It is the time of the year in the Hindu calendar when celebration of female deities and worship of feminine energy begins in earnest in India.
The onset of the festival season this year though has been marked by high decibel debates on social media on whether India’s obsessive worship and deification of women as goddesses is outdated.
The reason is the award-winning campaign by Mumbai-based ad film agency Taproot India.
The advertisements present images of the Trinity or three primary goddesses of Hindu mythology – Durga, the goddess of valour, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in their silks, jewels and crowns.
However welts, bruises and gashes mark the faces of these iconic deities.
The copy for the ad read, “Pray that we never see this day. Today more than 68 percent of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray too.”
If the mission of the campaign was to grab eyeballs, it did. The campaign went viral and many found the advertisements meaningful and powerful in its imagery.
But the campaign has courted controversy as well. Rajan Zed, a US-based Hindu activist of the Universal Society of Hinduism, accused the campaign of “trivialisation of highly revered goddesses”.
Even feminists and gender activists in India saw these as a form of cheap tokenism.
Many felt the ad walked a thin line. It addressed domestic violence. Then again it pigeon-holed women into the ideal female as a goddess figure.
“I would have preferred an everyday image with a black eye. That would have been just as powerful,” says Nisha Susan a senior commissioning editor for Yahoo! India and the women’s zine theladiesfinger.com.
Goddess versus slut
Given India’s patriarchal status, the worship of goddess and the iconic status of a deity bequeathed to domesticated female figures is “a symptom of male anxiety and guilt”, says Delhi-based sociologist Sanjay Srivatsava.
In her hard-hitting article, Delhi-based Prof Brinda Bose resists the deification of the Indian woman.
“Why is she Durga/Saraswati/Laskhmi and not Kali, whose nude monstrosity makes genteel society squeamish at the best of times? If she was a slut/monster, would she be worthy of being saved in society’s terms? And why does she need to be ‘saved’, in that most patriarchal rhetoric?”
As Susan reiterates, “Feminism allows me to not have to pick between slut and goddess. Feminism allows me to ignore these choices and anyone who feels I need to pick between these choices”.
At the height of sycophancy the chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state was once depicted in posters by her party follower as Virgin Mary.
Feminism allows me to not have to pick between slut and goddess.
This again had drawn protests and the campaign had generated some TV time.
The deification of prominent and powerful women from fields of movies, music and politics stems from a goddess-worshipping culture, points out Srivastava.
In southern India, films on mythological goddesses who are angry and punish men for abusing women are huge hits.
Tradition often has villages following a “mother-cult”, praying to local female deities and asking for pardon for any epidemic such as pox that afflicts the community.
Since independence, the image of Mother India inspired the printing industry to make copies of the female figure as a goddess. “This is a comfortable image for men and women, not necessarily a feminist strategy,” Srivatsava says.
“A brand of feminism is consumer driven and the deification of women as goddess, who is chaste, virginal and domesticated and clothed, sweeps under the carpet the poor woman of those who don’t dress in traditional Hindu attire,” he says.
As a counter to the abused goddess campaign and given the climate of public protests over rape and other crimes against women, a couple of stand-up comedians came up with a video that went viral.
“It’s Your Fault” shows smiling women in Western attire such as short skirts and deep necklines being abused, to send home the irony of blaming women for violence against them.
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While many have pointed out the debate on the abused goddesses or “It’s Your Fault” campaign has evoked response from only Westernised and educated women in Indian cities, many see the class divide among well off and poor women unfair.
Actress Kalki Koechlin who featured in the video points out, “It’s unfair to assume that the English-speaking world is rape free”.
Susan agrees that often some of the subjects that are represented in the Indian media as “mainstream feminist issues are urban and incredibly class-blind”.
However, there are those who feel that the protests and voices against male oppression may be from an educated class of women, who have the capacity to join hands with their sisters across the class and economic divide.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 244,270 incidents of violence and crimes against women were reported in 2012.
And while such campaigns raise a lot of debate, it may augur well for the Indian woman whose voice of protest is only growing louder and firmer.
Follow Sudha G Tilak on Twitter: @SudhaTilak
This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.