India’s future lies in the power of women to bring about the exhilaration, the ecstasy of the new upsurge and make India the envy of the world. What is required at the present is that the women should create the necessary apocalyptic approach.
Han Raj Jain, Moga
Fighting for rights
This refers to Nirmal Jit Kaur’s article, "You alone can fight for your rights" (November, 25). We boast of our cultural heritage, which accords the highest social status to a woman as mother, wife, daughter and sister. Equally true is the fact that we have no qualms of conscience in practicing female foeticide or encouraging Sati and according it the status of pilgrimage. Suppression and exploitation of our women is rather a habit with us. No doubt, legally we have created a special status for women by making various provisions for protection against exploitation and violence. Our law provides for redressal against sexual harassment at the workplace. But little do we seem to realise that all such remedies, like other legal provisions, are possible if one comes into direct confrontation with the other party, say the husband or employer. This will create not only a hostile atmosphere and relationship, but will also make any future peaceful and cordial living and working together impossible. Of course, a woman must fight for her rights and for a respectable status, but are we conscious of the stigma that is attached to her for ever if she sues her tormentors for rape and domestic violence? What happens if she goes in for a divorce from her ‘bullish, unsympathetic or even immoral and treacherous’ husband? The sense of social shame that is attached to her fight for equality and redressal against injustice makes her life all the more difficult, if not traumatic.
The solution to this socio-cultural malady lies not solely in any legal process but in the educational development and a positive attitudinal change among men. Awareness and independence of women can be relevant only when men learn to appreciate their significance as an equal partner in social development and economic stability of the family.
Ved Guliani, Hisar
This refers to Teena Singh’s write-up : "Ludhiana girl’s hat-trick as mayor in Newzealand" (December 2). I am thrilled to know that Sukhi Gill Turner, the "Ludhiana Girl" has created history as the first woman to be elected as a Mayor in Newzealand —to be further re-elected for two tenures of three years each. It is indeed a remarkable achievement which deserves to be applauded. It specially gladdens my heart because Sukhi belongs to my home town. I admire her unshakable convictions and principles. As per our Panchayati Raj Act, there are 3 million functionaries engaged in running our panchayats in our villages, out of which-one million functionaries are women. I would request these women functionaries to treat and regard Sukhi Gill Turner as their role model and draw inspiration from her convictions principles and dedicate themselves to the general well-being of their respective communities and thus ensure rural development. Sukhi’s pro-active example should also motivate our wannabe mayors who are women. I would also appeal to our NRIs in all other foreign countries to imbibe the kind of sense of pride Sukhi has shown in her new avatar— ‘citizen of Newzealand’ and has kept a right balance between her loyalty to her birth land (roots) on the one hand and her loyalty to her new homeland on the other hand.
Despite her Indianness, Sukhi adopted and became a true Newzealander from the moment, she took the oath of citizenship, after her wedding in 1973. I would recommend that the Punjab government should officially honour Sukhi as she has done us proud. Sukhi Gill Turner’s success story raises a couple of important issues which should engage our serious attention. Like Glenn Turner, our young Indian men also bring foreign bahus (wives) who acquire Indian citizenship, but we look at their rights to hold Constitutional offices with contempt and express our reservations about it (The case in point is that of Sonia Gandhi). We must change our mindset and limited outlook. The other issue that emerges from this success story is that we must learn to come to terms with our multiple identities—our regional identity (Sukhi had roots in Punjab), national identity (Sukhi was an Indian citizen) before marriage) and Global identity (Sukhi is a Newzelander after marriage)—and let them not come in conflict with each other.
Onkar Chopra, New Delhi
APROPOS the debate - "Reservation a must to alter male-dominated politics", published in the ‘Her World’ (December 2), the title itself has no strong pivot, as the seven persons out of ten stand against the empowerment of women through reservation. In fact, the word ‘empowerment’ itself sounds feudalistic and schistic, and implies to reverse sexism, that is, a kind of vengeful militant feminism.
Our aim is to do away with certain injustices done unto women and not to cause the social, cultural, psychosexual, familial and connubial bickerings, which may result from enforcement of laws. Reservation is no solution. It is in itself a very controversial term as is evident from various reservations imposed on us by our Constitution. It is quite a discriminative and segregative term that sectionalises and disunites the society. As the term is being commoditised for selfish political ends, so as to enrich the votebanks by political parties, it breeds corruption and malpractice, and mars the actual merit, and competence.
As recently experienced, in the Panchayats and several local self-government systems, the already imposed reservation seems to be a self-cancelling business. Women so projected forth act only proxy to men, and do not have their free will and conviction. Even then there are manipulations and exploitations. They cannot assert themselves.
In order to do away with the historical injustice done to women we need to work towards a radical change in the society. This change is towards an awareness of not just the Fundamental Rights and duties enumerated by our Constitution, but also that of human dignity and respect.
They can come to the field. Women too can help their sister-folk, rather than uttering an intellectual, idealist jargon. The government can strengthen and promote various non-government organisations. Unless we inculcate much-needed human grace, no law or reservation would help.
Human living has become very complex with so much of laws, rules, sophistications and needless intellectual hair-splitting. The very simplicity and grace of man is lost in the artifice. Therefore, the need is to simplify the things and not to over-complicate them.
Kanwar Dinesh Singh, Shimla