Grandmother's Memory - India's Religious Misogyny Must End

Religions still discriminate against women all over India
Religions still discriminate against women all over India
G.R. Gopinath*


MUMBAI — In my memories of my grandmother, one image of her comes to my mind: that of a widow with a tonsured head, wrapped in a dull brown cotton sari worn in traditional style, a blank forehead without the usual vermilion powder or kumkum, bare neck, empty ears and hands unadorned and shorn off all jewelry. Her ankles and feet were bare too — without the traditional anklets or silver rings worn on the toes of both feet — the symbol of married women.

I also have a very vivid story of my grandmother etched in my memory. I had gone to Melkote, the idyllic temple town near Mysore — where she lived with one of her sons, my maternal uncle — during my school summer holidays from Gorur, where I studied in the local government Kannada medium school.

In those days, a favorite vacation was being taken to your mother's birth place to be with your grandmother, carefree and pampered. I must have been eight or nine. My older sister was by my side. I'm not sure what led my grandmother to recount this poignant episode, but it was heart-rending. Her eyes welled up in tears, and with dreamy eyes into her distant past, she narrated this event.

She was married off as a child-bride of 13 to a boy — also young, just 16 — who was studying to be a Sanskrit pundit and training to become a purohit (priest) in Melkote, a Srivaishnavite pilgrim center founded by Ramanuja a thousand years ago. When she was in her late 30s, her husband took ill and died. She had three children — two boys and a girl, my mother. They were all in their teens and in school.

As she was bent, broken in sorrow, the barber shaved her head.

She was in total shock and grief. But what she remembered with unbearable pain was the day the various ceremonies and rituals were performed in public in the presence of relatives and other locals of the village, the manner her widowhood was formalized and announced. She was seated on the floor amid two priests who, surrounded by many relatives, chanted various mantras.

First they removed all her ornaments, including her mangala sutra — the holy necklace that her husband had tied around her neck on the day of her wedding. Then they smashed the glass bangles on her wrists contemptuously, removed the rings in her ear lobes and her toes, unfastened the anklets, erased her vermilion roughly even as she shook and sobbed inconsolably and was drowning in her sorrow.

A village barber, ready and waiting with his sharpened blades, was ushered in to perform the ritual of tonsuring her head. As she was bent, broken in sorrow, the barber shaved her head. She recalled, in tears, how her copious and luxuriant tresses fell to the ground. The chanting continued. She was dizzy and overwhelmed by the events. Then she was led to the bath; after her relatives poured water on her and scrubbed her, she was given a plain brown cotton sari that became her prison uniform for the rest of her life.

Indian women praying — Photo: Subhash Sharma/ZUMA

The message was clear and writ large: She was now branded a widow. She was deliberately disfigured, made over to look ugly and divested of all her finery and her jewels, condemned to live an austere life in a corner permanently with a tonsured head, to be shaven twice a month — to ensure that she would never be attractive to other men.

Landmark rulings

That story and those soul-piercing images still haunt me whenever I think of her. And images of other widows that I occasionally saw in many homes float before me as I imagine the cruelty and horror they must have endured when their husbands died.

Thankfully, such abominable rituals and barbaric practices — a curse from the Vedic past — are rare these days. But discrimination against widows and their ill treatment is still prevalent in many parts of India. Widows remarrying are no longer uncommon. Untouchability is still practiced in devious ways but assertion, affirmative action and empowerment of Dalits and stringent punishment guaranteed under the law are good deterrents.

Those soul-piercing images still haunt me.

Child marriage and the practice of "sati" (widow immolation) are all things of the past fortunately, thanks to visionary and courageous reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others. Many young people today can never believe that such terrible and inhuman practices existed not so long ago.

When you pause and consider all of this, you are shocked at the reactions of many fire-breathing fanatics, frothing at the mouth on television panel discussions, hysterically protesting against the entry of women of "menstruating age" (arbitrarily decided as age 10 to 50) into the Sabarimala temple — even after the recent Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple to end any kind of gender discrimination against women.

The Supreme Court judgment was in line with with the spirit and broader tenets of the constitution when it passed many recent landmark rulings — notably against the "triple talaq" instant divorce practice, criminalization of homosexuals, discrimination of LGBTQs and a few others. The hypocrisy of both the Congress and BJP stands out — and is laughable and shameful.

The Congress, a party that presents itself as progressive and liberal while painting the BJP communal, has no qualms in blissfully opposing triple talaq — all for the sake of Muslim votes — just as it opposed the historic Shah Bano judgment while Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister by amending the law.

Different strokes for different religions.

The BJP is hell bent on enforcing the triple talaq law to consolidate a Hindu-majority vote bank by portraying itself as anti-Islamic. In Sabarimala, the BJP lawmakers — though in the ruling party — are making a laughing stock of themselves, without even a pretense to a fig leaf of concern to uphold the constitution. The party is brazenly defying and disregarding the Supreme Court verdict, offering warped logic justifying the ban on entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, while in same breath welcoming the triple talaq judgment.

What is good for the goose is not good for the gander. Different strokes for different religions. While the BJP is displaying a reformist zeal to liberate Muslim women, it has no hesitation to trample on the rights and dignity of Hindu women. Endorsing Khap panchayats, or imposing medieval dress codes or banning entry of women to temples are all attempts to create a feudal society along the lines of an Islamic State.

The Congress party's actions are as regressive as they are perched on two blinkered horses, both on a gallop. On the one hand it's trying to outdo the Muslims by supporting triple talaq to ingratiate itself into their demographic, and the other trying to appease the Hindu vote bank by upholding primitive traditions that are a blot on a civilized society.

Hindu women all over India do not generally visit any public temples, voluntarily avoiding the visits during menstruation even where there are no bans of any kind. They do not even light lamps of deities or offer any prayers even in their own homes. It's a self imposed restriction based on their personal beliefs. It's voluntary and there's no policing. It's discreet and dignified.

But imposing a ban by male priests in a public place of worship on women who are of menstruating age is medieval, discriminating and humiliating to human dignity. Decades hence, when we look back at the Sabarimala incidents, they will hopefully be part of our shameful past — consigned to the dustbins of history — and our grand children will look at them incredulously, just as they now think of sati or tonsuring of widows.

*G.R. Gopinath, a retired Indian Army captain, is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Indian budget airline Air Deccan.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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