Dialogue January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3
Indian Woman: Distortion of her Image by the Media
The status of woman in a society is the most significant barometer of its progress. Different societies present different pictures of the position they accord to woman. In the lower levels of culture, the status is one of dependence, woman being an object of pleasure and service to man - the stronger sex. The earliest recorded texts of India give a different picture.
Women in Ancient India
“The Rig Veda presents a picture of woman as the equal of man in civic and religious spheres. In the pursuit of knowledge and virtue, in the performance of rituals, in the composition of hymns, even in the harder fields of war and statecraft, we find the Vedic woman as a companion and help-mate of man.” The Upanishads expound the idea of man and woman as the equal halves of divine unity. This spiritual view influenced our theories of marriage and morals, inter-personal and inter-religious relationships, and our attitude to God and the world.
“Tvam stri Tvam puman asi, Tvam Kumara uta va Kumari”, says the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (Thou art the woman, Thou art the man, Thou art the boy and the girl as well). Manu also said, “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devatah” (The Gods are pleased where the women are held in esteem).
In Hindu mythology, a deity usually has a female consort. Thus, Shiva has Parvati while Vishnu is associated with Lakshmi, and Brahma is inseparable from Saraswati. In Saptashati, the gods pool their essence to create Durga, whom they give their finest weapons with which she destroys the Asuras.
Woman thus occupied a very high position in the Indian society in ancient times. There are references in Vedic literature to women who were Rishis and authors of Vedic Richas. Women students of Rig Veda were called Balamanorama. Female seers were known as Rishikas, some of the famous Rishikas being Gargi, Maitreyi, Arganyami and Vishpala.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, in his introduction to Great Women of India says that “(Indian history) is a long procession, through the ages, of Indian women, who attained greatness in various spheres of life and culture – political, aesthetic, moral and spiritual”.
Motherhood – An Exalted Concept
The Hindus, in fact, worship the Divine as Mother. This gives a unique status to women in social life. The Hindu is taught to look upon every woman as a manifestation of the Divine Mother. A woman is held in high esteem even as daughter and as wife, but it is her personality as Mother which is given the highest respect. Motherhood is looked upon as the highest and noblest culmination of womanhood. Matri-devo bhava – treat your mother as a goddess – is the advice given to the young. As Manu says, “One acharya excels ten upadhyayas in glory; a father excels a hundred acharyas in glory; but a mother excels even a thousand fathers in glory”.
Swami Ranganathananda in his book Eternal Values for A Changing Society writes as follows in the chapter on ‘The Indian Ideal of Womanhood’:
“Indian thought views woman exactly as it views man, as a person with a destiny. The search for this destiny makes her a pilgrim in search of abhyudhaya and nihsreyasa – worldly excellence and spiritual realization…
Motherhood is a spiritual transformation of wifehood. The wife may and does demand and take; but the mother feels it her privilege to give. Within the limited circle of her motherhood, she is the example of self-transcendence through self-effacement. If woman as wife is socially significant, woman as mother is spiritually glorious….
To the Hindu, God is the Mother of all creation. A nation that has educated itself to look upon God as Mother, has learnt to invest its views of woman with the utmost tenderness and reverence. The culture of the Hindu trains him to look upon all women, nay, to look upon the female of all species, as forms of the one Divine Mother.”
The degradation in the position of women in India was a sequel to the establishment of Mughal rule in the country and the persecution of Hindus which followed. Women were coveted by the invaders and so they went behind purdah. Other distortions also crept in. The birth of a daughter was not welcomed in the family. Child marriage became common among certain castes. The Rajput women preferred to burn themselves on a pyre rather than accept the humiliation of forcible conversion and marriage to a Muslim. It is interesting nevertheless to read Emperor Jehangir writing in the Tuzuk that “it is a maxim of the Hindus that no good can be performed by men in the social state without the partnership or the presence of the wife, whom they have styled as half of men”. It only shows that even though subjugated, the Hindus stuck to their values.
Some women distinguished themselves during this period also by their achievements in administration, literature and even religion. Padmini (14th century), Durgavati (16th century), Meera Bai (16th century) and Chand Bibi (17th century) were some of the famous women of the era.
Travellers and scholars who visited India during this period have praised the Hindu women for their chastity and accomplishments. A Christian missionary, Abbe Dubois, wrote that “Hindu women are naturally chaste..(and)..are more virtuous than any of the many other civilized countries”.
The Renaissance in the late 19th century witnessed gradual improvement in the status of women. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the pioneer in taking up women’s causes. He campaigned against the barbaric practice of Sati, and agitated, on the authority of Yajnavalkya, that polygamy was contrary to Hindu law. The Brahmo Samaj, which he founded, started many schools for women. Swami Dayananda also supported the education of women. Swami Vivekananda believed that there was no chance for the progress of the world unless the condition of women improved just as “it is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing only.” Swami Vivekananda, in fact, looked upon woman as the embodiment of Shakti. He said:
“All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to women. The country and the nation, which do not respect women, have never become great, nor will ever be in future…without the grace of Shakti, nothing is to be accomplished.”
Elsewhere, in one of his lectures on Women of the East, he elaborated the concept of an ideal Hindu woman:
“The central idea of the life of a modern Hindu lady is her chastity. The wife is the center of a circle, the fixity of which depends upon her chastity…. The Hindu women are very spiritual and very religious, perhaps more so than any other women in the world. If we can preserve these beautiful characteristics and at the same time develop the intellects of our women, the Hindu woman of the future will be the ideal woman of the world.”
Aurobindo always drew inspiration from Durga. He said that only men “having the fire of Bhawani in their hearts and brains will go forth and carry the flame to every nook and cranny of our land”.
Mahatma Gandhi’s views on women are expounded in Gandhi’s View of Life. “The real ornament of woman is her character, her purity”, Gandhiji often told his female audiences. He also advised the “enlightened daughters of Bharata Mata” not to “ape, the manner of the West, which may be suited to its environment. They must apply methods suited to the Indian genius and Indian environment. Theirs must be the strong, controlling, purifying, steadying hand, conserving what is best in our culture and unhesitatingly rejecting what is base and degrading.”
Globalisation and the Distortions
In post-independent India, better access to education and to micro-finance, and mandatory representation in local government / panchayats have “lifted the veil and unlocked the shackles”. Women are again occupying their rightful place in different walks of life. They are in sevices, in industry, and even in police, paramilitary and defence forces. However, on the flip side, as the economy of the country progresses and globalization is exposing us to the Western culture to a much greater degree, there is an unfortunate erosion in our attitude towards women.
As rightly stated in The Cultural Heritage of India:
“The aggressive civilization of the West, with a conception of life which is mainly materialistic and thus fundamentally different from ours, has caught us in its iron grip. Many of us have been blinded by the dazzling glare of its industrialism. They are beginning to think that our salvation lies through an importation of Western institutions, and are duped by the illusion of a so-called progress which is quite often nothing but a positive retrogression.”
Role of Media
Media has played a devastating role in changing our attitude towards women – for the worse! There was a time when media was moved by the vision of India, but that vision is today blurred. Driven as it is by commercial considerations and knowing that sex sells, they are saturating their columns with articles on sex-related subjects and printing photographs of semi-nude or even completely nude models/actors.
MV Kamath expressed his anguish in the following words:
“When journalism is bereft of its own Dharma it ceases to have any meaning. When the media takes to selling soft pornography when it should be dealing with high deals, it ceases to have any relevance. And yet, that sadly is what the media is increasingly downgrading itself into. ..One suspects that today’s Media Moghuls are bereft of that ‘quality of moral earnestness’ that was the outstanding characteristic of their predecessors.”.
Chalapati Rao, another journalist, deplored that “the media is overstepping its limits and misusing its autonomy either deliberately or under the influence of their proprietors who are generally business magnates with vested interests or political bosses” and stated that :
“Under the guise of freedom of expression and independent journalism they are displaying trivialization, obscenity, vulgarity and crass degeneration of taste. …… Wrong signals are being sent to the youth by focusing spotlight on fashion models, film stars, brand ambassadors and political criminals through over-size colour photos. …After reading certain news papers the impression that the youth gets is that smoking is glamour, drinking is fun, drugs are in the ‘in’ things, teachers are jokers, fast-foods are the reigning fashion.”
The Norms of Journalistic Conduct circulated by the Press Council of India in 2005 laid down that newspapers/journalists shall not publish anything which is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste, and that they shall not display advertisements which are vulgar or which, through depiction of a woman in nude or lewd posture, provoke lecherous attention of males as if she herself was a commercial commodity for sale. It also clarified that:
“The globalisation and liberalization does not give licence to the media to misuse freedom of the press and to lower the values of the society. The media performs a distinct role and public purpose which require it to rise above commercial consideration guiding other industries and businesses. So far as that role is concerned, one of the duties of the media is to preserve and promote our cultural heritage and social values.
These guidelines are however being flouted with impunity and the media “instead of playing the watchdog to democracy, it is behaving like a blood hound”.
A few illustrations would show the depths to which the media has sunk. A leading national daily in its issue of July 18, 2005 carried an article under the caption Would you like to Seduce me? and its opening sentence said: “When it comes to the fine art of seduction, women like things to flow naturally”. There was another article in the same paper on July 31, 2005 which explained the art of ‘one night stand’ for the uninitiated. It had a confession box giving the experience of a particular person after his encounter with a lady who showed “a certain elegance to her tanned skin under her spaghetti-strap dress”. Yet another article in October 2, 2005 issue of the paper made fun of monogamy in the following words: “The same person ... the same face … the same habits … the same routine … the same everything, from this day onward for the rest of your life. Great!? Or Yuck!?” Again, on November 20, 2005 the daily had an article on what it called Moral Vacation, which encouraged youngsters across the country, married or not married, to be naughty at least once, forgetting all moral constraints.
The print media is also publishing sex surveys from time to time. Magazines otherwise respectable have fallen into this trap. India Today and Outlook magazines compete with each other in this. India Today’s issue of December 7, 2009 dealt with ‘The Fantasy Report’ while the Outlook of December 14, 2009 was about what it called ‘The Beta Male’ where it dealt with the young urban Indian for whom “sex is a career launch pad, an ego massager and a handycam porn debut”.
The media’s rationale is that they are catering to public demand. Actually they are turning the traditional economic theory upside down. Instead of demand creating supply, they are supplying pornography and thereby creating demand for it. Commercial considerations are paramount. The circulation of the newspaper or the magazine must show an upward trend and the revenue must increase. It matters little to the media if, in the process, they subvert our values and distort our cultural ethos.
The Press Council of India in its Annual Report (April 1, 2003 – March 31, 2004) recorded the following observations under Press and Morality:
“In Indian culture decency and morality occupy an important place. It is a matter of concern that certain section of the press under the western media influence have started carrying reports and photographs which militate against the ethos well entrenched in the minds of the Indian society. These serve no public interest of the readers at large and are aimed only at arousing prurient interest in young mind thereby misleading them. The portrayal of women in highly glamorized role for commercial exploitation through clients advertising in the Indian media is quite contrary to the image of Indian women.”
The film industry has been projecting women as sex objects. There is an emphasis on exposure and titillation. A film, to be a hit at the box office, is injected with an item number and some intimate scenes.
What is most unfortunate is that we have a class of intellectuals who want to blindly emulate the Western practices irrespective of whether they are in conformity with or antithetical to the Indian values. There is a move to legalise prostitution. Its protagonists argue that sex should also be treated as an industry and a woman should have the option to trade her body. The moral depravity inherent in the suggestion probably does not require a detailed rebuttal.
Where is all this going to lead us to? As Rajdeep Sardesai said:
“It is remarkable that those who write stirring editorials and organize high decibel debates about the need for accountability in every public institution – from the legislature to the judiciary – do little soul-searching themselves”.
P. Sainath, the celebrated journalist, has deplored that “the media have lost their compass and, with it their compassion….. (and that) the ‘moral universe’ of the media has changed a lot for the worse”.
Freedom of Expression Abused
Article 19 of the Constitution gives to all citizens the right to “freedom of speech and expression. This freedom is, however, subject to the restrictions specified in Article 19(2), which says that:
“Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, insofar as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of (the sovereignty and integrity of India), the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
As stated by renowned lawyer Fali S. Nariman, this freedom is “not for the benefit of the Press as an institution but for the public good”.
Writing on freedom of the subject, Justice R.S. Sarkaria also said that freedom of the press “is not to be equated with an unbridled licence to publish without responsibility anything the Press may like” and that “it carries with it an inherent co-related obligation to so exercise his right that it does not injure the rights of others, or impair the paramount interests of the State, or the welfare, peace and order of society”.
Mahatma Gandhi also said that “the newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy”.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference recently lashed out at the media which “glorifies violence, trivializes sexuality, increases divisions and encourages anti-social activities”. The accusation was made in a pastoral letter issued by Bishop Mathew Anikkuzhikattil, chairman of KCBC’s Family Commission. It blamed the media for “nourishing greed and discontentment” and ravaging the family life. The letter even called for media being kept on a leash.
If the country is not going to be swept off its feet, if we are not going to jettison our cultural heritage, if we wish to retain our pristine character, if we wish to cherish our traditional values, it is essential that we do not treat women as sex objects and, while giving them every opportunity of self-expression and openings in different spheres of activity, have a healthy attitude towards them and look upon them as partners in material advancement as well as spiritual salvation. Let us not replace Sita by Britney Spears, Damayanti by Madonna or Ansuya by Angelina Jolie.
We may conclude with the following quote from Swami Vivekananda:
“O India, this is your terrible danger. The spell of imitating the West is getting such a strong hold upon you that what is good or what is bad is no longer decided by reason, judgement, discrimination, or reference to the Shastras. Whatever ideas, whatever manners the white men praise or like are good; whatever things they dislike or censure are bad. Alas! What can be a more tangible proof of foolishness than this?”