“I am a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman, that’s me” stated Maya Angelou, with pride and power of conviction of a woman who attained celebrity status realizing her potential against overwhelming odds. For sure, those words will one day surge into a tsunami of feminine power and glory sweeping across the world. In the meanwhile, amidst continuing scenario of male domination and atrocities against women, yet another 8th of March passed by quietly, probably because it fell on a Sunday this time around, without the usual fanfare attached to its commemorative value of being the International Women’s Day. Even if observed, the celebrations for the most part would have been a charade, with its import limited to a few activities focused on the women on that day, with little carry-over to rest of the year. Has nothing changed over the last fifty years in a still largely patriarchal world? Far from it. From what earlier used to be a rather condescending consideration of them as nurses, secretaries and homemakers, women today are in many spheres of life, unthinkable half a century ago. There is still a huge ground to be covered since the fair gender is significantly under-represented in the corporate sector, armed forces, parliament, judiciary, civil services and the various professions, as the stranglehold of societal depravities in the form of atrocities on women appear to continue unabated at a kind of beastly pace, if recent incidents of the murder of an Indian IT professional at Parramatta Park, Sydney, or a German girl getting violently done away with by extremist elements in Syria are any indication. While the German girl was part of Kurdish militia fighting against the extremists, the Indian IT professional, engaged in a project work in Sydney, was returning to her camp from work when she was stalked and attacked from behind. Closer home in the national capital of India, the 2012 incident of brutal gang rape of a girl travelling with her fiancé, still rankles in memory but the political discourse on it now seems to be focused on the BBC documentary relating to the incident. Thousands of girls continue to be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked illegally from neighbouring countries and forced into flesh trade in the metro cities of India. Concern for women’s welfare and security is conveniently stowed away at the inner shelving, to be dusted out for token consideration as and when dictated by political expediency. What an irony in a country where divinity is worshipped as Shakthi, the form of mother goddess venerated in avatars such as Lakshmi, Parvati, Durga, Kali and Saraswati, and across the world as Mary and Fatima…
For further progress to come about from here on, there is, without doubt, a need for greater democratization of society to assure an environment of tighter security for women, facilitating free movement twenty-four by seven, round the year. Women’s welfare has to perforce become part of society’s consciousness. All initiatives to promote gender sensitivity and gender equality must be linked with the process of overall democratization of society, assuring a level field of opportunities, and distribution of power and pelf. Women’s movement is not a battle of sexes, but a struggle against oppression, a cry against gender compartmentalization, driven by the desire to be centre-stage, rubbing shoulders with men by matching capabilities, and not by statutory reservation, co-existing with the masculine energy by confidently being increasingly feminine, and not by overtly courting masculine traits. Male bashing and adopting ridiculous postures proclaiming women no longer need men will only scare men off and make them resentful and resistant to the cause of women. It must be borne in mind that the male and female are two sides of the energy coin, with a degree of femininity existing in the man and vice versa in the woman. Hence the two cannot be torn asunder without impairing the very fabric of life. The embryo starts off in the female form in the womb, before the testosterone kicks in to change the genetic composition for the male foetus. It is believed that lord Shiva cast off half of himself to accommodate the female form of goddess Parvati, for the purpose of making divinity complete and ecstatic. The divine form of Shiva symbolizes a meeting of internal and external forces, of masculine and feminine energies, denoting its inseparable and equal nature. Feminine nature is not weakness; if it is not balanced with the masculine gender in terms of roles to play in the structure of life, human life will be very incomplete and lopsided. Of utmost priority, therefore, is to ponder over the future of relationships in the male-female dynamics and to ensure that things are headed in the right direction.
A secure environment surrounding adequate participation of women in all spheres of life can change the scene dramatically. The salutary effect of a robustly secure environment can be seen in the nation state of Singapore, where multiple ethnic groups of both genders live in harmony. There is no reason why the model cannot be replicated in other countries. There is another scenario that is bound to foster better security by itself, and that is the demographic ratio weighted in favour of women. In spite of a lesser ratio of women in the demographic scale in youthful Egypt with a population of 84 million, one can see greater numbers of women at work and the effect of it can be seen all around the place. Women are visible with their participation in a variety of careers, in the offices, in the fields, in the professions and work sites handling all kinds of jobs. I had a whiff of this experience in my career years in Egypt. In my office I was supported by a staff of thirty, of which twenty two were women. Work went on smoothly, without any lag in efficiency. Post work in the evenings, men and women could be seen in the malls and restaurants in the cities of Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria moving around safely till late into the night.
Surveying the annals of history and mythology, it is interesting to see the indelible footprints of exceptionally talented and mission-driven women that guided the march of civilization and how the world would have been a poorer place without them. Names such as Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Rani Lakshmi Bhai of Jhansi, Madam Cama and Mother Teresa spring to mind from a long list of luminaries, as women of great fortitude who steered the course of events against insurmountable odds to contribute significantly to social weal. The Indian mythology is replete with stories of love and sacrifice of women, of how feminine energy can evolve powerfully through the virtues of chastity and fidelity to the spouse. One such legendary woman is Kannagi, the central character of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram (100-300 BCE). The story relates to how Kannagi wreaked vengeance on the king of Madurai by inflicting curse on the city for the wrongful killing of her husband Kovalan. Kovalan was the son of a wealthy merchant in Kaveripattinam who married Kannagi. Subsequently Kovalan fell in love with a dancer and spent all his riches on her, becoming penniless in the process. He realizes his mistake and returns to Kannagi. Hoping to retrieve his fortunes by trading in the city of Madurai, Kovalan tries to sell Kannagi’s precious anklets to raise resources. The anklets, however, were mistaken for the stolen anklets of the queen. When the news reached the king, Kovalan was ordered to be captured by the king’s soldiers for stealing the queen’s anklets. He was immediately beheaded without even a trial. Kannagi became furious on being informed of the event and promptly set out to prove her husband’s innocence. She arrived at the royal court, broke open the anklets seized from Kovalan. While rubies came out of Kannagi’s anklets, those of the queen contained pearls. Driven by remorse at having failed to deliver justice because of the error in judgement, the king ended his life. That did not pacify Kannagi and she uttered a curse that the entire city of Madurai be burnt to ashes. Fire blazed across the city resulting in huge losses. The presiding deity of Madurai, goddess Meenakshi, had to descend to earth to douse Kannagi’s ire. She calmed down and in due course attained salvation. This is the crux of the epic poem Silapathikaram written by Ilango Adigal. The story of Kannagi does not end there. Wanting to move away from Madurai on the road to divinity, she travelled to her final resting place in Kodungallur via Kanyakumari and Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). Deciding on taking a transit rest in Thiruvananthapuram, she attains the form of a little girl and appears in front of an old man at the bank of Killi river, seeking his help to cross the river. Impressed by her charisma and demeanour, the old man takes the girl to his house where members of his household prepare to accord her a warm welcome. Amidst these preparations, the girl vanishes and reappears in divine form in the old man’s dream insisting that he establish and abode for her in a consecrated spot marked by three lines at the nearby place. The old man finds the designated spot waking up the next morning and promptly constructs a temple for the mother goddess. This is the genesis of the present day temple of mother goddess at Attukal in Thiruvanathapuram (. The unique aspect of Attukal temple is that it accounts for the largest annual congregation of exclusively women anywhere in the world during the yearly festival falling in the February-March period every year (it fell on the 5th of March, this year). A radius of 15 to 20 kilometers from the temple complex is occupied by a sea of hu(wo)manity for the Pongala festival, where a blend of rice, jaggery, grated coconut, ghee (clarified butter) and other ingredients is cooked in mud pots on makeshift hearths by over three million women as offering to mother goddess. As soon as the hearth at the temple is lit in the morning, the flames are conveyed to hundreds of hearths in the vicinity of the temple and then onwards to thousands of hearths all over the city. The ceremony ends with the temple priest sprinkling the theertham (holy water) on the Pongala mud pots, signifying the divine mother’s acceptance of the offering; the task is accomplished by hundreds of priests arranged by the temple fanning out to different parts of the city to cover each and every devotee’s offering. The festival is widely participated by women of all religions from many nationalities. Even mosques and churches open out their space to help the surging numbers of women to set up their mud pots on hearths. An entire city and its environs turns into a mammoth open-air kitchen flooded by only women for the ritual of Pongala (means boiling over), with mud pots lined up all over the place, presenting an ethereal spectacle. In a larger perspective, it is a unique festival glorifying womanhood.
The view from religion, history, mythology and legend clearly spells out scenarios where societies in which women enjoyed pride of place, flourished, and decayed, where it was otherwise. The ills of today and the atrocities against women may be the result of past generations growing up with the deeply entrenched notion of male supremacy and female servitude. Perhaps the right approach is to start the correction from homes, by instilling in children values of gender equality and respect for women. Let new generations imbibing right values come to the fore. There is no fury of greater magnitude than a woman wronged, and no depths of endurance, love and compassion that women cannot plumb as the legendary Kannagi and the Helen Kellers, Florence Nightingales and Mother Teresas would amply signify, pointing to the compelling need to reform mindsets and steer it towards balance and equilibrium by protecting women and assuring their rightful place in the saga of life..