Kanya Pooja during Navratri Photograph:( India.com )
Today is the National Girl Child Day, and we need to reconsider if it is necessary to celebrate the Day. I am not proposing a complete stoppage but the day of celebration certainly needs to be changed to a more appropriate one.
Instead of becoming an occasion to celebrate the importance of a girl child, the Day is becoming an occasion to further reinforce the false colonial construct that a girl child or a woman in this country were never respected or cared for. This construct blames the traditions of India for the ills faced by the women today. At the same time, it lends credence to another perception that women in the western world always enjoyed a great degree of freedom, respect and equality.
Let’s separate the chaff from the grain here. First, let’s look at the status of women in the Indic tradition and then contrast it with that of women in the western tradition before finally looking at the main reasons for the downfall in the stature of women in India.
Status of Women in the Indic Tradition
Indic tradition is perhaps the only prevailing tradition wherein the female was and is still worshipped with great reverence.
Most of the goodies that a man may want in life - education, wealth and power - are all in the control of the Devis (Goddesses) - Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati. The tradition of “Kanya-Pooja” - worship of the girl child during Navaratri, continues across India till date. One may also recollect, in this context, the tale of Devi Durga - all the Devatas (Gods) had to seek refuge and the help of Devi Durga to slay Mahishasura, an Asura King to whom the Devatas had lost everything.
Women, in India, enjoyed complete freedom to not only choose their life partner (Swayamvar) but also enjoyed full social, political and economic rights. This may come as no surprise or not of much importance to many in India. What, however, may come as surprise to them is the fact that women in the West, have had to wage long battles to get even basic rights like the right to own property and the right to vote in elections.
Status of Women in Western Tradition
The women even in the Queen’s own country (UK) had no right to own property, deemed unfit as they were for such a responsibility till 1882. They were also deemed unfit to vote in elections till 1918. And a fight for complete equality with men continued in varying degrees and forms until much later.
Such gross discrimination and disdain for the women may not be surprising given some of the religious and philosophical underpinnings of the west. Note, for instance, the following quotations:
“..as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”
“..the courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman's lies in obeying.”
“..women should receive less food and nourishment than males.”
The above statements were made not by some looney fringe but by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher.
The power of narrative built on the status of women in India can be further understood by contrasting the severe shaming of India for the evil practice of Sati to the absence of similar castigation of the West for the gory practice of witch hunting. It may be worthwhile to note that while only a few hundred instances of Sati may have been recorded by the British, the estimates for the number of women murdered and burnt alive in witch-hunting are much larger. Moreover, while Sati had no religious or state sanction in India, witch-hunting in the west was actively promoted by the Church and abetted by the state.
What about dowry murder and female infanticide?
How and why did the status of women decline in India from being worshipped across to being murdered in the womb? It is surprising that India did not deem it worthwhile to independently investigate the subject and blindly bought the narrative built in justification of the “White man’s burden.”
Even more surprising is the fact that the few meticulous studies done on the subject, continue to be ignored both in popular and ‘intellectual’ narrative. Veena Oldenberg, Professor of History at the City University of New York, in her seminal book “Dowry Murder,” captures in great detail how the British, using all kinds of flimsy evidence and anecdotes, built this false narrative. More importantly, she also uncovers the real reasons for the decline in the stature of women. These reasons lie in the unseemly territory of property rights and revenue model that the British brought in India.
The British introduced the Ryotwari system of revenue settlement in 1820. Prior to this, there was no individual ownership of agricultural land. All the land belonged to the king. Farmers could till any extent of land as long as they paid a part of the produce, in cash or kind, as 'lagaan' (revenue) to the king. In times of drought and difficulties, the lagaan was reduced or waived off, thus, contributing to the healthy state of the agrarian economy. The British totally disrupted this prevailing system.
The British wanted an assured sum of revenue not subject to the vagaries of weather or economy. Hence, they fixed an extremely high amount per bigha of land as lagaan, which had to be paid only in cash. To collect this amount, they had to hold someone liable – for which, they introduced individual property rights over agricultural land. As pointed out earlier, the British had not given the right to own property to the women in their own country. How could they then give it to the women of their colony? Hence, only the male members of the family were given a right to own property and the women were totally deprived.
This sequentially led to the degradation of the farmer as a landless labourer and to the women becoming a ‘burden’ (sic) on the family, leading to the demand of dowry and eventually to the evil practices of dowry murder and female infanticide.
Thus, you would note that in total contrast to what is popularly believed, it was the British who were regressive in their treatment of women and it was again the British who caused the degradation in the status of women in India.
Need to correct the Narrative – Change the Date to begin with
As you can be seen from the arguments above, there is a great need to correct the prevailing narrative. While stopping the celebration of the Girl Child Day may not be the right solution, a shift in the day of celebration surely could be one. A more appropriate day linked to the tradition of the land and one which accentuates the primacy enjoyed by the women in this country would be the day of “Kanya Pooja” in Navratri. Celebrating the National Girl Child Day on this day would not only help in reinforcing the great importance of the girl child but would also help in correcting the prevailing narrative on the status and rights of women in the Indic tradition.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)