Sita, Speak! CD set and MP3
role of women in Indian society is a potential mine field for the Western
observer. We tend to suspend all our usual standards and become great pontificators.
A woman's lot in India is painted the blackest of blacks. All the pathologies-
dowry deaths, sati, a status lower than cattle, infanticide, child
marriage, the misery of widowhood, all phenomena which do indeed exist in
India-- suddenly become universals.
This is how all Indian women live, we are told. Never a thought that these are no more general phenomena than, say, rape or wife battering in Western societies. Happiness suddenly becomes an almost invisible and unobtainable condition unknown to half the population of India. We in the West suddenly become instant experts on something we have never seen or experienced, ensconced comfortably on our perch of cultural superiority. Every stereotype, every cliché, every isolated example that can be mishandled and transformed into a universal statement. In short, we suspend our critical faculties and the evidence of our own experience.
The Why? tells us more about ourselves perhaps than about Indian women. Why is it that we are always interested in what goes wrong in other societies to exclusion of what goes right? Why does lack of material wealth become "poverty" or "misery", two highly emotive words we wouldn't even dream of using for our grandparents when they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from humble beginnings?
Many of the usual terms of reference of Western-style feminism can be stood on their head in the Indian context. Western feminists, for example, fight for a women's right to work or to have an abortion precisely because they view it as anti-women. And probably every poor Indian woman would regard the freedom not to have to work as a definite improvement over her existing backbreaking existence- up to sixteen, even eighteen, hours spent daily gathering wood, hauling water, cooking, working in the fields, or in a factory.
One risks generalizations about India at one's peril. Yes, there is unhappiness and injustice against women. Some of it is unique to Indian culture. Much of it is typical of male-dominated societies anywhere, who cloak inequality in the dogma of religious legitimacy.
There is also a profound ambiguity and contradiction. The great women of Indian mythology, whose stories you will hear during the course of this program, were rare combinations of strength and submission, saving their menfolk, yet deferring at crucial junctures to those same men. Male-dominated India has tended to emphasize the latter, the self-sacrificing woman whose virtue lies precisely in her ability and willingness to subsume her ego and wants to those of the male.
But the inherent vitality and hope for Indian women can be found in the first part of the image, in the power and strength embodied in the notion of shakti. Indian women, in short, don't need many lessons from Western feminists. The examples and the message of true equality, of a genuine realization of self, are contained deep within India's own cultural traditions. In that sense, we ask Sita, the heroine of the epic, The Ramyana, to speak, to tell her side of the story, a story that most women know instinctively but have suppressed for too long, a story that has been lost from sight while men retold the story from their perspective.