September 13, 2013

On the abused Goddesses campaign

(First, unedited, unproofed draft, which will likely be edited later.)

A campaign against domestic violence using images of battered Hindu Goddesses has been subject to a reasonable amount of criticism, although, to my mind, much of the criticism against it appears to be some form of religious conservatism masquerading as feminism. Whilst that, of course, isn’t to say that the campaign is entirely unproblematic, it could be considered to indicate that some of the criticism is neither helpful nor unproblematic in itself.

If one were to look at the religious and free speech issues surrounding the campaign, without focussing on the campaign itself:

The question of whether deities should at all be used in a campaign against domestic violence is debatable. An argument could be made that it’s worth focussing on real women alive on Earth today, and not on celestial beings (i.e. Gods or Goddesses or even figures from mythology). Then again, it’s worth considering that women from Hindu myth — wives in particular — are often held up as examples of the ideal to real women today whether it’s the Sati-Savitri trope or the wonders of Sita. Admittedly, these don’t appear to be the Goddesses who feature in the campaign, although the fact that celestial women are so often invoked in real life could lead one to make the argument that it’s worth considering who these celestial women were, and what their lives were like (with the term ‘celestial women’ being used for brevity and to differentiate from ‘real women’.)

And that, of course, is what scholar after scholar, and novelist after novelist has done, albeit without imagery akin to the campaign. Feminist retellings of Hindu myth have been written often enough, and questions have also been raised about the writing of the great epics; the silence of the usually-eloquent Draupadi as she was handed over to five husbands, the tests of chastity which the ‘blameless’ Sita was put through by her husband. And if one were to look at Hindu myth, it isn’t hard to argue that the Gods, especially in their human form, sometimes made for truly terrible husbands whatever else their virtues may have been, and that even in their ‘true form’ they are often entrenched in patriarchal power structures which could, in themselves, arguably be considered to be abusive.

This leads to the primarily religious question of: ’Who gets to define what Hindu deities are like?’ Hinduism has always been remarkably ‘decentralised’, so to speak without there being any ‘central authority’. There is very little doubt that the Hindu right does not have the authority to dictate what Hinduism is or should be — after all, every time the Hindu right attempts to do so (particularly when it condemns art featuring nude Hindu Goddesses), there are no end to cries from the left to the effect that the Hindu right does not have a monopoly on defining the acceptable portrayal of deities, obviously invoking the importance of free speech and saying, “But this is how I see deities, or could see them.” It would, therefore, be difficult to construct a convincing argument that the left or that feminists or, really, anyone else has the exclusive right to define Hindu deities and their portrayal (for anyone but themselves).

Yet, one of the main arguments against the use of pictures of battered Goddesses is, “But our Goddesses are strong, wise and dignified, (and are not abused).” This, of course, leads to two issues. Firstly: What on Earth gives any commentator the right to talk about ‘our’ Goddesses? Hinduism is not, and has never been in living memory, a monolith. There are vast differences in how celestial women are perceived, and an argument that there is just one way in which deities either can or should be perceived is as unacceptable when it comes from the Hindu right as it is when it comes from possible (or supposed) feminists. And as for the second claim of Goddesses not having been abused, the issue of course is: Why does that narrative supersede all others? And, indeed, why should it? Whether or not Goddesses or, for that matter, any celestial woman has been abused depends, one could reasonably argue, on the version of Hindu text or belief one chooses to reference.

That being said, what is unarguable is that many celestial women are strong and dignified and wise. The problem lies with linking the strength, dignity and wisdom of celestial women to abuse and going on to proclaim that having these qualities, they were not abused. The implication, here, is that those who are strong, dignified and wise are not abused; this, however, is an implication which is entirely unsupported by any data relating to domestic violence. Strong women may be abused; some studies indicate that abuse shoots up with a woman’s education. In fact, abuse is one of the few things which cuts across every socio-cultural-religious, economic and class line in society. To indicate that women — celestial or real — who have wisdom and strength are not abused is not only factually inaccurate but also extraordinarily insulting to women who have been abused especially since the converse is that women who are abused do not have strength or wisdom (or in this narrative, dignity, which is generally considered to accrue to all human beings).

Image courtesy buzzfeed

Leaving general issues aside, if one were to look specifically at the campaign:

One of the criticisms against it is that it sets up the ‘mother-sister’ or other relationship to argue against the commission of violence; an argument which is popular in India: Why should a woman have to be a relative of some form for a man to avoid being violent towards her? Although when speaking of violence against women in general, this is an extremely pertinent question, it loses much of its relevance when applied to domestic violence. Given that domestic violence is committed against relatives and women with whom one is in a domestic relationship, it isn’t entirely clear why focussing on women who are ‘related’ when apparently speaking specifically about domestic violence is wrong.

That said, it is worth considering that the ‘mother-sister’ relationship or even a marital relationship doesn’t go far enough when it comes to addressing domestic violence, which in India is generally perceived in terms of violence within a woman’s marital home, ignoring violence within both natal homes and within intimate partnerships (not to mention being almost completely oblivious to the possibility of domestic violence against men).

Another criticism against the campaign is that it is exclusionary, as someone pointed out. As a person who believes in a formless God despite being Hindu, this didn’t automatically occur to me; to me, pictures of celestial women are cultural Indian images which, in the case of the campaign, simply evoked one of the greatest Indian artists. However, considered from the perspective that the images are, in fact, religious images, and that the campaign appears to intend to speak for all women, (once again, as was pointed out to me), it isn’t easy to argue that it is an inclusive campaign, if not anything else.

Further, the campaign seems to focus on physical violence to the exclusion of other forms of abuse, and even there, the bruises shown on the pictures of Goddesses are anything but realistic. As has been noted, ‘the pretty bruises do not quite capture the shattering of bones’. This criticism is one it is hard to argue against, unless one asks why the bruises should be realistic. One answer to that question is that artsy portrayals of abuse minimise it, and may enure us to abuse by making it seem to be not as bad as it is. Also, it could be argued that minimising abuse is very disrespectful to those who have been abused, and, consequently, abuse shouldn’t be minimised.

Apart from that, there are also internal issues within the campaign: it seems confused (and is confusing) for one relating to whether it’s portraying the abuse of Goddesses as a possible future or an actual fact, it seems to attempt to curb domestic violence by inducing either shame or guilt (which is a strategy which may not actually work), its target audience isn’t entirely clear, there appear to be no clear solutions suggested, and it barely seems to scratch the surface when it comes to domestic violence itself despite the hype its generated (amongst other issues). Many of these issues, to my mind, though, are issues which go to the motive of those who have issued and created the ads in the campaign, and as such, are issues which only they can clarify.

To me, the campaign appears to attempt to target religious hypocrisy in India, and to that extent, I support it although I don’t think that the campaign is, in itself, entirely unproblematic.

Also see: Some tweets on the campaign.