Ladies, it’s quite a holy problem…
During the country-wide protests and debates over the rape and acid burn cases and status of women in society, most people call for change – change in the societal mind-set as the long term solution for the strengthening of women rights. But how can we do a quick-fix job to the age-old mould of our culture? Moreover, how did the culture come to be so?
This therefore questions the basis of a society’s morals. Ex-President of the US, Jimmy Carter, says that religion is one of the basic causes of violation of women’s rights. The statement adds an interesting dimension to the whole debate. Let’s examine the evidence that backs this statement.
The three Abrahamic religions share the story of Adam and Eve. Adam was made first by God and then Eve as an afterthought for his company. She was the temptress who induced the noble Adam to defy God and subsequently being exiled from Heave
n. “Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die.” (Eccles. 25:22)
Apparently, sin began with Eve and it seems that the womankind has never stopped paying for that sin, starting with the way nature has made them. The believers across religions consider a menstruating woman unclean and forbid her to touch religious scriptures. Many orthodox Jews may not shake hands with a woman for the fear that she may be ‘unclean’. Numerous Hindu households in India don’t ‘allow’ a woman to step in the kitchen or touch anyone else’s food during her periods, as the food would get spoilt on her touch.
The Catholic Church forbids abortion, even if the woman is a victim of rape or her life is in danger due to pregnancy. Several temples and mosques prohibit women to pray there or enter the premises. The official witch hunting trails till the 18th century were backed by the verse, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18-20)
Less pay for women, less standing for decision making in families, less right to choose their own lives…women are second class citizens in society. Religious texts don’t say to mistreat her, but the fact that they place man a step (or a flight of steps) higher than woman, seems to have laid the foundation for the superiority of man over woman in society. The Bible says that head of the woman is the man (I Corinthians 11:3); Quran says that men are a degree above them (the wives) in status (Sura 2:228); an orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, ‘who hast not made me a woman.’
While Islam started as the most socially progressive religion, much ahead of its time – giving women right to divorce, right to education, right in inheritance – it stopped to evolve any further. Men are supposed to be in charge of women (Verse 4:34), have more rights to divorce and can marry up to four times.
Although in Hinduism there are depictions of Durga and Kali, mighty powerful women, the practice and status of women in society stem from depictions of Sati Savitri, Parvati, Sita and Laxmi – compassionate and model wives and devotees.
Manusmriti is replete with verses that censure and condemn women. Women are told to worship and serve their husbands (5.154, 5.155), warned that they’d become patients of leprosy and be reborn from a jackal’s womb if they violate their code of conduct towards their husbands (5.164), advised to be in the custody of their father when they are children, under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of their son as widows (5.148). And it goes on and on.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” Voltaire had stated. And it seems to stands true, especially when it comes to religious texts and women.
There is a carrot and stick approach towards women, more stick than carrot. They are controlled, constrained and repressed in the name of customs and traditions. Preachers and followers of each religion compete with each other to claim a better status of women. The fact remains that all religions hold man superior to woman and believe in her subservience in varying degrees. The problem is that they don’t deny inequality of the sexes, but try to justify it.
In the popular concept of heaven itself there are portrayals of apsarain, hoorein and celestial nymphs for men; and no such depictions for women who go to heaven.
People quote selected portions of various scriptures where women are told to be revered. And that’s where we go wrong. We do not need to place the woman on a pedestal and worship her. We need to treat her as an equal, intelligent and independent individual.
The noted author Lois Wyse had said, “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” And this is amply exemplified in our holy texts. But whence lies the problem, also lies the solution. If the religious leaders across religions come forth and denounce the bigoted idea of woman, it can do wonders to affecting the collective psyche of a society.
Of course, we do need stricter implementation of laws and police reforms to reduce crime against women. Simultaneously, to integrally change the society, we need to denounce what is wrong. It should not be the fear of hell or the incentive of heaven that should drive us to make the change, but the accountability to our own conscience. There is no such thing as an overnight change. A cultural change is a slow, persistent process that takes decades and centuries. But there has to be a start and the change has to be from inside out, from head to toe and back again. And the first step is acknowledging the problem, even if it is holy.