Not for them the burden of Sita

Not for them the burden of Sita

Women would be happier if they are treated like modern individuals rather than a shadow of Sita, thinks Savitha KarthikLast month, the Bombay High Court, while hearing an appeal filed by a Mumbai man seeking divorce from his wife because she was not willing to shift to his new place of work, observed that “women should be like Sita, who followed her husband Lord Rama during his exile”.

“A wife should be like goddess Sita who left everything and followed her husband Lord Ram to a forest and stayed there for 14 years,” the division bench observed.

This observation triggered off a tsunami of reactions across mainstream media and the blog world. And why not? To compare a modern-day situation to an epic scenario is not a fair one, or at least it seems so, for most commentators on the issue. Gita Aravamudan, author of ‘Unbound: Indian Women@Work’ and ‘Disappearing Daughters’, dubs it “archaic”.

Isn’t it a case of the patriarchy and our institutions telling us that a woman cannot think for herself? That she does not have a mind of her own, she asks. Indeed. “And it is often the woman who thinks about the family, who makes sacrifices for the family,” she points out.

As Kiran Manral, author, media consultant and blogger points out, “It’s the ‘kindly adjust’ formula that women are expected to abide by. Sadly, even today, women are considered homemakers primarily and career persons second.

The expectation that the husband’s career always needs to be placed first is paramount. Sita is being constantly held up as an example for married women to follow, and the judge, whether in earnest or lightheartedly, was I think merely echoing what a majority of our society feels.”

This notion is often substantiated with generous help from mythological episodes. Which brings us to the question of whether Sita was actually a strong woman herself?

To Aravamudan, Sita was a strong woman. And so were Draupadi, Tara, Ahalya and Mandodari. Did not Sita breach the Lakshman Rekha, the line drawn by Lakshmana telling her not to cross it no matter what?

But, there are any number of interpretations of Sita, as there are versions of the Ramayana itself.

Each individual is actually interpreting and reinterpreting the myth at his/her own level, depending on what the individual’s understanding of society and women’s place in that society is, points out Aravamudan.

Satya Chaitanya, a corporate trainer specialising in leadership training and stress management, and a visiting faculty of XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur, writes about women in Indian mythology and more specifically of Sita in an essay entitled, ‘The Willing Woman: On Epic Women and Will Power,’ “She tells Rama that she has decided to go with him. Just like that.

It is not a request. She does not plead to Rama to take her with him. She makes a statement of fact: she is going with him to the jungle. And nothing in the world can alter it, nothing in the world can stop her. She does not change her mind once she has decided something.”

Whether or not Sita is a strong woman, the issue on hand is what the judges meant. Did not their observation come from a more conservative position?

Points out Manral, “Where this (the court’s) observation disturbs me is the expectation that a woman is not supposed to put her needs, her wishes and her career first.

Mythological figures as role models are no longer applicable in the current context when a lot has changed in the gender equation and it is high time everyone, including our judiciary acknowledges that.”

And why should a woman be dictated to and be told what to do with her life? Is it fair for only women to be told to be making all the adjustments?

And why should women even aspire to be a Sita? Isn’t a woman an individual more than a devi on a pedestal? Indian Home Maker, who runs the famous blog by the same name, and discusses gender issues regularly on the blog, seems to have some answers when she says, “When we have unrealistic expectations from women, we make it only tougher for parents to want to have daughters.

Today, daughters' marriages and the related issues are the biggest reason for our skewed sex ratio. If Indian women were encouraged to see their lives and marriages the way all other Indians do — as a part of their lives and not their only goal in life, it would become easier for women to be born and to live in Indian society. And that would benefit the entire society.”

IHM, as she is known, echoes Aravamudan’s views when she says every one has their “own favourite versions of mythological tales,” but, “we as a society would benefit from not using their versions to ask anybody to base their important decisions on.”

Women would be happier, it seems, to be treated like individuals with minds of their own, rather than be worshipped and then have an entire society breathing down their necks, asking for  expectations to be met. Whose expectations are these anyway? Why become Sita?

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