The Ramayana, arguably the most influential text in all of Hinduism, is many young Indian men and women’s first introduction to gender roles on the Indian subcontinent. The story is centred on Sita and Rama, the narrative’s protagonists who were exiled from their home in Ayodhya as a result of a family dispute. Their role as two of the most beloved Godheads in Hinduism is rooted in what is often painted as their purely devotional love towards one another.
Beyond the picturesque Ram-Sita bond lies the reality that even Hindu Goddesses had to fight for equality in their relationships with their husbands. In the historic tale, when the verdict of Rama’s exile was reached, Sita was adamant that she accompany him. Rama, aware of his wife’s deep beauty claimed that her “Lotus eyes attract even sages” pointing to the fact that her existence in itself was a liability under patriarchy.
On the most fateful day of the entire story, Sita was inside of the Lakshmana Rekha that she had been forbidden from leaving when a beggar appeared asking for food. As she bravely stepped out of the circle of safety to do what was morally just, the beggar’s true identity as Ravana, the Demon-king of Lanka, was revealed. He abducted Sita to Sri Lanka where she was exiled until Rama, Lakshmana and their army of allies saved her.
Many generations later, Rama is still always cited as the undisputed hero of the Ramayana, after all, the entire epic is named after him and his journey through exile and saving his wife from abduction. Yet, Sita’s capture and survival under the constant threats and harassment from an almighty Demon never seem to be highlighted in the same way. For a woman who plays an equal role in the famous Sita-Ram jodi, one who took on her tormentors alone while Sri Rama had a whole army, she does not get equal credit for her victories.
India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has cited Sri Rama numerous times in their fight for Hindutva, or the political ideology of establishing hegemony of the Hindu way of life in India. The controversial demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, Sri Rama’s birthplace, has lead to issues that still cause conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India today. The BJP’s continual obsession with correcting historical facts and trying to defend Sri Rama’s legacy has only reinforced the most extreme readings of Hindu texts under the Patriarchal gaze. With the BJP currently controlling 21 of the 29 Indian states, their anti-minority and anti-women stances are only projected to grow and become more relevant in India’s everyday politics.
The “Sita Phenomenon” that originated in the Ramayana is still something that happens in present-day India, and just as Sita’s kidnap was the first act in the string of long and intense warfare between Rama and Ravana, women are often the first targets of violence in the disputes of patriarchy. In power systems that hail men as the almighty protectors of the “poor and helpless”, the threat of sexual exploitation of a particular group’s “women” is a favourable tactic because its success is a direct insult to the function of manhood.
In 2002, communal violence erupted in Gujarat as a result of events stemming from the 1992 Babri Mosque Demolition in Ayodhya. In the three-day bloodshed that took place in attacks from radical Hindu mobs on Muslim villagers, women were the first targets and suffered through gang-rape, mutilation, molestation, and murder. Hindu women who were caught fraternizing with or helping their Muslim counterparts were also subject to rape and torture in public, some were even stripped naked of their clothing and left with nothing. Perhaps such Hindu women should have known better than to step out of the circle of safety that was drawn into the sand by their radical husbands, brothers, and fathers.
In the days that followed, women who were brave enough to report their rapists to the justice system were met with considerable amounts of resistance. Gauri, a Hindu woman, was who was raped in front of 30-40 villagers during the riots could not find anyone to testify for her in court aside from her young daughter. She described her experience with the court system as isolating, “[Gauri] said she got angry when the defence lawyer suggested in the court that she had not been raped. I shouted back that the rape did take place,” she said, adding that Bhanubhai, the activist supporting her in her struggle for justice, then helped to calm her down. She felt the entire court was hostile to her and that the judge did not believe her.
This climate of silence and brutality towards Hindu women in the court systems was directly reflected by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whose lack of response to the violence against Muslims and women has been highly criticized. Despite the fact that he provided no words of consolation to the state’s women and that further court rulings showed his party’s involvement in the massacre, he went on to be elected Prime Minister in 2014, proving how little the plights of women have impacted the majority of the country’s citizenry
The events that happened in Gujarat have showcased that there are major structural changes that are needed to make India an equal and fair place to live as a woman. With the current BJP government’s influence over regional politics, hope is dwindling for many of India’s women’s rights activists.
Despite current fears, there have been past victories for women throughout the history of the country, one of which was introduced as Indian Penal Code 498A in the 1980s, also commonly known as the “Dowry Law.” Among the many facets of this legislation includes the highly controversial “immediate arrest” provision, which states that anyone who is accused of committing a dowry-related crime will be considered guilty without a full trial. Many men asserted that such swift action was simply not fair, and that women were abusing the law in order to retaliate against perceived injustices created by the groom’s family.
Among the various ways that women are controlled by Patriarchy, dowry is one of the best-known and most obvious examples. This practice has been integral to the South Asian identity for centuries and is the formality that requires the family of a bride to pay the groom in cash or other gifts before their daughter’s wedding. According to a 2017 study, over 20 dowry-related deaths occur daily in India and these casualties might come as a result of suicide, harassment or outright murder. Staggeringly, only one-third of all criminals who are charged with dowry-related crimes are actually convicted.
While an innocent man being immediately arrested for a false conviction or complaint submitted by a female is troubling, the amount of women who die yearly from dowry-related fatalities is an epidemic. It is important, even pivotal, to acknowledge that the Patriarchy harms and exploits many men, but it would be problematic to ignore that the brunt of the burden is placed on the backs of women. Not only do women have to deal with sexual harassment, income inequality and dowry-related harassment, but they also have to live with the reality that one of their peers gets raped every 15 minutes on average.
Since March of 2009, 19 BJP members have been accused or convicted of some form of sexual assault against women, and while many of these cases lead to arrests and penalties, the BJP has created a culture of virtual impunity for its associates in regards to such crimes.
In 2017, Vikas Barala, the son of a BJP leader in Haryana was convicted of stalking a woman named Varnika Kundu with one of his friends, and according to the victims account he had even tried to forcibly remove her from his car.
When Varnika tried to lodge a report against Barala, the police did not include abduction as one of the potential charges on her behalf. As the case proceeded, the power of Barala’s ties to the incumbent BJP party slowly started to be revealed, as police asserted that the monitoring cameras that were along the route of the crime scene had all stopped working the day of the attempted kidnapping.
In a pattern that is alarming and problematic, Varnika Kundu’s case only received the proper respect and care that it deserved after the entire country started to show outrage, only then through an “act of God” was the police able to find the “lost” footage of the incident. Many even assert that if Kundu’s father wasn’t a civil servant the case would not have been taken as seriously as it has been.
Today, Vikas Barala is out on bail even though his offences are considered serious and his potential to affect the outcome of the case given his status is unlimited. In order to counteract the possible say Barala might have in the final ruling for his charges, the victim petitioned the judge to complete the case in a time-sensitive manner, aiming to prevent it from dragging on for months, as many of India’s cases that claim violence against women do. The judge has not yet honoured her request.
The BJP has wielded an unprecedented amount of power in India over the last years, allowing many of its members, such as the 19 accused, and their associates to live in a state of virtual impunity. In the environment of fear that the BJP seems to continually be cultivating, the structural oppression that women and minorities face is only intensifying. In Delhi, where law and order is considered to be the most just among all places in the entire country, the rape conviction rate dropped by twenty points from 2014 to 2015.
In every great democracy, citizens should be able to count on law and order to aid them in ensuring that there is equality among the masses. Regardless of age, caste, creed or religion, legal measures are supposed to apply to the citizenry equally, however, this has not been the case for India’s women. In a case that shocked the entire nation this past April, news broke that an 8-year-old was held captive and gang-raped for a week in a Hindu temple by numerous men, and four police officers have been linked for their involvement in the crime.
The girl was born and raised in the turbulent region of Jammu and Kashmir where her nomadic Muslim community was thought to be a threat for their encroachment on Hindu land. Her rape was a political tool that was used to “send a message” to her family that their presence in the region was considered unacceptable, and they hoped that this action would scare other Muslim families away as well. However, for many Indians seeing a young girl eventually succumb in collateral damage as a result of egotistical pursuits of men didn’t come as a surprise, because in India that tale is as old as the Ramayana.
The environment of fear, hatred, and lack of acceptance of minorities in the subcontinent has created a climate where the rape and murder of an 8-year-old child was considered to be a conspiracy theory by many Right-wing politicians. Instead of unanimous outrage all across India in response to the devastating news, a number of BJP leaders marched in support of the accused, claiming that the suspects were being attacked because they are Hindus.
Through the use of dowry, rape, and sexist interpretations of Hindu texts, men have learned how to carefully control women and remind them that they are here to serve the Patriarchy. While Hindu nationalists boast of being gatekeepers of India’s largest religion, with equal fervour, psychosis, and hatred, they have come to embody Ravana himself. The heartless gang-rape and murder in Kathua has proved to Indian women that they no longer have to fear some exotic demon-King from Lanka to end their lives in exploitation and torture because now Ravana lives at home.
In an article written by Amnesty International in 2017, India was voted the worst place for a woman to live amongst all the countries in the G20. The report has cited female infanticide, rape, and the discrimination of women as chief reasons why being born the “lesser gender” in India means automatic marginalization. Despite the daily struggles that women face, they have continually fought to destroy the “Lakshmana Rekha” that has been drawn for them in the sand through grassroots organizing and coming up with their own ways to hold men accountable.
The Gulabi Gang, in particular, has empowered and created a sisterhood of over half a million women who are emboldened by stopping domestic violence against women in rural areas, proving that they can be their own guardians. The vigilante group aims at providing abused women open spaces where they can come and talk about their experiences, and the Gang will confront their abuser with the threat of lethal force, much like the police might.
On a larger and more structural level, nari adalats, or women’s courts, have emerged in the northern part of the country to counteract lapses in India’s judicial system regarding violence against women. These informal arrangements help women by informing them of their rights so they can require intervention from the police and other mediators, and today in India such courts serve over 40,000 villages.
Despite all the odds being placed against them, women are continuing to rise out of their shackles in India and are braving the psychic enslavement of Hindutva-honoring men. While members of the BJP are distracted by the belief that Sri Rama was the real hero of the Ramayana, they are allowing for the silent rise for India’s Sitas who are coming together to undo the injustice, lies, and betrayal of their brothers, fathers, and husbands, and the best part is that this time, they aren’t alone.