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Violence Against Women In India – A Review Of The Popular Mythologies And Their Implications For VAW

By Cynthia Stephen

15 October, 2013

India’s reputation as a destination for spiritual seekers seems to have faded in recent years. Reputed worldwide to the be the land of the oldest living civilisation, with a rich culture, living tradition, and a climate of ahimsa (non-viloence), as exemplified by the struggle against the British colonisers which was almost bloodless, and resulted in the Independent Indian nation on the 15th of August, 1947.

A part of this tradition, it is claimed, is revering women in the form of the mother or the goddess. Proponents of this viewpoint cite a verse to the effect that “Where women are worshipped there the gods reside”. But there has always been ample evidence that this was more observed in the breach; that the societal structures discriminated severely against women in all arenas: economic, social, legal, political, personal. The evidence came in the 1970s, in the form of the Report “Towards Equality” – A report of the Status of Women in India. The elite women who formed the study team , set up by the Central Government, were stunned at the disparity between men and women in India. It was in the aftermath of this study, which was prepared for the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, that the government of India began to undertake policy measures and provide funding work among and for women.

Be that as it may, India has now begun to have a reputation for misogyny which appears to be richly deserved. Figures for violence against women across the world continue to alarm. But those for India hit new records in the last couple of decades : a widening child sex ratio, persistent reports of rapes and molestation of women in public, and a justice system that has done little to bring the perpetrators to book. What is the reason for the existence of such persistent, wide-ranging and endemic violence and misogyny against women, of all classes, but especially against the dalits and tribals, in this culture? Could it be the myths and legends that play a strong but subliminal and conditioning role in determining attitudes and behaviours which tend to be misogynistic in nature? Women are supposed to submit silently to any atrocity that any random male chooses to subject them to, whether in public or private. The situation is such that it is almost impossible for women to get redressal for the blatant violations of their human rights. Witness the incident in March 2013 when a girl and her father were beaten up in a police station in Punjab when they went to file a complaint against some young boys who had been subjecting her to unwanted sexual harassment.

The December gang-rape incident, which made headlines around the world, did so as much for the brutality of the attack as much as for the brave spirit of the woman who resisted her assailants and rapists to the end, and lived long enough to give her testimony before the severity of the injuries inflicted on her took her life despite exemplary efforts to save it. There are indications that the exemplary violence was inflicted because the girl reacted strongly in self-defence even after the rape was perpetrated on her, to “teach her a lesson”.

But the exceptional nature of the case does not end there. It is also remarkable that the case was registered, the perpetrators arrested, and brought to court in short order. It is exceptional that common people in Delhi and around the country came out to the streets to protest the rape. It is most exceptional, however, that a large number of the protestors were men, mostly young. Till this case, most of those protesting in cases of violence against women used to be women.

But another heinous crime was perpetrated on four persons from one family, including two women, a mother and daughter, in a place called Khairlanji in Bhandara Dist of Maharashtra in 2006. [i]It was another crime of great brutality against a Dalit family, of only two which lived in the village, mostly populated by an OBC community. A total of four persons from the family were killed. There was resentment in the village that the Dalit family was cultivating land, that these women were strong and assertive, and were ‘untouchables’ to boot. The crime went almost unnoticed for days, and no case was registered. It took widespread violence and blocking of highways by dalit young people, to get the crime registered and for investigation to begin. And when the judgement came, surprisingly fast, in 2008, the caste aspect was denied, and conviction and sentencing was done only for ‘outraging the modesty of women” – the women had been disrobed and their unclothed bodies lay in full public view - and murders. The court opined that the caste angle was not convincingly presented.

The contrast between the two cases cannot be more stark. The victims in the second case were Dalits. Why is there a greater incidence of violence against Dalit women and girls in India? Are our myths implicated in these incidents too? To those who feel that violence against women is widespread across the world, it may be worth remembering that even in the South Asian states, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, though they have some largely overlapping cultural ties with India, the status of women across all indicators is better than for India. Compare HDI and GDI figures for these countries. And the specific forms of extreme violence such as disrobing in public, burning alive or committing suicide by fire, or public lynching on the charge of engaging in black magic are practically unknown in other Asian cultures.

Manu, Mythology and Patterns of Violence against Women in India

Close to Guwahati, the capital city of the Northeastern Indian state of Assam, is the site of the famous Shakti peeth, the Kamakhya temple. The temple which dates back to the middle of the second millennium, does not have any idol. There is, instead, a hollow depression in the ground, about 10 inches deep, formed where a sheet of stone slopes downward from both sides. It is constantly wet due to a perennial spring and is worshipped as the most important abode of Shakti, the female form of divinity. Another – and later - name for the goddess is Sati. The temple has been a sacred space for centuries, and is an important site for Tantric worshippers. There is a story attached to the temple and its status as a Shakti peeth.[ii] The legend underscores the practice of Tantric – or goddess-oriented worship systems in Eastern and parts of Northeast India. But this area is also known for the practice of “witch hunting” – one of the most vicious forms of public and organised violence against women.

There are other well-known stories in the popular puranas – the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha – which appear to legitimise extreme violence against women, even if they are goddesses or belonged to the families of kings. For instance, Surpanakhi, who is a forest-dweller, expresses attraction to Lakshmana, the brother of Rama, as they are in their forest exile. His response is to “cut off her nose”, which can either mean that he literally chopped her nose off, or be a euphemism for sexually insulting her. The story goes that she was the sister of Ravana, who then planned the abduction of Sita in retaliation for this insult. The outcome of the story does not go well even for Sita, the wife of the Purushottam – the ultimate man – Rama. He too subjects his wife to a test of virtue, in public. She ends up self-immolating her body in protest.

The practice of Sati, that is, of the wife being expected to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband also owes its existence to the story of Sati who also commits self-immolation to protest a perceived insult to her husband by her father. Could this be the subliminal reason for people in India choosing to set themselves on fire almost as a preferred form of committing suicide? A way of demonstrating, by dying in a ‘purifying’ fire, their basic purity of intention and faith? This is a particularly common method of suicide in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. They even have a special term for it – it is called “Bathing in fire” (Thee kulikkirathu)

From the Mahabharatha comes the wellknown story of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers. She is used as a pawn in a game of dice by the eldest of the brothers, ironically known as Dharmaraya – king of dharma or virtue, and loses. The winners, her husband’s cousins and adversaries, take her to the centre of the Kaurava court, and verbally abuse her. Dushashana on the order of Duryodhana attempts to disrobe her publicly. She escapes with her modesty intact by the grace of Krishna: – her saree, while being pulled off by Duryodhana, turns out to be never-ending. Echoes of these practices are still seen in the public disrobing of women from dalit and adivasi groups – both Surpanakhi and Draupadi are said to have belonged to indigenous people groups. Only here, there is no intervention by a divine being to protect their ‘modesty’.

Some of the more enduring myths in India have to do with the fight of good over evil. The popular festival, Navaratri or Dasara, or Durga Puja, depending on the region, is celebrated with this theme during the month of October. The central theme is of the goddess, in a martial form, with her multiple arms bristling with weapons, depicted as being victorious over a dark-skinned male adversary on whose body she dances in triumph. In South India, the notable celebration is held in Mysore, where the goddess is known as Chamundi, who triumphs over Mahisa, king of the dark-skinned Asuras – or demons. In fact the name Mysore is a corruption of the name Mahisa.

But according to another legend, usually a Brahminising gloss to most such local oral histories, circulated in order to legitimise the religio-political dominance of the Brahminicals - was actually a devotee of Shakti and had a boon that he would never die at the hands of a man, and that every drop of blood that he shed would bring forth another like him. But in the battle that he and Chamundi/Durga fight, he finally loses. Depictions of the scene, in popular iconography, show him with a trident in his heart, at the feet of the goddess, worshipping her before he finally attains moksha at her feet. But this depiction really mythologises the victory of Brahmaising invaders over the indigenous population.

Students of sociology and women’s studies have for long known of the contents of the Manusmriti, one of the greatest influences on social practices which are practiced to this day. The Manu smriti famously decreed that women are not to be given any independence (“Na stri swatantryam arhati”); “Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.”(5/151 of the Manu Smriti).

The text also says in 5/157, that whatever the nature of the husband, no matter how perverse, it is the wife’s duty to worship him and serve him faithfully. [iii]

This rule is still faithfully practiced all over India, by almost all communities. Autonomy is still denied to women. It is still very difficult for single women to get an independent place to stay, even in urban India. Matrimony is still the norm, actually obligatory, for girls. Girls are still reared for home-making in every Indian home, and the marriage industry, with astrologers, priests, jewellers, designer clothes and sarees, wedding halls, extravagant invitation cards, lighting and decorations, lavish feasts, event managers and even entire magazines devoted to the big fat Indian wedding are axiomatic, even if the girl’s family is driven to penury with these galas and the related expenditure. There is an underlying fear of dishonour to the family’s good name if the girl falls in love with and runs away with someone “unsuitable” (read from another caste or class) or, in the case of the poor and marginalised, a very real risk of the girls being molested, raped, or even trafficked.

Marriage of the girl – even if underage - is seen as a means for the family to rid itself of the “liablility”. Divorce, though increasingly common, is never undertaken lightly – there is a universal tendency to insist on “adjustment” on the part of girls, to save the marriage. Hence there are umpteen cases of deserted and separated couples, who will hesitate to take the irrevocable step of divorce. Even in their old age, parents, especially mothers, of girls are not expected to stay with them. The norm is that they only stay with their sons. Heaven help them if they have no sons, or if they have a difficult relationship with the daughter-in-law. Widowed mothers of girls often end up in their brothers’ homes in their old age.

Women from the margins – and the violence they face

India’s diverse population is such that it is a conglomeration of minorities. The sections known as dominant are so by virtue of their power, not their number. Thus when we speak of the dominant culture of brahminism, it does not imply that Brahmins are numerically dominant. In fact, the multi-tiered caste system in which the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas (Warriors) and the Vysyas (Traders) are considered the top three layers, the ritually pure and the dwija or twice-born, comprise a mere 3.5% of the population overall, but comprise about 90% of the judges, industrialists, top-level bureaucrats, academics and professional groups. The fourth sector, namely the productive working classes - all those who grow the food, the metal workers, weavers, and all other artisanal castes - are considered “Shudras” but are normally “touchables”. The fifth category comprise those considered untouchables (Scheduled Castes or Dalits). In addition there are groups who are indigenous, tribals or adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). The SCs comprise 16.2% of the population, the adivasis about 8%. The So-called Shudras comprise the bulk of what the government terms as Other Backward Classes – the OBCs. Estimates place this section at between 41 and 51% of the total population of India. So these broadly marginalised sections therefore comprise almost 70% of the population. But their numbers do not imply that their issues will be highlighted, or that their interests will be kept uppermost in the mind of the government or the courts. On the contrary, these institutions clearly act to protect the class-caste interests of the minute but dominant sections of India’s population.

In just the same manner, only in a much greater injustice, the rights of women in the country, who comprise almost half the number, are systematically violated and the perpetrators enjoy impunity because the institutions are full of men – and women – who have utterly patriarchal mindsets. Therefore, we have the extraordinary situation of women politicians blaming girls’ clothes for the all-too common sexual harassment faced by women on the streets of India’s villages, towns and cities; of high court judges hearing divorce proceedings pronouncing misogynistic statements in open court; and ministers and police officials naming rape victims in press conferences. Nobody seems to have a word of caution or blame for the uncouth and idle men and youth who indulge in utterly reprehensible sexism and worse against any woman or girl who is unfortunate enough to be passing by.

But the worst part is reserved for the women and girls from the marginalised sections in India. They are fair game for not only the idlers on the street. Young dalit Girls who go with their empty pots to faraway fields looking for water in India’s villages – they are often denied water from the wells and borewells in the ‘caste’ section of the village and have perforce to go far afield to meet their water needs - are targets of lustful men who are able to prey upon them with impunity as the dalits are dependent on them for livelihoods, housing and basic safety. “Akka, there is not one dalit girl in our village who has not been molested by the men and youth of the dominants in our village when they go out to fetch water ” – so said a young dalit activist to me a few years ago. There are no toilets for these girls to use near their homes, as tradition forbids their construction near the house. So they are forced to use the open fields in the dark, for privacy. And risk further sexual violence as a result. Agricultural labour is the mainstay of rural dalits’ lives, and the women and girls routinely face sexual exploitation by the landlord, his henchmen, and sons and relatives.

In parts of South and Central India, girls from Dalit families are routinely dedicated to a temple and then inducted into a life of socially and religiously sanctioned prostitution, because there is no alternative to keeping body and soul together – women receive as much as 60% less than men for agricultural work; where a man is paid Rs.100/-, the women get as little as Rs. 40/- for a day’s work. Thus the local economy forces them into the sexual economy. The long-term social, psychological and economic impact of such a brutally exploitative system on the community and the family of the poor marginalised groups can only be imagined. Where adivasi communities live, often non-adivasi men are found marrying tribal girls of a very young age, and routinely deserting them after they get pregnant. In the northern districts of Kerala there are large numbers of such young girls, and doubtless in other regions as well.

There are many historical and mythological reasons for such entrenched behaviours by men. The Manusmriti is clear in its attitude to the Shudras and women. The Chandalas – the despised groups – have no right to own property, live in properly built houses, or wear new clothes. That is why even till recently there was a tradition for dalit children to beg for food and clothes from non-dalit households, and for dalits who work as scavengers to be paid their wages in rotis, as is still the case in parts of rural Gujarat. It is still the norm for Dalits to live in a separate section of the village in India. Even the government perpetrates this practice by building dalit ‘colonies’ near villages, at a place a little removed from the village, with its own approach road and water source.

All these structural factors make it difficult for dalit women – who of course also face violence and neglect within their own households as is the norm – to rise above their circumstances and prosper themselves and their children, and break the vicious cycle of poverty, caste, and violence. As the Report entitled “Violence against Dalit Women in India”[iv] by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) notes,

“The plight of SC women seems much more alarming when one looks at the data pertaining to serious crimes such as rape and murder‘. The number of reported cases of SC women being raped by the non-SC men increased from 604 in 1981 to 727 in 1986, 784 in 1991, 949 in 1996 and 1316 in 2001. The number came down to 1089 in 2003, but once again increased, though gradually, to 1157 in 2004, 1172 in 2005, 1217 in 2006, 1349 in 2007, 1457 in 2008 and 1346 in 2009. From the 2009 data, it may be understand that in India on an average every day 2 Dalits are murdered and 4 Dalit women are raped by the non-Dalits. The data for the 1981to 2009 period for India as a whole indicate that not only the overall number of incidence of caste discrimination and violence but also the brutal crimes such as rape and murder ‘are on the increase. Recent data seem to confirm increasing trends on discriminations; in 2007 there were 1,349 reported rape cases, whereas in 2008 there were 1,457 cases; hence, the increase in 2008 was 8.0 percent.

It should be also noted that in India about 90 percent crimes against Dalit women are not reported to the police for the fear of social ostracism and threat to personal safety and security especially Dalit women. Also the legal proceedings are so complicated, tardy, time consuming, costly and unfriendly….” .

Thus, it is clear that a detailed analysis of the myths, which are very much part of the daily life of the vast majority of Indians, appear to reinforce traditional hierarchies, which, far from being ideal, are in fact promoting and glorifying an idealised form of behaviour for women which is actually regressive and backward-looking. They moreover punish deviations from such behaviours with extreme, socially sanctioned violence both in public and private spheres, to the extent that even the justice systems do not seem free from their influence, judging by the manner in which cases relating to women in general, and the dalits and tribals, the women of these groups in particular, are being dealt with in the country. In fact, it is not only a question of punishing deviations, but also of humiliating, oppressing and abusing women, most often for no fault of their own, but for daring to question basic human rights violations faced by them, such as the grabbing of livelihood resources such as common grazing lands, water sources, or forests. And the state in all its manifestations, whether the police, the judicial system, the administration, or their own families and communities – are nowhere to be seen in defending their right to freedom, autonomy, and personal security.

Cynthia Stephen is an Independent Writer and Researcher based in Bangalore


[i] For a detailed discussion of the case click on this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khairlanji_massacre

[ii]The story goes that Sati, the female form of divinity, was born as the daughter of the king Daksha. She wanted to marry Shiva and underwent severe penance for the purpose. Finally, Shiva appeared before her and granted her permission to ask for a boon. Even as she hesitated to speak of her desire to marry him, he granted her heart’s desire and the couple were wed. But Sati’s father Daksha saw Shiva as an adversary. On one occasion, the couple were at a huge celebration. When Daksha entered, everyone in the room rose in respect. Shiva with no intention to insult, remained seated , aware that he was a greater power than Daksha, so that no harm would befall Daksha, as it would have if he had risen at Daksha’s entry. But Daksha was enraged, thinking it was a deliberate insult. He planned to avenge the insult.

He therefore organised a huge event to which he invited everyone except his daughter and son-in-law. When Sati heard of this, she was very upset that her father had failed to invite them. She decided that, being a daughter, she needed no invitation and would go to the celebration. Shiva tried to dissuade her but finally agreed to send her, only warning her to control her emotions when her father began to speak insultingly of him, Shiva. Sati went, accompanied by Nandi the bull. At her father’s house, she got a cold response. Daksha also started to criticise Shiva in public. Sati tried to persuade her father otherwise but seeing him unrelenting, she in protest, committed self-immolation. Sensing her death, Shiva was enraged . He arrived at the venue and, taking Sati’s charred body on his shoulders, proceeded to dance the Tandava, the dance of destruction. Almost all the creatures around, the land, the trees, were destroyed. Then the gods appealed to Vishnu to save the world from total destruction. He used his Sudarshan Chakra to decimate the body of Sati and parts of her body fell all over the land, on 51 places now known as Shakti peethas. The place where the yoni, the female genitals, fell, is believed to be the site of the Kamakhya temple in Assam. (However, the site is believed to be of a much older, pre-Brahminical place of importance for the Tantric tradition.

[iii] http://nirmukta.com/2011/08/27/the-status-of-women-as-depicted-by-manu-in-the-manusmriti/

Iv http://idsn.org/fileadmin/user_folder/pdf/New_files/Key_Issues/Dalit_
, accessed on 9-3-2013. Also see : http://idsn.org/uploads/media/Violence_against_Dalit_Woment.pdf


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