I grew up in a Hindu family, in a society where a majority follows Hinduism. I must have been about nine when I observed the girls my age fasting for about a week sometime in July, where they would wake up every morning to worship a pot of freshly planted rice seedlings. I was curious so I started doing the same as well (and my mother was more than happy because she thought that this would be the way I would lose some weight). It was only years later that I was to realize and be able to analyze the symbolic meaning that this had, this fasting which is known as “Gauri-vrat” where “vrat” stands for fasting and “Gauri” for Goddess Shakti, the consort of God Shiva. Gauri here also means “the unmarried/virgin/pre-menstrual girl”, linking to the “feminine pure” that Goddess Shakti stands for. The fast is meant to be in worship of God Shiva, symbolizing the devotion that Shakti had for him. God Shiva is the one who is responsible for the forces of creation and destruction, the cycle of birth and death. Shakti represents the “feminine” aspects of this cycle, that of giving birth and nurturing.
What angered me the most about the fasting was that the girls were made to worship Shakti as mother earth through worship of a pot of seedlings, with the aim that Shakti would grant them the power to get good husbands, please them (sexually of course) and give them healthy (male) children. I was pleading all this time to the earth to make me fertile like her, without ever realizing it. My vagina wasn’t mine, it belonged to Shakti. So here I was, fasting as a kid, symbolically asking, as a pre-menstrual virgin (without a symbolic vagina), to be “gifted” the vagina in the form of blessings.
When I was finally past my pre-menstrual age, I realized that temples gave me a big no at entry when I was menstruating. Of course, if I was alone, I happily entered them without declaring my state, but the idea is that women who menstruate are impure. Hence, menstrual blood is impure. Getting my vagina from Shakti when I start menstruating (once I enter puberty) is not enough apparently! Some say that it makes women weak mentally and emotionally and hence impure. But most of the popular nonsense I get from my neighbors back in Ahmedabad (where I was born and grew up) is that menstrual blood is impure. I have to be pregnant to be considered pure again, because my vagina needs to be put to “use” – the grand function of reproduction. I am not pure until I am a mother. I cannot be a female body that is accepted by the society until I make my normative-role my
identity. I become an embodiment of nature only when I act like nature, which is to be fertile and give birth. Until I give birth, I am seen as vulnerable, as not having a protector, as not being a “complete” woman and hence being looked with suspicion.
What I feel about my identity in India while living amidst these norms shows no difference to that amongst the rhetoric as made by certain branches of feminism (like ecofeminism) that uses these “exotic” third-world ideas to empower women as mothers, making both “woman” and “nature” mere adjectives that become more exclusive as the movement develops.
What seems to be taking place now is that we are turning to nature to “save” our vaginas, as if our vaginas, when given away to “nature”, would return to their “natural” abode, with reference to what is known as the “Natural Law”. This reference to Natural Law has shown up in the discourse related to both, the control of human-reproduction through abortion or contraceptive pills and through the control of agricultural production, through pesticides or through the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds. My body and its integrity has suddenly become an object that could be appropriated.
Love Jihad is the newest manifestation of the appropriation of a woman’s body in India. I read news about attacks on Hindu women who fell in love with Muslim men everyday lately, where this love itself is portrayed as if “Muslim men had embarked on a war to Islamicize the womb of Hindu India.” The Hindu men, according to political parties like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bajrang Dal, and even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have the moral duty to save the honour of these Hindu women by saving their wombs from being appropriated by the Muslim men. This brings back again to the idea that the religious divides and caste divides are manifested in the blood and genes, for some obscure reason. Most of the population, despite all the science and technological progress that India prides in singing for itself, still believes in all this blabla mystic-science, reflected, for example, in beliefs in horoscope or astrology.
I find it interesting that this movement of appropriation of women’s body evolves with political movements in popularity. But in most cases, it is in the name of honor that could be religious, moral or cultural. The sad story is that I find myself hopeless in this crystallizing of the use of question of women’s body to legitimatize a political agenda.
Note: Some parts of this essay were written as a part of my project for a class by Prof. Bruno Latour in Spring 2014 at Sciences Po Paris