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Regressive customs glorified in sacred books 'nullify' lofty ideals of gender equality

By RB Sreekumar, IPS (retd)*

The massive youth movement subsequent to the recent brutal gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras (Uttar Pradesh), gruesome gang-rape in Delhi in 2012 and plethora of violence against women has rekindled discussion on gender justice. Socio-religious and cultural reforms, simultaneous to intellectual revolution, precede action towards political and legislative transformation.
Our freedom struggle was born out of the Modern Indian Renaissance, enlightening many arenas of community life, heralded by Rajaram Mohan Rai, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and others in the 19th Century. By the time Mahatma Gandhi launched the Non-cooperation Movement in 1921, large chunk of Indian elite was fully engaged in purifying Indian society from evils of widow-burning (Sati), child marriage, ban on widow remarriage, untouchability and numerous scripture-sanctioned ghastly anti-women traditions.
The enthusiasts of women reservation in legislative bodies, largely drawn from the creamy layer of urbanised educated middle class and protestors against sex crimes, have to have meaningful durable schemes to confront and stamp out multifarious obscurantist socio-religious practices and conventions, perpetuating subordination and discrimination of women in practically all facets of civil life in India.
Greater presence of women in high positions of the First, Second Estates, Judiciary and leadership of political parties, devoid of massive campaigns to exorcise pre-modern religion - ordained traditions, would generate euphoria of equality, without substantial results and attitudinal change of Indian male, for the vast majority in the feminine world of India.
Lofty ideals of gender equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution is cleverly nullified by socio-religious conventions in our society, by largely adhering to retrogressive customs glorified in the sacred books, the Smritis, particularly of Manu, Vyasa, Parasara and Vasista. Manu Smriti denigrated women, in chapter IX sloka 2 and 3, to slavish depth as part of divine order (Varnalingadharma). Daksha Smriti praised widows for committing suicide on their husband's funeral pyre as "they will be respected in the heaven for such acts" (Swarga lokae mahiyate).
Etymology of words relating to women in Sanskrit language does reflect their intrinsic lower status vis-à-vis men. Mahila (woman) means land of festival (of course for men) -- “Maham lati iti mahila.” Bharya (wife) denotes a person liable to be ruled -- “Bhartum yogya iti Bharya”. Chastity and integrity are imperative for women whereas it is just optional for men.
Ancient Indian compilation Nitisara (edited by KPA Menon) directed husbands to abandon wives if they were, argumentative; stealing husband's money; disloyal; bad mouthing husbands; eating before husband taking food; going to other houses for gossip; even if ten sons were delivered by them, Sloka 12.
Alas! there are no such stipulations for husbands, nor the word 'patnivratan' is ever in use like 'pativrata'. In India, even waste material can fetch money, when accepted by others but for some body to accept a girl as wife her parents have to bribe him with dowry.
Puranas (18) and Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are acclaimed as stories of illustrative actualisation of scriptural ideals that people ought to model themselves. None can/will dare to challenge or deviate from projected conduct of worshipful but patriarchal masculinity -- centric Epic heroes like Dasarata, Rama, Bheesma , Krishna and so on.
Hence anti-women traditions got cemented and sanctified. Instances of gender prejudice is reflected in:
  1. Dasaratha not permitting his biological daughter Princess Santha, elder sister of Rama, to inherit the throne of Ayodhya;
  2. Rama telling his step mother Kaikyei that if his father wanted he would abandon his mother also like the kingdom; 
  3. Parasuram (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) killing his own mother, Renuka, on the orders of his father, Jamadagni; 
  4. Bheesma kidnapping three princesses of Kasi for making them brides of his brothers; 
  5. Rama and Krishna doing nothing to end practice of Sati – Urmila committing Sati after Lakshmana’s death and queen Madri entering the pyre of her husband Pandu, and so on. 
Women of all castes deeply suffered rigorous slavery than even men of lower castes and out-castes. Acceptance of slave women (dasis) as dowry from King Janaka Maharaja by Rama and his brothers (500 jeweled slave women had gone along with Rama to Ayodhya from Mithila after his marriage); presentation of well ornamented slave girls as property for dice game by Yudhishtira, the paragon of virtue in Mahabharata, are a few abominable occasions, in the Epics.
Pandavas not preventing mass suicide of Yadava women after the death of Krishna was another illustration of depravity. On the whole, the women characters in the Epics were dispensable and disposable commodity. King Yayati gave his daughter Madhavi, famous for her ravishing beauty, to Muni Galavan, in lieu of horses which Yayati could not supply. Galavan kept Madhavi in the company of three Kings, for one year each, and obtained the required number of horses.
Abandonment of pregnant Sita by Rama even after her proven chastity in the fire ordeal (Agniparisha) and later Ram asking Sita to publicly declare her chastity, which prompted self-respecting Sita to disappear into the Mother Earth (suicide), were demonstrative episodes of gross injustice.
The audacity of many from the present decadent elite of India (politicians – note “dented and painted pretty ladies” – comment, senior police officials, self styled God men, priestly order of all religions) to blame female victims of sex crimes for the brutalities of men emerges from sacrilegious de-spiritualized legacy of pseudo-religions, and egregious and inequitable social ambiance.
This could explain our political parties fielding persons accused of sex crimes as candidates in elections, merely based on the factor of win-ability. The mentality of treating wife as a private property of the husband has recently prompted our legislators to legalize marital rape of wives above the age of 16 as lawful.
The legacy of the Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam is equally abominable. Personal laws of India are highly prejudicial to women. It is laudable that the Narendra Modi Government had banned the verbal divorce ‘Triple Talaq’, ignoring the protest from the orthodox Islamic clergy. In short, will our religions allow creation of objective ambiance for women to enjoy the rights enshrined in Part-III of the Indian Constitution – the Fundamental Rights?
These Epic realities, religiously accepted by vast majority of people as sacrosanct had, set the tone and tenor of gender discrimination in the present times also. 
Hypocritical over projections viz extensive worship of female deities being a laudable feature (but even in major Devi Temples -- Shaktipeedams -- women are not appointed as even assistants to priests, thanks to economics and commerce); Goddesses being depicted as symbolic custodians of knowledge (Saraswathi), wealth (Lakshmi), and power (Amba/Parvathy), though in real life women are kept away from knowledge, wealth and power as far as possible in family, social and religious institutions, and so on, are meant for tokenist exhibitionism of gender equality.
In most of the major religious bodies, Mathas and Ashrams no suitable female cadre is raised and nurtured for assuming positions of leadership and authority. Though Lord Buddha permitted women in the Buddhist Sanghams, that tradition was neglected later by the Monks later.
Despite extensive worship of female deities, major Devi Temples -- Shaktipeedams -- do not appoint appoint women as even assistants to priests
The much eulogised Brahmavadinis (female hermits) in the Early Vedic period (1500 to 800 BC) were less than 30 as against 100's of Rishis and Munis, enjoying all material pleasures including polygamy. No Goddess could aspire for more than one husband, whereas Gods are allowed multiple consorts.
For practicing Hindus, observance of 16 socio-religious and cultural rites (Shodasa Samskar), from conception of the child to funeral ceremonies, prescribed by Smritis and Dharmasastras, is unavoidable. Marginalisation and degradation of women in most of these 16 observances is quite pronounced.
Girl child is not even entitled for Upanayan (investiture of sacred thread), Vedarambha (initiation to study) and Samavartan (convocation) ceremonies, while Namakaran (Naming) is conventionally avoided in many places for girls. Strangely the father or senior male family member do all auspicious rituals in most of the sixteen Samskaras, particularly Namakaran, Annaprashana (giving first cereal food) -- though biology makes mother to be the food provider (Annadada) from the time of conception -- Vedarambha, Samavartan and so on. In Antyeshti (Funeral) son, nephew or male kith and kin of the deceased are alone permitted to do ceremonies.
Scriptural architecture of patriarchal Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is equally averse to the legitimate rights of women in domestic, social, religious and cultural fields. There are no prospects for a Lady Pope, Abbot or Archbishop of Anglican Church in the religion of apostle of love to all -- Jesus Christ.
In the priestless faith of Islam also women are not permitted to do prayers (Namas) in mosques in many places, give religious discourses, and guide devotees in congregations, nor they can preside over religious or social gatherings like marriage, circumcision and funeral.
RB Sreekumar
Any criticism against obscurantist anti-women practices in Hindu society will be counted by champions of orthodoxy by quoting egalitarian ideals of Sanatana Dharma, enshrined in Vedas, Bhagavat Gita and Upanisads, permitting the right of liberation (Moksha) or merger with God to animals also, display of devotion during Navrathiri to Goddesses, concept of mother being equal to God (Matrudevobhava), and so on. Those engaged in these symbolic lip-service and superfluous actions do not move further towards reform of Smriti - centered subjugation of women.
Will they be ready to march out of retrogressive feudal medievalism of Smritis and recast conventions and traditions in tune with the ideals of Upanishads and other Sruti literature and ennobling concepts of post-Renaissance European enlightenment and modernism? Does women’s biology make her ineligible for priesthood and thereby gaining empowerment in socio-religious field?
Votaries of women reservation should campaign for induction of eligible women in Hindu priesthood, ecclesiastical order of Christianity and moulavi/imam cadre of Islam. Can we hope to have women pujaris in major Devi Temples -- Shaktipeetas -- Kamakhya in Assam, Ambaji in Gujarat, virgin Goddess temple in Kanyakumari (Tamilnadu) and Attukal Devi temple in Trivandrum (where largest congregation of women in whole world happens for annual Pongala - ceremonial offering of food by devotees), Devi temples in Kodungallur, Chengannur and Chotanikkara and so on?
In 16 Samskaras of Hindus and similar rituals in the social life of minorities, mother, daughter and female members in the family should be given their due status and position in consonance with dictates of biology and laws of Nature. Reformers should target the core base area of socio-religious and behavioral barbarism practiced against women, so that we can usher in for gender justice and emancipation of 50% of Indian people from religion-constrained and culture-conditioned slavery.
Let legislation and words pass and deeds prove. Will the LDF Government in Kerala, professing adherence to Marxism, Leninism and rational and enlightened post-modernism appoint eligible ladies as priestesses in major temples of female Goddesses in Kerala...
---
*Former DGP, Gujarat

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