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The many faces of the Indian woman

She is Goddess Lakshmi personified as a bride walking through her husband’s threshold. She is the face of Goddess Saraswati giving the wisdom of knowledge to her children. She is a Devi as her husband’s strength. India is in awe of its goddesses. Temples are not the only places she is worshipped in. Men throng to film theatres to worship her on the silver screen as she entices and seduces them. And then there is the face thrust upon her, that of the ‘Bhartiya Nari’ (An Ideal Indian woman): one who is virgin at the time of her marriage, meek and upholds the patriarchal traditions of the society.

Now the obvious question is who was responsible for creating the face of the Ideal Indian woman? The image goes back to the time when the British ruled India. Women were doubly colonized and suppressed by men back then. Then came Bollywood and later Television Drama from across the world giving Indian women a variety of role models to choose from. They started imitating the starlets that men ogle at in various aspects, fashion, lifestyle and attitudes.

Actress Parveen Babi was an iconic woman who was worshipped by men and women alike in the 70s. She changed the face of the Indian heroine, one of the few actresses of her time who was westernised in her attire and had shed the mantle of the typical meek Bharitya Nari (Ideal Indian Woman) clad in a sari. She was always cast in glamorous roles portraying independent women. She smoked in her films, drank alcohol and had live-in relationships; all of which was a taboo back then. Even in real life she never married but had relationships with many married men. Despite what most people would call ‘immoral’ behaviour she was featured on the cover of the Time magazine as the face of the modern Indian woman. She was everyman’s dream. Men pursued women like her, took them out for ice cream, held hands with them in the dark cinema halls, and stole a kiss under their shawls in gardens. But when it came to marriage they left their modern, western-attired educated girlfriends for a woman that their mother chose for them: A Bhartiya Nari. One would think that the society would see the image of the Bhartiya Nari for the shallow excuse that it is and the ideology would lose monopoly. Alas!

The society has clearly categorized the women of India:  the Bhartiya Nari who becomes the wife and the Other. The Other was the kind of woman men could have fun with, have affairs with. The Other could unflinchingly be admonished for the same and subjected to mockery and abuse on her face. Till date these ‘Other’ women are targets walking around inviting themselves to be raped because they don’t conform to the image of the ‘Ideal Indian Woman’.

Thrusting the image of the Bhartiya Nari on Indian women and punishing the women who don’t conform to it has now left the Indian woman with a scarred face. Her eyes dart wildly in her surroundings full of fear and mistrust. Her face is anxious. Cast a second look at her face and you will see Goddess Durga, the slayer of demons in her eyes. She is preparing herself for a long battle. Burn her all you want and like a phoenix she will arise even stronger from her ashes.

Author: Roma Rajpal
Editor: Isha Bhatia


09.01.2013 | 10:47