Women in Myths, Mythologies and Epics


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.

Read: Hit and Myth – How Old Tales Shape Modern Perceptions of Women (from The National)

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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?

The Five Feminine Sexual Archetypes

What Are The Different Roles of Women in Mythology

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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!

A Feminist Nightmare: How Fear of Women Haunts Our Earliest Myths

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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.

5 Marks of A Biblical Wife

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!

Menses Madness: Menstruation Myths and the Medieval Mindset

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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

Here is what they don’t tell you about feminism and sexuality in Hindu mythology

Feminist Revisions of Indian Epics

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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.

The Importance of Women

A Woman’s Worth Relative to a Man’s

Aisha Elahi: Change is Needed Now to Help My Shackled Sisters (CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information about physical and emotional assault and violence.)

Through the eyes of a modern Muslim woman

Book recommendation – The Emergence of Feminism among Indian Muslim Women 1920-1947 by Azra Asghar Ali

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Historical Perspectives on the Informal Waste Sector


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MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Ever year, 42 million tons of waste is generated in India, which is the same as the amount of wheat Australia produces annually

Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.

The problem, though, is that leachate and toxins from untreated waste can affect a particular region for years, which is why municipal corporations are now finding it more and more difficult to appropriate areas to convert into landfills. In Bangalore, for instance, the residents of a village called Mavallipura, adjoining one of the city’s primary landfills, resisted efforts to continue disposing of waste in their backyard in 2012; the result was tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste, deposited on the streets of the city. Chennai, on the other hand, is currently routing its waste to two peripheral landfills – both of which will be reaching the end of their lifespan by the end of the year. As of now, no replacement area has been found.

Ironically, urban authorities do not need to face the challenge of sustainable waste management on their own. Most Indian cities have a robust industry of waste ‘experts’ – collectors, transporters and even recyclers – who make a livelihood out of waste, albeit under the radar. Most households sell old newspapers and cardboard to their neighbourhood kabadiwallas, but these men are merely the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the informal waste sector includes not just grassroot-level waste collectors, but series of middlemen who aggregate, sort and transport waste to the appropriate recycling facility – thus keeping it out of the landfill.

The Waste Chain

From a historical perspective, informal waste economies – at least as they are recognized today – began to develop around the 19th century. This was mainly in Europe and largely a by-product of urbanization and industrialization. As urban centres began to form and expand, the quantity of waste generated by them shot up as well. Simultaneously, the spread of the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for raw material, which proved to be infinitely cheaper when sourced from waste. As a result, an informal sector that began to identify items of value within waste streams, and then source, aggregate, process and eventually recycle them, began to form.

Spatially speaking, informal waste industries have organically formed in developing countries. While the first scavenging sectors sprung up in Europe, waste management systems in these countries were soon formalised and steered by local governing bodies, removing any room for unorganised private entities to continue making a living off waste.

However, the reverse has been true for countries such as India, Brazil, Serbia and Cambodia. These countries have witnessed rapid urbanisation, which directly translates to a huge increase in waste generation. They also experience large-scale migration of unskilled, untrained labour towards cities, most of which have no option but to turn to informal occupations such as waste-picking. Moreover, as countries develop more, their urban centres tend to produce a higher proportion of dry waste (paper, plastic, metal and the like), which have huge markets as raw material for the manufacturing sector.

On the other hand, their local governance mechanisms have not yet developed to the point of completely taking over the workspace of informal players. In India, for example, municipal corporations have the infrastructure and capacity to collect an average of only 70 percent of municipal solid waste, and even less to actually process it. This creates the ideal working conditions for a parallel shadow economy to operate.

Very few attempts have been made to actually map out and quantify the informal waste industries in different countries. Largely, this is because it’s extremely difficult – most waste-pickers and small-scale processors work under the radar and prefer to keep it that way, so as to avoid any form of harassment from city authorities. The sector itself is also a fairly disorganised one, with a huge overlap between activities, scale and hierarchy, making it tough to actually categorise its layers. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Brazilian government, for instance, has formally recognized waste-picking as an occupation and included it as a category in their official census. This has also allowed it to introduce various schemes to better incorporate these entities into formal waste management mechanisms.

In doing so, Brazil has tapped into a potential answer to waste management concerns that most developing countries can learn from: the informal sector has huge capacity for keeping waste out of landfills. As a community, these players have a lot more collective experience in dealing with waste profitably (and as a consequence, responsibly) than most local governments. They have organised themselves into a form of hierarchy based on scale, with lower-rung rag-pickers accessing waste from dumpsites, landfills and formal collection cycles, and higher-level middleman aggregating and segregating waste streams according to market demand. Scrap-dealers at the highest end of the waste chain deal with hundreds of tons of a particular waste category on a daily basis, supplying in bulk to manufacturers looking for cheaper sources of raw material.

Incorporating parallel economies into our formal mechanisms is far from an easy task; it involves policy-level decisions and some forceful execution to actually leverage the potential of the informal sector. On the other hand, given the kind of waste crisis that Indian cities are facing, this doesn’t seem to be an option we can ignore.


– Written by Kavya Balaraman & Illustrated by Satwik Gade. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review’ – Mufeed Sharholy, Kafeel Ahmad, Gauhar Mahmood and RC Trivedi

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘The World’s Scavengers’ – Martin Medina

‘Statistics on Waste Pickers in Brazil’ – WIEGO 

Mughal Miniatures on Inequality

Aarthi Parthasarathy takes Mughal Miniature paintings and turns them in to contemporary comic strips. We really love simple ideas that get twisted around like this. Read more of them at scroll.in.

Royal Existentialists 001 On Inequality

Conversation

In the past many people have been too frightened to talk much, publicly and even privately. It has been too dangerous or embarrassing or painful, There are still places where it is dangerous to speak. The powerful have always known that they are threatened by conversation. For most of history, the world has been governed by the conversation of intimidation or evasion. We cannot abolish timidity altogether, but we can redirect fears, so that they stimulate generosity rather than paralysis. 

– Theodore Zeldin, Conversation, Hidden Spring, 2000, p. 7

This essay is pretty much the base of every work by Theodore Zeldin. This book is like a mash up of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Gregory Stock’s The Book of Questions. However Zeldin does not merely push you to self-analyse or develop a vague idea of love for everything around you. He simply opens up the importance of conversation and the meeting of minds. He writes history by talking to people and this essay is to justify his method and share it with others. Read this and catch hold of all his books.

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