By Monica Sarkar, for the Guardian
In a yearly festival celebrating goddess Gangamma in the south Indian city of Tirupati, men assume the form of women. Lasting a week, the town is filled with men wearing saris, mirroring the goddess’ semblance. The women intensify their domestic duties, sharing the deity’s feminine, creative power, known in Hinduism as ‘shakti.’
While goddess worship is meaningful in areas of this predominantly Hindu country, is it a practice that empowers girls?
In September 2013, Indian advertising agency Taproot produced an ‘Abused Goddesses’ campaign, recreating Hindu goddesses with black eyes and bruised faces. Although its impact was not measured, the posters highlighted the contrast between deity worship and the treatment of girls and women in modern-day India, where a high female infanticide rate exists and 244,270 incidents of crimes against women were reported in 2012.
Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, professor of religion and author of ‘When the World Becomes Female,‘ which details the Gangamma festival, explains the connection: “Where do we get the idea that because there are goddesses, women will have higher status? It’s a big assumption about the relationship between human and divine worlds.”
An ancient tradition in India and Nepal enforces that relationship and carefully selects pre-pubescent girls as incarnations of a goddess. In India, the girl, or ‘Kumari’, is usually worshipped for a day. But in Nepal, where goddess worship is also prevalent, she is isolated from society, taking her daily seat at the temple to be worshipped by locals as well as royalty. Once she reaches puberty, another chosen girl replaces her.
Chanira Bajracharya, a 19-year-old Nepalese student, was a Kumari of Patan, a city within Kathmandu Valley. Fulfilling the role from age five to 15, she says she still looks up to the goddess: “I feel I’m blessed and a lot of my success comes from those blessings.” She says the tradition encourages respect for women in a male-dominated society.
Bajracharya thinks the controversial tradition should continue, but adds Kumaris should be properly educated and guided “so they don’t feel misplaced when they go out into the real world.”
However, some NGOs find that religion is used to excuse or veil negative cultural norms. The age-old Indiandevadasi practice dedicates young girls to the goddess Yellamma, who are then unable to marry and forced into prostitution. Because of its religious connotations, those who participate see it as a privilege.
Aasha Ramesh was a primary researcher in a 1981 study conducted by the NGO Joint Women’s Programme, which highlighted the tradition in certain districts bordering the states of Karnataka and Maharastra. Ramesh says the findings drew the attention of the Indian government and led to its ban in 1982.
Although this reduced its prevalence, she says it continues to operate in villages. “Unfortunately, we know that laws alone cannot change practices that have been existing since time immemorial, especially if it involves a religious belief.” Therefore, NGOs continue to protect victims and pressurise lawmakers to take further action.
Pathfinder International recognises the importance of engaging with the wider community, including opening dialogues with religious leaders from different faiths as well as Hinduism. Encouraging them to advocate projects in their communities, such as Prachar which focuses on girls’ reproductive health and empowerment in Haryana, they have found a shift in negative perceptions and reductions in early marriages and pregnancies.
Binod Singh, project manager, says: “According to Hindu mythology, girls are treated like goddesses, but in practical life they are deprived from many opportunities and are victims of deep rooted discrimination. It is certainly an important and positive approach to address religious beliefs for behaviour changes in terms of girls’ empowerment and delaying marriage.”
Some young women feel that goddesses are not fit to serve their modern purposes. Usha Vishwakarma, 25, leads a teenage martial arts girls group called Red Brigade in Lucknow, who bravely patrol the streets and ward off men seen to be harassing women.
“Goddesses are worshipped merely as a ritual but in reality, women are generally never seen as their earthly representations,” she says. “It is not inspiration or motivation that we look for. Sheer frustration from being ill-treated by men and unsympathetic responses from family drive us to rebel and make conditions better for ourselves.”
Madhu Khanna, a Tantric scholar and professor of religious studies in New Delhi, argues for feminist reinterpretations of outdated fables for girls. Modern writers, including herself and activist and classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai, have presented their adaptations in front of diverse, receptive audiences.
But since a single approach cannot apply to all in a vast country like India, some organisations choose to adopt secularist methods.
Anne Munger, marketing and communications associate for Voice 4 Girls, which runs activity-based camps, says: “Because we serve a diverse range of girls from all backgrounds, our camps do not touch on religion, and religion does not often come up in conversations with our campers. We teach them about prominent women in society, like Malala Yousafzai, Kiran Bedi, Aung San Suu Kyi; real women they can aspire to emulate. And community heroes, such as parents, friends and teachers.”
Ramesh advocates secularism: “Religion is personal and private [and] goddess worship does not interfere with work related to rights. It becomes an issue to be addressed only if it discriminates or violates women’s rights.”
A multitude of gods and goddesses are worshipped in India, along with their regional variations, and though the praise of deity worship can be empowering, it can also be used to oppress. Ultimately, it is engaging with communities that will discourage outdated, patriarchal practices that fool girls into believing that they are not worthy of the same reverence bestowed on a goddess.