I was recently in Goa, staying at a very nice resort that celebrates Goan culture every Thursday evening for guests who presumably know nothing about it. Yet this Goan culture has very little to do with the lived reality of Goa. It consists rather of a troupe of tired (and surely underpaid) dancers performing two dances for guests. Local living customs, such as the centuries-old use of coconut water as a natural protection from the harmful effects of the sun, are nowhere to be found on the menu.
This is always the danger with veneration – what is venerated gets boiled down into a bite-sized capsule that removes it from, rather than immerses it in, the complex world of the everyday. Thus, the argument from the Left against Women’s Day is that women do not seem to matter on any other day of the year. Celebrating Women’s Day allows a certain section of the population to assuage its conscience, wave its credentials, and then do very little for the remaining 364 days during which women live and suffer and triumph and fall.
The mother archetype
This year, in addition to the Leftist argument against tokenism, I have another reason for not wanting to celebrate Women’s Day. And that reason is peculiar to India at this political moment. From the response to the Rohith Vemula suicide to the continued afterlife of the Jawaharlal Nehru University agitations, Indian women have emerged fully and finally in one role and one role alone – that of the mother. Whether it is the Prime Minister finally breaking his silence to extol the virtues of Mother India who sheds tears for her son, or the Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani repeatedly asserting that the country will brook no disrespect of Bharat Mata, the Indian woman has squarely been assigned her position in life, and it is motherhood.
Clearly these politicians are tapping into the zeitgeist even as they are creating a monstrous version of it. If the mushrooming numbers of fertility clinics in India are anything to go by, then Indians are increasingly obsessed with making women produce children. Why this should be so in a country of over 1.2 billion people remains a mystery. Some of it has to do with our religious histories, of course, which insist on the need to produce sons in order to gain happiness in the afterlife. Such an insistence continues to this day when Hindu women are exhorted to stay at home and produce more Hindu children to bolster the waning 80% majority of Hindus in the country. The divide between those states that encourage communal violence and those that do not, maps eerily onto the fertility rates as well. Some states in the South have half the fertility rate of many states in the North, where there are also higher rates of female foeticide.
This is not a coincidence. Notice that in the drama of Indian patriarchy, the woman is always cast in the role of the mother of a son. In Narendra’s Modi’s speech, Mother India wept for the son she lost; in Smriti Irani’s tirade, Rohith is the child that Bharat Mata mourns. Equally, Kanhaiya Kumar is the unruly son who has insulted his motherland. Interestingly, Allahabad University’s craven and politically motivated efforts to expel Richa Singh, the first woman president of its student union, for daring to stand up to the Hindutva right-wing has not been cast into the rhetoric of upsetting Mother India since she is a mere daughter rather than a prized son.
Madonna or whore
Women who challenge the state in India, as many did after the government’s unprecedented crackdown in Jawaharlal Nehru University, run the risk of being described, as they were by the chief secretary to the Haryana chief minister, as “worse than prostitutes”. The opposite of a benign maternity whose modesty has been outraged thus seems to be a brazen woman whose sexuality is rampant. Madonna or whore.
If we need to do anything to mark Women’s Day this year, then, let us reject the very idea of Bharat Mata. No more self-sacrificing and servile mothers waiting hand and foot on millions of sons who treat them badly, and never more so than while designating them as mothers. In such a rhetoric, the Mother never speaks but is always spoken for and in the name of. Let us shun the patriarchal cast of maternity that deems a woman incomplete until she has children, and then shuts her up within the myth of the single-mindedly devoted mother. The myth of Bharat Mata demolishes women as sexual beings with intense desires and human beings with fluctuating opinions, and places them instead on a pedestal made up of chains, from where women are allowed do nothing but produce and then adore their sons.
No one can tell us how many children we can or should have, but we need to pause and think about what exactly we are doing when we consign women to being mothers. In terms of political rhetoric, the Mother is a powerless being whose only role is to protect the son. She has no other aspect and is accorded no other respect. Any behaviour that deviates from this prison of maternity is deemed unnatural. This is a realm in which we need azadi from Mother India.
Madhavi Menon is Professor of English at Ashoka University.