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Religion, Orientalism and Gender Based Violence: A Feminist Analysis of the ‘Abused Goddesses’ Print Campaign in India

“Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of the women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”- With this tagline, the Abused Goddesses campaign sought to curb domestic violence and sex trafficking of Indian women. Led by ad agency Taproot India, for the international non-governmental organization Save Our Sisters, as an initiative of Save the Children India, the campaign was a print campaign that went viral amidst both criticism and accolades in September 2013.

Domestic violence, being the most pervasive of basic human rights violation, is also found to be the least talked about- both least reported and discussed in India. The rigid patriarchal standards along with the complex Indian cultural baggage, the stark boundaries between public and private lives, have come together to deem the question of domestic violence a complicated and nuanced one. This has resulted in the prolonged struggle against this heinous crime.

The idea behind the campaign was to send across the grave message that India’s most popular religion, Hinduism stresses on reverence towards women, in lieu of the large number of goddesses that form a significant part of the Hindu pantheon. Despite this deep-rooted reverence for the goddesses propagated by the religion, the country is extremely unsafe for women, with cases of gender based violence being reported in large numbers every other day. The campaign used the faces of revered goddesses from Hindu mythology to come up with their bruised and battered variants in print, to show that with the current rate of gender based violence in India, it wouldn’t be surprising if tomorrow even the goddesses were attacked. The campaign manages to capture India’s most startling contradiction with respect to its hypocritical mindset and the treatment of its women. It was awarded the Spike Asia award in the Design category, as it focused on the prevention of sex trafficking along with domestic violence.

The campaign went viral within a short span of time, giving rise to an explosion of online activity and won a lot a accolades and print media awards. The campaign consisted of three images- of Saraswasti, the goddess of music, nature and knowledge, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Durga, the goddess of valor. These goddesses hold the position of Tridevi (three goddesses) in Hindu mythology. Their representations of divinity and aura were conveniently mangled by Taproot India’s bruised and battered depiction of victims of violence via them. By showing tear stained faces, open cuts, battered cheekbones and other signs of abuse on the faces of these famed goddesses, the campaign contradicts and merges the sacred and the abusive innovatively, thus distinguishing itself remarkably from other campaigns.

The original details (for example, the lotus in goddess Saraswati’s hand. etc) are all retained in these images. This minute attention to detailing has managed to retain the authenticity of the paintings, thus playing an integral role in helping the images connect with the Indians on a deeper level. It reinforces the fact that abuse is not a rare occurrence but rather, a disturbingly prominent one in most households.  It shows us that while men on one hand worship and pray to women, on the other hand they go home and abuse women too. This starkly sad duality creeps out as a result of worshiping someone we cannot see and abusing someone we can.

In her article in the Hindustan Times, Praneta Jha says, “Pedestalisation of women as goddesses is as damaging as portraying them as sex objects. Both dehumanize women. Both leave no space in between for women to exercise their will or have feelings and opinions and flaws and desires as human beings. Trapping women into images of a supposed ideal is one of the oldest strategies of patriarchy—and if we do not fit the image, it is deemed alright to ‘punish’ and violate us”.

Image source: India Today

These opinions suggest that domestic violence is the result of a sociocultural system that consistently works on dehumanizing women. Sanjay Srivastava, a Delhi based sociologist, throws light on yet another aspect of the deification of women when he says, “Given India’s patriarchal status, the worship of goddess(es) and the iconic status of a deity bequeathed to domesticated female figures is ‘a symptom of male anxiety and guilt’”. While many might contest that using religion to justify or even blame the outlook of people is problematic, it is surely unavoidable. There is a crucial difference between rape in other countries and in India. “57% boys and 53% girls in India think that wife-beating is justified”. These figures, though scary, reflect exactly the kind of problem we face as a society here.

Though the campaign raised many eyes with its unique approach, it also did receive a lot of flak and criticism. The first and foremost issue was contended to be the glamorizing of gender based violence. It should be understood that such images in the media space tend to create a cultural acceptance to violence, ie a culture of accepting gender based violence. Trends online that portray passive, bruised and beaten women who are also made to look perfectly beautiful simultaneously, tend to glamorize violence which might also make viewers re-internalise practising passivity in the face of such violence. The title tagline also underlines the efficacy of prayer- which in itself is never a palpable solution to any kind of violence. These images, also in no way portray the goddesses as reactionary, but rather as scarred and battered and passively in need of ‘saving’, which simply reiterate the age-old patriarchal narratives that let gender-based violence take place in society, and moreover, the same colonialist narrative that contextualize women of the global South as needing, and welcoming ‘rescue.’ The campaign, in no way talks about the perpetrators, which is gravely problematic, somehow only letting the focus stay on the victims. The campaign also does not suggest any particular and palpable course of action to bring about change. The target of the campaign seems more to make people aware that such violence does happen rather than to find or suggest ways to curb it.

In her work, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the dangers posed by images of ‘distant suffering’ on the viewer:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated- if one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do and nothing ‘they’ can do either, then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.

The campaign thus, leaves us the means to rather be voyeurs than be productive about the discontent that arises as a result of seeing these images. A major flaw reflected in the campaign is that it greatly implies the role of Hinduism in domestic violence.  Domestic violence cannot and is definitely not confined to a certain religion. Rather, domestic violence is a non-religious crime prevalent all throughout the world. The “Abused Goddesses” campaign unreliably flings between being award-winning and being dangerously sensationalist.

Moreover, looking at the campaign from a post-colonial perspective, these images also play into the notion that Indian women or rather, brown women are perpetually oppressed. Analyzing the interest of western feminists and even the furore that the campaign has managed to capture globally, we realise that it is the orientalist framework acting here and that the attempt is to ‘save’ the brown sisters. It is uncanny as to how well the Save Our Sisters campaign fits into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s colonialist notion of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. The only variant here is that in the case of Western feminists embracing this advertisement, one might read it as a case of ‘white women saving brown women from brown men.’ The campaign starkly reflects the Western audience’s assumptions about India, gender and violence: the idea that violence based on gender is simply so much worse in India.

We need a new set of images, images by which we can understand and engage with gender-based violence better, images that do not focus on similar problems like victim-based narratives that work at deifying, fetishizing and categorizing the passive female victim. We need better narratives that speak to the feminists of the Global North, so that they can not only understand but listen to, engage with and work together with their sisters in the Global South.

Featured image: India Today

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Editor at One Future Collective.

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