Motherhood is seen as sacred in many cultures, including in all Indian cultures, as it evokes the highest emotions in people and stirs them into unthinking action. It is no wonder that the concept of motherhood is attached to other emotive causes and possessions like the nation and has been intrinsic in nationalist discourses where motherland gives a sense of belonging and mother tongue is an attribute to the construction of a national community. In some Indian cultures associated with Hinduism, this emotion of motherhood has been extended to cows.
Many feminist scholars like Yashodhara Bagchi and Tanika Sarkar showed how motherhood was intrinsic to brands of Indian nationalism and argued that the reason for this was that women bear the culture and identity of their ‘national community’ and that their role as mothers is used for identifying national communities. Men, on the other hand, are meant to be protectors and martyrs for the cause of this nationalism, where they protect mother as nation and mother as reproducer for the nation’s identity and keeper of family values. This role as national symbol is also identified with cows.
Of course the use of motherhood as an instrument to serve the interests of political groups, parties and even the State has been used by ultra nationalists in many parts of the world. For example, the Serbian nationalists and later the Serbian State redefined women as mothers of the nation. Stalin during World War II gave awards to mothers who could produce many children for the nation and the great patriotic war. Americans use the aphorism ‘pure as motherhood and apple pie’. So clearly motherhood can be used as a political tool, just like associating the cow as mother also can be politically convenient.
But what has such role identification and symbolic value contributed to motherhood and for gender and human relations? It has given power and authority to men, on the one hand, and taken away autonomy and choice from women, on the other, by restricting them to the primary role of only motherhood. Linking motherhood to the cow opens up the possibility of further restricting women’s role. Such type of stereotyping of motherhood reinforces unequal gender relations and make men into protectors while women have to give up their rights in order to be protected as they are seen to be too weak to protect themselves. Cow protection similarly can get symbolic value of protection, even at the cost of other human beings. Thus men get the dominant and public roles and women the passive and personal one.
Everyone is familiar with the old repeated argument “that we respect our women and our mothers”, but the point is that this respect is confined to their role of motherhood rather than women with an individual and autonomous identity. Moreover, if any woman does not conform to designer motherhood, she leaves herself open to attack, scorn or pity. That is why feminists call this a ‘protection racket’ and want an atmosphere where they do not need protectors but an atmosphere of security where they can express their choice and autonomy without fear of being marked for sexual harassment. Also while men can choose fatherhood, career, autonomy dominance by virtue of being born boys, women have stereotyped roles and inequality forced on them through social and structural ways.
Very often women have had to use their role as mothers to assert their moral and normative authority. This is especially true in conflicts or in disturbed areas. So in Sri Lanka during the civil war mothers fronts were formed on both the Sinhala and Tamil sides to mourn for their sons and missing husbands and call for peace. Similarly, Naga mothers and Meiti mothers have on many occasions negotiated for peace and social issues in India’s Northeast. And there have been mothers for peace the world over, when all other devices have failed. But at the same time almost all mothers’ associations have felt instrumentalised because when it comes to actual power negotiations and participation in formal political structures they are left out.
This does not mean that the symbolic motherhood attached to the cow is wrong and should be mocked or disregarded. No one has argued against such symbolism on either motherhood or the cow. Religious sentiments of all communities and groups, including the sentiments of rationalists and atheists, should be respected, tolerated. And each allowed to function in their sphere of ritual and construction of the sacred. But if this idea of the sacred becomes an instrument of exclusion, threat and attacking those who do not conform to any one interpretation, this sacred transforms into the profane.
It is also important to remember the pitfalls of such symbolic loading, how it impacts women and people as a whole and what it does to culture and society. Further, the historical reason and cultural specificities need to be properly analysed, questioned and debated. Further, how the ideas of culture, religions, politics and gender intersect and create meaning and practice is something serious social scientists including feminists in the best institutions in the world are being encouraged to examine and freely research. This is the message of the feminists on gender, the cow and motherhood.
Anuradha Chenoy is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.The views expressed are personal.