Welcome to the second edition by The Feminist Reading List. Last week, we explored the correlation between shame and the female body. Today, we take you back to the ancient still present today – the archetypes, the mythologies, and the epic women that continue to define the women of today in some way or the other.
These lists don’t intend to be exhaustive, but more of thought/conversation-starters. So please-please drop us links to readings, songs, thoughts in your head and whatnot that are missing out in the conversation here. We want to hear from you.
When it comes to our prejudices, the lines between myth and reality often blur, often without realising it. This is especially true when it comes to the historical projection of ‘the woman’. Some of the biases against women, a lot of the misinformation about the female form/anatomy/libido/moods, and most instances of casual/benevolent/deliberate/murderous sexism and misogyny can be traced back to the ‘life-lessons’ that are packed in our epics. Even for the ones who never ready any of the holy books or the legends, these stories are not completely unknown, and their effects are often sub-conscious and surprisingly well-entrenched.
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1. Not all about Eve
You will find them all here – the all-sacrificing Earth mother with no voice of her own; the ever-pliant wife with no independent identity of her own; the evil wench who dares to speak her mind and satiate her sexual hunger on her own, and thus who must be condemned; the witch who must be burnt at the stake. The list is long, and the moulds these stories set the women into continue to affect our thinking about women till date. Try this mental exercise – count the number of film/TV show/video game/etc. examples that pop up in your head while you read about these female characters.
2. The Archetypes Still Rule
Archetypes are like trashy rom-coms – they seem hilariously harmless at first, but become increasingly problematic on deeper introspection. Sexual archetypes trap women inside rigid compartments that exist, mostly, in service of the specific fantasies of men. If you conjure up an archetype, you essentially negate the natural complexity of a woman’s form and feelings, believing that she fulfils one and just one function or role. This excuse then necessitates poly-everything amongst men. Convenient, eh?
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3. Beware of the Woman
Misogyny is nothing new of course, we all kind of guessed that. But it is still depressing to note how widespread the idea of the woman-as-the-source-of-all-evil really is. Arguably, every epic or myth or legend that features female characters unfailingly casts them as crafty mischief-makers, or as naïve ingénues who mysteriously inspire wickedness and violence in others (read men). One woman’s evil deed can start wars, destroy entire civilisations, or condemn generations to misfortune. If not for the horrific connotations, women all over the world would rightfully gloat over such fabulous powers!
4. The Idea of Purity – Madonna/Whore Complex
Keep this in mind – a woman can either be virginal, pure, and obedient; or voracious, lustful, and guiltlessly adventurous. The former is ‘pure’ and represented by the chaste ‘white’; the latter is a ‘whore/slut/skank’, identifiable by the insultingly bold ‘red’. The pure one will wait and dream, pout and pirouette; the whore will speak-out, talk-back, and arrogantly seek her own pleasures. If you are a ‘good man’, you must fool around with the one in red, but marry the one in white. Simple!
For better understanding, please watch this video of the song ‘You Belong With Me’ by serial offender and feminist flip-flopper, Taylor Swift:
In case it still isn’t clear, read this: Taylor Swift Thinks You’re A Slut
5. The Irony of the Goddess System
Especially true of Indian culture is the irony of goddess worship and the simultaneous second-class citizen status of women. It is a strange disconnect, this deifying of the imaginary female inside temples, while at the same time systematically oppressing flesh-and-blood women, often in the name of tradition. Seeing a goddess in a live female form can become benevolent sexism – girls are ‘lakshmi ka roop’ and thus need to be protected and cherished – or it can devolve into customs that are frightfully exploitative of young girls and women, but which remain beyond any questioning because of supposed divine approval.
Serving the Goddess (WARNING: Some of the content may be disturbing for sensitive readers.)
There is plenty of academic thought available on this topic: Goddess Cultures in India
6. The Biblical Wife
Following a religion and a religious life-style must ideally be a choice based on free will and reasonable questioning. But as we can guess by the absence of leprechauns in the world, there is no such thing as ideal. Religious texts and their attached mythologies have historically been interpreted to instigate the subjugation of women. The ‘Christian Way’ enforces rigid gender-roles and believes that the patriarchal system, with a submissive wife acting as support staff and baby-making machine, is how God ordained the world to be. This idea becomes chronically problematic when it becomes an excuse for sustained, and of course unreported, mental and physical abuse.
How Playing A Good Christian Wife Almost Killed Me (CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information about emotional assault and/or violence.)
7. I See Blood!
No feminist reading list is complete without a gripe about the inescapable period, so here it is – all the men and women who have strong, hateful feelings towards menses, despair not. You all have been historically condemned to be hysterical (hehe) about this sensitive topic. Blood in the battlefield may signal victory, courage, and power, but blood from the female reproductive system has been tagged by legend as being indicative of great evil and lunacy.
Have you suddenly been reminded of that instance when you accused an outspoken or rightfully angry/assertive woman of PMSing on you? We know you have been!
8. Women as Extensions of Men
Indian epics, like almost everything Indian, are mind-bogglingly complex. There have been many commendable recent efforts in giving the female characters from these epics a louder voice, a fairer fate, and sometimes even chances of delightful revenge. But the originals have stood the test of time and thus have influenced in far greater sweeps than any modern comic or novel. Some repeating themes in these epics are the depiction of women as either 1) pawns or 2) prize or 3) punitive damage. The sprawling Mahabharatha is replete with examples corroborating these themes. Irrespective of their individual talents or intellect, women are primarily presented as beings of honour, as extensions of their husband’s good or bad deeds, as the mothers-of-so-and-so, as willing participants in their spouse’s benevolent polygamy – in short, the woman does not exist without the man. In the land of ardhanareeshwar and yoni-worship, this kinda sucks.
Women in Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik
9) Quranic Confusions
Just how well the contents of the Holy Quran have been interpreted will probably be up for debate till the end is nigh, but recent times have sure witnessed much interest in both apologist and fundamentalist reassertions of what exactly constitutes the true Islamic way of life. These waves of opinion crucially touch upon the Quranic position on women, but unfortunately offer no unified inference. Many scholars are convinced that the holy text has always mentioned women as beings lower in stature than men, as ones who need to be obedient and subservient to their husbands. There are mentions of lowering of the gaze and of modesty of clothing. Like many other texts, women are accused of being the harbingers of evil, if gone astray that is. The re-thinkers on the other hand insist that the Quran considers men and women equal, is expressly against violence against women, and that both genders need only be obedient to the word of Allah. The media has tended to focus on the issues of the veil, child marriage, polygamy, circumcision, and domestic violence amongst Muslim women around the world. But even to the most culturally-sensitive amongst us, it is difficult not to see the unholy milkshaking of patriarchal traditions and religious beliefs at play here. And they both seem to be helpfully validating each other’s existence.
Aisha Elahi: Change is Needed Now to Help My Shackled Sisters (CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information about physical and emotional assault and violence.)
Book recommendation – The Emergence of Feminism among Indian Muslim Women 1920-1947 by Azra Asghar Ali