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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The Female Body as a Shameful Thing


Look out for this weekly series every Monday by
The Feminist Reading List on Chai Kadai to explore the shapes and forms of feminism around the globe.
The first list brings you articles, songs, and open letters on how ‘shame’ is (/needn’t be) an ingrained identity of the female form whatever its shape or size or body part.


1. Everybody say, “Vagina”!

Most men and women still tend to get tongue-tied when it comes to uttering the V word in public. This either results in the collective skirting of the vagina and its issues, or in the usage of a rather long and sometimes interesting list of nicknames for this critical female body part. But no linguistic acrobatics can hide the truth here – we continue to be ashamed of the vagina and publicly acknowledging its existence is akin to sacrilege.

The Everyday Feminism site is the blog equivalent of a world-wise, liberal older sister. If you haven’t already seen it, we highly recommend that you read through its excellent, easily digestible thought pieces on modern-day concerns of feminism. Here’s an article on vagina hate: 5 Ways Society Breeds Vagina-Hate (And How to Combat It)

Now that we are on the topic, this is a good time to start discovering the magic of vaginas, and we found an excellent article on a (surprise surprise!) men’s magazine site to help you along: 12 Things Everyone Should Know About Vaginas (from Men’s Journal)

2. Historical Art and the Female Form

Vagina/vulva hate apparently goes back far in time and, unsurprisingly, found expression in art as well. If one decides to think about it, when was the last time you saw a vulva slit/opening in a public painting or sculpture of the female form? Heck, even the Barbies are as smooth as mayonnaise down there. Why is the penis acceptable on public art pieces but not the vulva?

The Fascinating Reason There Are No Female Genitals on Statues (from AlterNet)

Art Recommendation: The Great Wall of Vagina – “Changing female body image through art” (NSFW)

3. Big Boobs, Small Boobs

Ah, boobs! One of the most contentious topics that feminists can’t tire of suffering mental breakdowns over. Boobs (‘breasts’ are for medical articles!) continue to fascinate because they seem to be the literal focal point of the male gaze, and thus become an important feminist issue. Women are shamed for having both boobs that are too big, or too small. But then, no one can really classify what the perfect bust size is! So it continues – shaming women for possessing big boobs and daring to show any cleavage, or shaming them for being ‘flat-chested’ and thus ill-equipped to be used as satisfactory sex objects.

Open Letter: Big Bust Shame (from afterthree.net)

An alternate view presented here is this – why are breasts considered weapons of feminine shame in the first place? (from The Atlantic)

For some research help on the topic: Oppressive Beliefs And Breast Size Preference (from Feminist Philosophers)

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4. Crotch Sweat

As girls and women, we desperately wish to inhabit a world where people have come to terms with the fact that we bleed almost every month, pee and poo every day, and yes, sweat even around the privates when we exert our bodies. Till that day dawns, prepare to be bombarded with body-shaming ads selling panty-liners and sweatpants that hide the shameful pit stains that seem to inexplicably develop down there after you, gasp, work out at the gym. Not to mention all the male attention you risk missing out on because you dare to be sloppy and sweaty like a normal human being!

Unless, you are lucky enough to come across a man like this one: This Dude’s Response To Female Crotch Sweat Shame Is Perfect (from Bust.com)

5. Hide Your Sanitary Pads

Have you ever found it funny that most chemist stores in India display a phalanx of sanitary pad ads on their main showcase or doors but the moment you purchase a packet, it is promptly wrapped in a black little plastic cover before being handed to you? The idea of menstruation or the period is just about OK only till is presented in isolation. The moment it draws attention to the female anatomy, or what actually the period entails, it becomes a taboo topic. Generations of daughters have been raised to be ashamed of this absolutely natural physical transition and thus afraid of being seen with pads in public, or god forbid, with a maroon stain on their skirts.

The wonderful Menstrupedia movement is working to change this attitude – Ladies Keeping Periods A Secret From Men Is Unnecessary

And, here is what happens when you dare show on a social media site the consequence of the bleeding: Rupi Kaur Instagram Photo (The Huffington Post)

6. A Mother’s Body Can’t Possibly Be Sexy

Everything leading up to a baby’s birth is magical, only as long as you don’t mention the throwing-up, the weight gain, the tiredness, the water breaking, the vaginal dilation, the blood and the placenta, and all that! The problem with sanitising and soft-focusing motherhood for public consumption is that it breeds unrealistic expectations of mothers, most vicious of which is her prerogative to get back in shape pronto after delivery. The vapid celebrity culture doesn’t help the cause either, unless when some bold famous mothers come forth and flip their middle fingers at the fat-shamers. Find out how 13 celebrity moms stood up to “fat shaming”

7. Would you like to be a pearl or a lollipop?

It would be difficult to find a girl or a young woman who hasn’t ever been told to cover up or dress appropriately because her female form has the potential to attract (male) predators. It comes as benevolent advice, but hides this message – your form is vulnerable and ‘honourable’, and men are rapacious animals, so keep yourself sheathed at all times. Some communities tend to promote graphics that ideally should offend both women and men to drive home this point.

Women are neither pearls nor lollipops (TRIGGER WARNING FOR VIOLENT ASSAULT)

Ad for Hijabs! From Spirit 21 that reposted The National Article

BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival Online for Free

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Stories of peer pressure, love, marriage, schools, siblings, friendship, passion, protest, cycling, and activism wrapped in to five beautiful short films made by a group of gay, lesbian and trans filmmakers. Now online for free. For the first time ever, in partnership with the British Council’s fiveFilms4freedom project, five short films from BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival are available to watch online, for free, worldwide. Click here to watch and click here to read more.

On a related note, there are a set of films being brought down to the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai by three curators from Germany. They will present works addressing various kinds of conflict around issues of nationality, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, family history and migration. They look into which cinematic languages are appropriate to show case stories of conflict and how cinema might shape our understanding of conflict. Everybody is welcome and entry is free. Here is the poster – (Event on Facebook)

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The cupcake travels to vegetable land and becomes a nudist.

The previous post was a sand creature passing on messages in a bottle to snow creature. This is another interesting stop motion animation called Sweet Dreams by Kirsten Lepore again (yes, we like him) where a cup cake travels to vegetable land, builds houses, becomes a muffin, meets a sweet squash potato, becomes a nudist and travels back to his desert land.

9 mins, 57 s, animation, 2008

The Danish Girl

Sometimes it is hard to keep up the promises of posting in regularity. However, here’s one more gem from our library. David Ebershoff is the publishing director of The Modern Library, a division of Random House, and the author of The Rose City (which we haven’t yet read). The Danish Girl is his first novel, and probably one of the most beautiful and stunning piece of work that explores sex and gender, love and marriage.

Inspired by the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his California-born wife, this tender portrait of a marriage asks: What do you do when someone you love wants to change? It starts with a question, a simple favour asked of a husband by his wife on an afternoon chilled by the Baltic wind while both are painting in their studio. Her portrait model has canceled; would he slip into a pair of women’s shoes and stockings for a few moments so she can finish the painting on time? “Of course,” he answers. “Anything at all.” Whit that, one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the twentieth century begins.

Yes, if you know where we live, you’re welcome to come and read this. We are a little touchy just like any other book owners about letting you borrow. Just in case you don’t find us, you’ll find the book on Amazon or Flipkart.

The Danish Poet by Torill Kove

NFB 2007, 15mins 16s

English

Can we trace the chain of events that leads to our own birth? Is our existence just coincidence? Do little things matter?

The narrator, Liv Ullmann, considers these questions as we follow Kasper, a poet whose creative well has run dry, on a holiday to Norway to meet the famous writer, Sigrid Undset. As Kasper’s quest for inspiration unfolds, it appears that a spell of bad weather, an angry dog, slippery barn planks, a careless postman, hungry goats and other seemingly unrelated factors might play important roles in the big scheme of things after all.

This film won the 2007 OSCAR for Best Short Subjects Animation.

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