Rewriting Indian Legends

Image: Meera Subramanian, Jaitu, India, October, 2012.

Image: Meera Subramanian, Jaitu, India, October, 2012.

By Meera Subramanian

The Indian woman whose name we don’t yet know is dead. She was twenty-three years old, a medical student who’d gone with her male friend to see a movie at a Delhi mall on the evening of December 16. They stood at the Munirka bus stand, and when a bus pulled up, they stepped onto it. They didn’t realize until it was too late that it was not public transport but a private bus full of joy-riding men. Men who had been drinking. Men who had an iron bar. They used it to beat the man and – along with the weapons they were born with that make them the coveted sex in South Asia – rape the woman so violently that doctors had to remove her intestines. Two weeks after the attack, she died.

This in the land where goddesses’ lyrical names linger in the legends and lore: Lakshmi and Parvati, Durga and Kali, Saraswati and Shakti. They are celebrated and worshipped with holidays, festivals and shrines in their honor across the subcontinent. But little of their divine power seems to translate to ordinary women, who hang lower than their male counterparts on every social tier that is measurable. The violence against the female starts long before she’s even born, with gender bias expressed as soon as an ultrasound shows a pregnant woman is carrying a girl child, and she then decides to abort it in hopes that the next one will be a boy. If she makes it to birth, the girl child faces a lifetime of less medical attention and less schooling than her brothers.

In 1990, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued that the bias has led to 100 million missing women. The estimate today is that in India alone there are 15 million “extra” men. More recently, Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection, and Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea den Boer, co-authors of Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, all contend that in a world where there are increasingly more men who are unable to find a mate because of this skewed gender imbalance, there will be an increase in violence in general and sexual violence against women in particular. These unattached males move in packs, more brazen in their actions in a culture where sexual harassment is already endemic. As women have made socio-economic gains, becoming more educated, more independent, and more visible in the public sphere, it seems that the backlash from men threatened by their presence is increasing in stride.

The gang rape story of the unnamed woman is not a new one. I have just returned from months of travel across North India, from Punjab to Bihar, traveling alone on overnight trains and unknown bus routes. I stayed safe, but every single day I would open the local paper and read about a rape – gang rapes or the rape of a three-year-old child that would make me weep before my morning chai. It is common. It is even more common for there not to be a report, and not be a news story.

Yet this attack has galvanized India in a way rarely seen around women’s violence. For the past two weeks, Indians – men and women – are taking to the streets of Delhi to demand women’s right to basic safety, to the simple ability to move through a day and one’s home place without fear of violence.

“That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us,” wrote Nilanjana Roy on the Indian blog Kafila. “The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper…. She got through to us.”

Yet still there are nothing but platitudes from politicians, if they are addressing the issue at all. Still Indian women have to fear for their safety whether out collecting firewood in the country or stepping onto a bus in the city. They suffer harassment and worse on the streets and in their homes. They cannot turn to the police, because the misogyny runs too deep. These supposed protectors of justice are either the direct perpetrators of rape, as is widespread in army-occupied places like Kashmir, (as a report by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights documents), or serve as accomplices by their apathetic response to rape complaints, such as the one just last week that drove a girl to commit suicide when the police encouraged her to drop the charges and marry her rapist.

Sangeetha Saini, a woman who took her two teenage daughters to the Delhi protests invoked the name of a goddess when she spoke to The New York Times. “That girl could have been any one of us,” she said. “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga,” referring to the fierce demon-slaying goddess. The Gulabi Gang, a group of Indian women who visit abusive husbands and beat them with bamboo sticks, has been taking the approach literally.

But were even the Indian goddesses ever free from this systemic, deep-rooted, pervasive sexism? Valmiki’s classic Hindu epic the Ramayana is an immensely popular tale of love and banishment, good and evil, leaping monkey gods and moveable mountains. Told and retold for thousands of years, the story revolves around the true love tale of Rama and Sita, and the lengths that the god-prince will go to save her from the grips of the demon god Ravana, who has kidnapped the beloved goddess-princess, luring her away with a jewel-studded deer. Many chapters later, Ravana is vanquished and Sita is saved, only to have her true love Rama turn away from her coldly: “How can I take you when you have been degraded upon the lap of Ravana?” he tells her.

Sita proves her fidelity by stepping into a fire and stepping out unscathed, purer than the flames, and Rama takes her back. But the whispering gossip of his kingdom is too much for his wounded honor, and he banishes her again. Years later, at the end of the story, she disappears into the earth. Then, as today, women are the ones expected to carry the guilt for crimes they didn’t ask for nor commit. Then, as today, we are the ones expected to disappear.

The people on the streets of Delhi, are saying: We won’t disappear.

When will the next Valmiki arrive, telling a new story? In this yet-to-be-told version, there will no doubt still be evil in the world. Ravana and his army of men might all force themselves upon the beautiful form of Sita, but Rama would do more than defeat her captors and retrieve her. He would stroke her long black hair and fold her into his arms, a woman broken by the violent acts of men, but no less virtuous a woman for the offense. As for his rage and judgment, he would save it for those who deserve it.

Meera Subramanian is an independent journalist who writes about culture, faith and the environment. Her work has appeared in national and international publications including NatureVirginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times, Salon, Smithsonian, USA Today, The Wall Street JournalThe Caravan. She is editor at Killing the Buddha.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Foundation.

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