India is a country where we worship women as goddesses and yet burn them for dowry and kill girls in the womb. How many times have you heard such an observation? In my experience, almost as many times as that other hackneyed statement: India is the land of Kama Sutra and yet we are so repressed and prudish when it comes to sex. Neither of these oft-quoted insights has helped change anything.
So, when I first read about the Abused Goddesses campaign against domestic violence on Facebook, even before seeing the pictures, I thought the concept was trite.
The pictures, in themselves, are striking. Shot in the style of popular calendar art, they depict Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati in traditional poses with cuts and bruises on their conventionally beautiful faces.
This campaign has caught the attention of the international media, and is being hailed as ‘powerful’ and ‘hard-hitting’. It has also triggered a debate in social media circles. While some are praising the ‘impact’ of the images, others are uncomfortable because it harks back to the old stereotype of women as ‘goddesses’ and uses the iconography of Hindu mythology to represent domestic violence survivors who cut across the lines of religion, caste and class in our country.
Goddess Saraswati holding her Veena with a bruised face
To begin with, I do not even find it powerful or hard-hitting as a campaign against domestic violence. A staunchly religious middle-class Hindu man might recite the Durga chalisa every day and yet beat up his wife for talking back at him. Will this campaign make him stop and think about Durga Ma the next time he raises his hand or belt towards his wife?
“Pray that we never see this day. Today more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to,” says the text in the ads.
But goddesses that “we pray to” do not get slapped, belted, punched and kicked around into subservience and ‘domestication’. Women do.
What is the underlying message this campaign is trying to convey anyway? Do not hit women because they are goddesses? Are women worthy of respect and humane treatment because goddesses are worshipped? What about the women who do not display the presumed qualities of a revered goddess?
Pedestalisation of women as goddesses is as damaging as portraying them as sex objects. Both dehumanise women. Both leave no space in between for women to exercise their will or have feelings and opinions and flaws and desires as human beings. Trapping women into images of a supposed ideal is one of the oldest strategies of patriarchy – and if we do not fit the image, it is deemed alright to ‘punish’ and violate us.
The goddess of strength Durga looks vulnerable
One might argue that advertising uses stereotypes to achieve a connect with the masses. But it also insidiously reinforces those stereotypes.
Talking of hard-hitting campaigns, a 2009 anti-domestic violence ad made in the UK and featuring Keira Knightley comes to mind. It shows the actress come back from a shoot to be assaulted by a jealous lover at home. Now, this is hard-hitting, because it feels real – even as the camera pans out to show that it is taking place on a deserted film set with Knightley helplessly shouting ‘cut’ while she is kicked in the stomach.
Women are not goddesses, Hindu or otherwise. Domestic violence is a reality that affects human beings. It will not be eradicated by pushing it into the realm of abstraction.