Friday, October 3, 2014


Valmiki's Ramayana comes to closure on Dussehra as far as the annual round of conventional celebrations are concerned. Ravana is vanquished, Ram is victorious and begins his journey back to Ayodhya, taking Sita with him, only to persecute her more. 

The above social advertisement in 'Times of India' dated dt. Oct-3-2014 caught my eye for its blatant misuse of the metaphor of Ravana. In spite of being printed in one of the most prestigious papers of India, its inability to rise above the mundane  bothers me. The complete concept of this advertisement is entrapped in a flawed stereotype of Ravana. It makes the usual fallacy that many advertisers and  mass communicators make, i.e. adhering to the status quo of popular beliefs. In this advertisement, Ravana is just ‘the bad guy’, and since people's perception is usually limited to this, no one takes trouble to break the stereotype. After all, does it make any difference, how the common men and women of India perceive Ravana, as long as the annual drama goes on providing the requisite dose of thrill, entertainment and commercial profits? The following video made me realize that it makes a bigger difference than anyone imagined and we have got to put the record straight.

Was Ravana a rapist ? Had we been burning the effigy of a rapist every year we would not have been where we are right now in rape statistics. Ravana never raped Sita. He believed in human rights for women and his revenge was also for upholding his sister Surpanakha’s right to express admiration for a man without having her face permanently disfigured. If today, Lakshman had done what he did, he would be behind bars for assault, battery, physical harassment of a woman, disfiguring a victim, criminal trespass to person and more sections of the Penal Code than I would care to list here. I am sure Ravana would have hired the best lawyers to ensure Laxman be sent in for a long haul. May be he would had hired Ram Jethmalani to fix Ram Laxman!

The problem is that in our mythology villains have upheld women's rights but remained villains in spite of that and our heroes have disregarded them but continue to be heroes. Take for instance Mahabharata where in an assembly of exalted figures including Bhishma, Dronacharya, Vidura and many others, it was only Vikarna, a Kaurava, who questioned the act of disrobing Draupadi. Maharishi Ved Vyas exposed the impotence of the heroes in his epic and deliberately did not pass the honour of saving Draupadi's honour to anyone less than Lord Krishna. The irony is that before setting the stage for this gruesome drama  he made Draupadi commit the 'sin' of having a good laugh at Duryodhna for his flawed perception. Duryodhana's actions have ben interpreted by many commentators as a response to this thoughtless provocation. Did Draupadi's satirical  laughter deserve a revenge as harsh as public stripping?  If this be the state, it is easy for common man to believe that rapes and acid attacks mostly are punishment meted out to the victim for some or the other of her own fault such as dressing boldly, laughing around with friends or going for a late night movie with her husband, boyfriend or brother ? For his act of attempting to disrobe Draupadi, Duryodhana was killed by his legs being split apart by Bhim. Can the Indian legal system play Bhim today, or will it continue to stand and stare like the mute Bhishma ?

We all should be aware that in our law today, if a woman complains of having been raped, the burden of proving his innocence lies on the man. The victim cannot be harassed or subjected to repeated interrogation and humiliation. Though this law empowering women came after a long drawn battle by legal and social activists, the common man on the street is not aware of it. Yes, he knows the annual Ramleela well in which he sees Sita walking through fire to prove her innocence. So if today’s Sita has to pass through fire of hellish and lecherous police interrogation and repeated courtroom visits to helplessly plead  again again that she is not fabricating a story, its not considered a big deal. Why? Well Did Lord Rama also not think that the onus of proving her innocence lies on woman, the victim, rather than the perpetrator of crime ? 

To ensure a practical reduction in crime against women this mindset embedded  as deeply as the characters of Ram and Sita themselves, must go. There is dire need to reorient and redefine our approach to our literature, folklore and popular metaphors. At least the next generation should know with certainty that the deeply philosophical stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are in fact brilliant learning tools rather than idols for blind faith and worship. There are a million beautiful lessons to learn from these epics in terms of philosophy, wisdom, understanding of life, interpersonal relationships etc. Let the new generation also know that the gods we worship were not perfect. They have their own failings from which we are meant to learn. Had Valmiki's aim of telling the story of Ramayana just been to present a banal tale of good versus evil, he wouldn't have gone into intricacies of Ravana's character in such detail. He wouldn't have presented  so vividly his being a great ruler, an able administrator, a yogi, a warrior and of course a man ten times more intelligent than a common man.  Ramayana like Mahabharata is about the greys that we encounter in our daily life and how we can handle them, what are the places where the best amongst us go wrong and the wisdom to navigate the quagmires of life. In order to truly pay respects to our scriptures we need to rise above blind faith and approach them with a respectful desire to learn. Our 'gods' would want us to do so, because they were our past but we are their future.
                                                                                                                      ... Divya Gurnay

Monday, June 16, 2014

Phenomenal Woman: A Soldier, a Saint and a Queen

Once in every few centuries, some corner of the world sees the rise of a noble and capable person to power, who brings peace and prosperity to all the citizens, makes trade and agriculture flourish and receives universal admiration and genuine respect.  Such a person becomes a symbol of human possibility and a shining example for humanity for centuries to come. Such a person was Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar.
Born in 1725, in the family of the Patil (village head) of Chaundi (present day Ahmednagar), Maharashtra, Ahilya was a bright young girl. She was taught to read and write by her father although girls in those days were not. Destiny was to take her from home at a young age. Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha lord of Malwa territory was passing through Chaundi and according to legend, he noticed the piety of young Ahilya in the  local temple. He decided to take her back as a bride for his only son, Khanderao. In 1733, at the age of eight, she was married to Khanderao.
Thereafter, her father-in-law raised her like his own daughter, training her alongside his son in administration, military strategy, philosophy and all the fields of knowledge necessary for a ruler. He envisioned the couple taking the kingdom from strength to strength. Unfortunately, during the siege of Kumbher in 1754, Khanderao was killed, leaving Ahilya Bai a widow at the age of 29. Malhar Rao was heart broken but continued to put his faith in Ahiliya, treating her like a son and making her lead military campaigns on his name. He kept training her on every possible occasion with paternal strictness and affection. A letter to her from Malhar Rao in 1765 illustrates the trust he had in her ability during a tempestuous battle:
"Proceed to Gwalior after crossing the Chambal. You may halt there for four or five days. You should keep your big artillery with you and arrange for as much ammunition for it as possible….On the march you should arrange for military posts to be  located for protection of the road." He advised her to fully weigh the strength and number of the enemy. “Do not rush head–long. Allow personality and prestige to bring their own effect … never let the artillery be away from your sight. Least power and greatest weight should be your maxim and rule.”
In 1767, Malhar Rao died, leaving behind Ahiliya Bai as a capable heir to carry forward his visionary and benevolent style of rule. After Malhar Rao Holkar’s death in May 1766, Ahilya Bai’s son, Maloji, received investiture. But Maloji died of insanity in April 1767 after a brief reign of 8 months. Some officials questioned her assumption to rule thereafter, but others supported her. The army though was most enthusiastic for her leadership. She had led the army personally in battle and they had seen her command them to victory with four bows and quivers of arrows fitted to the four corner posts of the howdah of her elephant, facilitating her to rain arrows at enemies in all directions.  According to the wishes of her late father-in-law, Ahilyabai petitioned the Peshwa (Head of Maratha confederation) to take over the administration herself.  The Peshwa granted her permission on 11 December 1767. With this politically astute move Queen Ahilya Bai proceeded to rule Malwa in a most enlightened manner. Subedar (A rank equal to today's army general with administrative powers of a state governor) Tukojirao Holkar (Malharrao's adopted son) was appointed the head of military matters.  Ahilya Bai never observed purdah, held daily public audience and was always accessible to anyone who needed her hearing.
Among Ahilyabai's accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city; her own capital, however, was in nearby Maheshwar, a town on the banks of the Narmada river. She also built forts and roads in Malwa, sponsored festivals and gave donations for regular worship in many Hindu temples. Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centers in South India. Ahilyadevi also rejoiced when she saw bankers, merchants, farmers and cultivators rise to levels of affluence. In spite of their newly acquired wealth, she never lay any claim to that wealth, be it through taxes or feudal right.
There are many stories of her care for her people. She helped widows retain their husbands’ wealth. She made sure that a widow was allowed to adopt a son; in fact, in many instances she is said to have sponsored expensive and elaborate hindu child adoption proceedings herself, and given away, money, clothes and jewels as part of the ritual.
The only time Ahilya devi seems not to have been able to settle a conflict peacefully and easily was in the case of the Bhils and Gonds who plundered her state's borders. She was at the end able to find a way out of this problem by granting these tribals waste hilly lands and the right to a small duty on goods passing through their territories.
Ahilyabai’s capital at Maheshwar became a patron city of literary, musical, artistic and industrial enterprise. She patronised poets and scholars. Craftsmen, sculptors and artists received salaries and honours at her capital. She was instrumental in  establishing textile industry in Maheshwar. 
Indian, English and American historians of the 19th and 20th centuries agree that the reputation of Ahilyabai Holkar in Malwa and Maharashtra was that of a saint. even today she is revered as one in this vast region. Nothing has ever been discovered by any researcher to discredit her.
An English poem written by Joanna Baillie in 1849 reads:
"For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
"In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and bright her fame,
And Ahilya was her honoured name."

Collecting oral memories of her in the 1820s, Sir John Malcolm, the British official most directly concerned with the 'settlement' of central India, writes:
 "With the natives of Malwa ... her name is sainted and she is styled as an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity. In the most sober view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed". 

Maharani Ahilyabai was an acute observer of the wider political scene. In a letter to the Peshwa in 1772 she had warned against association with the British, and likened their embrace to a bear-hug: "Other beasts, like tigers, can be killed by might or contrivance, but to kill a bear it is very difficult. It will die only if you kill it straight in the face, Or else, once caught in its powerful hold, the bear will kill its prey by tickling. Such is the way of the English. And in view of this, it is difficult to triumph over them."

Over the years, in independent India, the city of Indore, when compared to neighbouring cities has progressed dramatically. The spirit of Ahilya, deitified as a 'warrior saint queen' is believed to be blessing Indore even today. A good leader, a good soul leaves behind a legacy of goodness that affects generations to come. The faith and belief in the good vibes of Indore goes to an extent that locals often say,"If you have lived in Indore for a thousand days, you will  most likely never leave it."

Phenomenal Woman: The Intrepid Explorer

Explorations by mankind have changed the shape of history. They have brought forth new knowledge, opened up new avenues of conquest and trade. Though on the darker side explorations have been the means of human enslavement but this human endeavor  showed mankind that the differences between human beings are superficial and in truth we are all the same.
Explorations were deadly undertakings and usually the domain of men. Yet there was one British woman who broke all taboos, gave up her domestic comforts and set sail to what was then called ‘the deadliest place on earth’, Africa. She returned home with unprecedented perspectives on the cultural and biological richness of Africa. When all narrative of Africa was dominated by its ‘sub-human inhabitants,’ who needed to be ‘shown the way’ by the Christian Missionaries, she came back like a breath of fresh air, bringing in truth about the continent and its inhabitants. “If the aim of life were happiness and pleasure, Africa should send us missionaries instead of our sending them to her,” Said She. She changed the narrative and was a pioneer in human rights without ever consciously trying to be one. All her life she denied being a feminist and refused ideological labels that could dilute the truth. She was Mary Henrietta Kingsley, the woman who refused to acknowledge any limitations to what her life could be.

Mary Henrietta Kingsley was born in 1862 to Mary Bailey and George Kingsley in Islington, England. Her father came from a prominent literary family and spent much of his life travelling around the world, documenting his journeys. Until the age of thirty she was confined to her home, caring for her invalid mother and later invalid father who became bed ridden after a deadly attack of rheumatism. Her formal education was limited to basic lessons in German at home. Her real education came from an indefatigable curiosity, delving into her father’s rich library from which she read over and over again, all books related to travel, exploration and exotic cultures. She also learned a lot by reading his notes and listening to his stories when he came back after a journey abroad. She thus nurtured a deep interest in ethnography and biology. Her brother meanwhile was given the best education and entered law school at Cambridge. This discrimination hurt her but also spurred her to disregard social expectations from a woman in her situation and to work on fulfilling her own interests.

Both her parents died when she was 30, leaving her suddenly alone, with few friends and enough money and time on her hands. She had always wanted to carry on her father’s research on early religion and law which was cut short by his illness.  She decided to travel to West Africa for this purpose. Having no real experience of such arduous travel, she was dissuaded by everyone, especially when people realised she intended to do it all by herself. Africa was called the ‘white man’s grave’ and most people had horrifying stories of deadly disease and afflictions caught by those who had travelled there. With some good advice and lots of dubious warnings, in 1893, Mary Kingsley took a cargo vessel to Africa. It was an extraordinary initiative by a young single woman of the Victorian era. The only other non-African women there were wives of missionaries and officials.

Mary landed in Sierra Leone on 17 August 1893 and went further into Angola. She lived with local people, who taught her necessary skills for surviving in the African jungles. She often went into dangerous areas alone. Her training as a nurse at the Kaiserworth Medical Institute had prepared her for slight injuries and jungle maladies that she would later encounter. She collected many scientific specimens, including insects and fresh-water fishe, for the British Museum. She explored the lower Congo River. She also did a lot of geographical mapping of areas not previously explored by Europeans. The work she did was path breaking not just as a woman but as an explorer.
Mary returned to England in December 1893. Upon her return, she secured support and aid from Dr. Albert Günther, a prominent zoologist at the British Museum, as well as a writing agreement with publisher George Macmillan, for she wished to publish her travel accounts.
She visited Africa a second time. In Gabon, today a country in African continent, she canoed up the Ogooué River, where she collected specimens of previously unknown fish, three of which were later named after her. She daringly climbed the 4,040 m (13,255 ft) Mount Cameroon by a route not previously attempted by any other European, even though her guide had deserted her mid way. When she returned home in November 1895, Kingsley was greeted by journalists, who were eager to interview her.

Over the next three years, she toured the country giving lectures about life in Africa to a wide array of audiences. She was the first woman to address the Liverpool and Manchester chambers of commerce.
She upset the Church of England when she criticised missionaries for attempting to convert the people of Africa and corrupt their religion. In this regard, she discussed many aspects of African life that were shocking to English people, including polygamy, which, she argued was practiced out of necessity. After living with the African people, Kingsley became directly aware how their societies functioned and how prohibiting customs such as polygamy would be detrimental to their way of life. She knew that the typical African wives had too many tasks to manage alone. Missionaries in Africa often required converted men to abandon all but one of their wives, leaving the other women and children without the support of a husband –thus creating immense social and economic problems.

Kingsley wrote two books about her experiences: Travels in West Africa (1897), which was an immediate best-seller, and West African Studies (1899), both of which granted her vast respect and prestige within the scholarly community.
During the Second Boer War, Kingsley travelled to Cape Town and volunteered as a nurse. She was stationed at Simon's Town hospital, where she treated Boer prisoners of war. After contributing her services to the ill for about two months, she developed symptoms of typhoid and died on 3 June 1900. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried at sea.

Mary Kingsley's tales and opinions of life in Africa helped draw attention to British imperial agendas abroad. She fearlessly spoke the truth and educated the European masses on the native customs of African people that were previously little discussed or misunderstood. She was an outspoken critic of European colonialism and a dedicated campaigner for a revised British policy which supported traders and merchants vis a vis the  settlers and missionaries. In her lifetime she was greeted with a mixture of ardent admiration by some, skepticism by others, and censure by those whose agendas would be disrupted if everyone began to agree with her. In spite of all the opposition she forged on regardless, knowing that socially she was in a delicate position and would be ostracised by some sections of society for daring to break the norms. Her legacy only became stronger after her death, as the legacy of truth always does. The Fair Commerce Party formed soon after her death, pressuring for improved conditions for the natives of British colonies. Various reform associations were formed in her honour. Her works became reference points for governments to form new strategies for international cooperation and collaboration.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Phenomenal Woman: The Last Pharaoh

She is the largest selling brand in the world of beauty and wellness. Her name attracts the attention of women all across the globe and is found on labels of aromatic oils, beauty products, clothing and accessories. Her name adorns the brand names of beauty salons world wide. New revelations about her beauty secrets still make tabloid headlines. Pop stars make hit songs dressed as her. She is the ultimate symbol of seduction and glamour in popular culture and has been even before Shakespeare wrote a play about her. She is the eternal Cleopatra.
The name itself means ‘Glory of the father’ in Greek and indeed she was the most famous and most able of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for over 300 years. She was also the one who had to face challenges greater that any of her predecessors.
Ptolemy Aulteus, Cleopatra’s father died in the Spring of 51 BC, leaving behind a turbulent empire to his 18 year old daughter and her 12 year old younger brother Ptolemy XIII whom he had chosen as successors in a written will. The youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV was barely a child. At this point, the Egyptian strength had been on the decline for the past century and was on a downward slide, while Romans were conquering the continent. It was inevitable that they would take over Egypt sooner than later. Aulteus Ptolemy had tried all he could by having a pact with the Romans and paying tributes to keep them away from Egypt but he died with a heavy heart for he knew that the Egypt that his children had inherited could not be safe for long. Like the dying captain of a sinking ship, he felt helpless against the waves of destiny. His only option was to leave the ship in the hands of his ablest lieutenant and hope for a miracle. That lieutenant was Cleopatra, his intelligent and patriotic princess who was fluent in nine languages, had a scientific temperament and was an astute businesswoman. She did work miracles.
The law in Egypt did not allow a single woman to be ruler, and custom dictated she had to marry a member of the royal family and have him as official consort. Thus she publicly married her younger brother which was the most acceptable option according to customs of the time. It was a ceremonial affair only and everyone knew that Cleopatra would be on the throne as the sole ruler in practice. She dropped her brother’s name from all official records and had only her own name and portrait on the coins.
When Cleopatra sat on the throne, she immediately saw that the empire was crumbling around her.  Cyprus, Coele-Syria and Cyrenaica were gone. There was anarchy abroad and famine at home. To make matters more difficult, some of her own courtiers and powerful officials began plotting against her when they realized she would not toe their line and had a mind of her own. Soon she was overthrown by them in favour of her younger brother whom they felt would be easier to manipulate. They formed a ‘Council of Regency’ and influenced the helpless child king.
 Cleopatra was forced to flee to Thebaid and watch helplessly as Egypt suffered from severe famine. The ruler signed a decree on October 27, 50 BC which banned any shipments of grain to anywhere but Alexandria. It is thought that this was to deprive Cleopatra and her supporters who were not in Alexandria. Not one to be cowed down, Cleopatra started an army, recruiting men from the Arab tribes. She was forced to shift base many times and remain in hiding for the court officials would have liked her dead.
Meanwhile, Egypt became embroiled in Roman conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Pompey fled to the Egyptian capital Alexandria for refuge, where he was murdered on the orders of the counsellors in the name of the Pharaoh. Caesar reached Alexandria soon after, along with thirty-two hundred legionaries and eight hundred cavalry. Egypt could not hope to stand in his way.
There were riots that followed in Alexandria. Ptolemy XIII fled from Alexandria as Caesar placed himself in the royal palace and started giving out orders. The court officials who were the real power centre were busy in negotiations to convince Caesar to keep them as advisers and leave Egypt in their hands for safekeeping when he returned to Rome. Cleopatra knew this was her chance to make a re-entry into her rightful domain of ruling Egypt. Her enemies were all over Alexandria and there was no chance of her making it into the palace alive. So she had herself smuggled in through enemy lines rolled in a carpet. It was a dramatic entry as the carpet was unrolled before Caesar and out came the beautiful Cleopatra. He was intrigued and enamored. Her influence on him was clear and It was thought that Caesar planned to make Cleopatra the sole ruler of Alexandria.
The ousted court officials could not bear to see all their power snatched away and be placed at the mercy of the woman they had tried to kill. They organised an army against Caesar and thus started the Alexandrian wars. Caesar was superior in ability as well as resources and he triumphed. His first act thereafter was to have all opposition leaders executed. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile while he was trying to flee. Thus, Cleopatra became the sole ruler officially. The times and circumstances had change but the Egyptian law and customs had not. To gain acceptance of the people and avoid the censure of the influential priestly class, Cleopatra had to have a male consort of Egyptian royal blood. Caesar did not qualify so she was forces to have a ceremonial marriage with her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV who was then only eleven years old. Caesar played along because after the charade he was being handed on a platter the resource rich Egyptian land and its beautiful and witty queen. He also dreamt of having his heir sit on the throne of Egypt for Cleopatra soon bore him a son, Caesarion.
During July of the year 46 BC, Caesar returned to Rome as a grand victor. He became very popular and was given many honours along with a ten-year dictatorship. He brought Cleopatra to Rome soon after but she was not accepted by the conservative Republicans who were upset. Caesar already had a Roman wife and bringing in a foreign unwed mother of his child as mistress was extremely scandalous. Many were upset that he was planning to marry Cleopatra regardless of the laws against bigamy and marriages to foreigners. In truth the Senators were deeply threatened by the growing popularity of Caesar and his ability to bend laws and have his way. They feared that he would become an absolute authoritarian and put an end to the republican system. The conspiracy that had been brewing against him ended it all on the infamous Ides of March in 44 BC, when Caesar was assassinated outside the Senate Building in Rome. Cleopatra’s own life was in danger and she immediately fled to Alexandria.
Meanwhile in Rome, the conspirators Brutus and Cassius were killed and Antony, Octavian and Lepidus were triumphant. Cleopatra observed the turn of tide from a distance. She knew she would have to deal with Rome again for whosoever came to power would want to ensure they had control of Eqypt by putting their own man on the throne. Rome went to Mark Antony. He invited Cleopatra to meet him in 41 BC. Even though Egypt was on the verge of economic collapse, Cleopatra put on a show for Mark Antony, sailing into view with silver oars, purple sails, dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Cleopatra bore Mark Antony three children, the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and the youngest Ptolemy Philadelphos. Ptolemy XV (Caesarion) was made the co-ruler with his mother. Mark Antony gave her much land which was very essential to Egypt. He gave her Cyprus, the Cilician coast, Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Judea and Arabia. This allowed Egypt to build a large fleet of ships from the lumber from Cilician coast. For Antony, it Egypt was a great resource for its crops, its ships and its revenue from trade.
Meanwhile Antony divorced his wife Octavia who was sister of Octavian. He also put Cleopatra’s name and face on the Roman coin, the silver denarii. These moves completely alienated Antony from the Roman allegiance of which he had been a part. Propaganda in Rome was targeted at besmirching Cleopatra’s reputation by calling her an Oriental Harlot, thus indirectly hitting Mark Antony’s own acceptance within Rome. Octavian declared war against Antony and deployed his navy, defeating Antony in Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra combined armies to take on Octavian's forces in a great sea battle at Actium, on the west coast of Greece. Octavian was victorious and Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled to Egypt. Octavian pursued them and captured Alexandria in 30 BC. With his soldiers deserting him, Mark Antony took his own life.
After Antony's death, Cleopatra was taken to Octavian where her role in Octavian's triumph was carefully explained to her. He had no interest in any relationship, negotiation or reconciliation with the Queen of Egypt. She would be displayed as a slave in the cities she had ruled over. She would not live this way, so she had an asp, which was an Egyptian cobra, brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. She died on August 12, 30 BC at the age of 39. The Egyptian religion declared that death by snakebite would secure immortality. With this, she achieved her dying wish, to not be forgotten. After Cleopatra's death, Caesarion was strangled and the other children of Cleopatra were raised by Antony's wife, Octavia.
 Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war. She has often been depicted as a seductress who used her beauty to get the throne. Had circumstances been different, would she have chosen a different route to power?
Cleopatra was not the first female to rule Egypt. That honour goes to Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh. Hatshepsut also faced the problem of acceptance by the patriarchal society. She chose to overcome it in a different way. She took on a masculine appearance while at court and even wore a fake beard, just like the male Pharaohs. Cleopatra however emphasised her feminity and beauty, taking special care of her appearance, inventing perfumes and methods of beautifying herself. She advertised her beauty and had it widely spoken of. She chose to use her feminity as a route to power. These are excellent examples of the polarised approaches taken by women leaders in the past, both rejected by modern feminists.

In today’s world, thankfully the modern women neither have to ‘be a man’, nor be ‘a man’s woman’ to succeed. They have the option of choosing a professional expression that that lets them be seen as just a person who is evaluated solely on the basis of capability. All that they need to be successful is the courage to be themselves and do their best.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Phenomenal Woman: The Queen of Jhansi

As a young girl her favourite pursuits were horse-riding, archery and self-defence, not usual hobbies for young ladies, but then Manikarma was not a regular girl. She was destined to be the queen who would soon show the world that courage and valour know no gender.
Born to Marathi parents on November 19, 1835 in Varanasi, her father worked at the court of the Peshwa of Bithoor. Her mother died when she was four. Thereafter, the Peshwa treated the young girl like his own daughter and took personal interest in her upbringing. She was given a liberal education by able tutors who taught her at home. She was brought up as independent and strong minded young lady full of self-respect, fit to be a queen.  Soon she was married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao and as was customary, she was given a new name – Lakshmibai, after the goddess of wealth and fortune. Fate however was inclined to make her a goddess of war.
In 1851 she gave birth to a son who could not survive and died in infancy. Meanwhile the Raja’s health was deteriorating rapidly and the physicians expressed helplessness. He wanted to ensure an heir and a son for his beloved Rani and a future King for Jansi. He adopted his nephew Damodar Rao and ensured that a British political officer was present at the adoption to act as witness so that no succession issues would be raked up by the British later. His fears were not unfounded. As fate would have it, the very next day he died. In accordance with the Doctrine of Lapse passed by Lord Dalhousie, adopted children would not be treated as legitimate heirs and all territories without heirs would be annexed by the British. Accordingly Jhansi was sent a notice to hand over the territory to the British and the Rani was given a pension of Rs. 60,000.
The Rani would have none of it. She wrote to the British reminding them of her husband’s letter to them just before his death. He had requested that his son be treated with kindness and Jhansi be given to his widow after him.  The actions of the British inflamed her as they were not only unfair but also an insult to the last wishes of her husband. She tried through repeated petitions to change the mind of the Company men and make them see reason. She even offered to ‘hold Jhansi safe’ for them. Her appeals fell on deaf ears as the Company was focused on profits and things like legitimacy or fairness were far from their mind. By use of this doctrine, the Company annexed many states adding four million pound sterling to its annual revenue. This blinkered policy ultimately became its undoing.
On seeing the unyielding attitude of the colonisers, the Rani began to strengthen the defences of Jhansi preparing her people for the oncoming battle. She raised a volunteer force of men and women, giving them military training and motivation to fight. She oversaw all war preparations herself. The people were ready to lay down their lives for their beloved queen and their motherland Jhansi. Lakshmibai’s courage, competence and strength of character inspired the absolute loyalty of her generals who were all courageous and capable warriors. She led them in battle and they followed her till the end.
The British attacked Jhansi in March 1858. An impressive resistance was put up and the attackers were kept out for two weeks despite heavy shelling. The odds were not even and the inevitable happened. The British troops broke through the defences and entered Jhansi. Surrounded on all sides, the Rani strapped her infant child on her back and rode out on her favourite horse Badal, slashing and fighting her way through the baffled Red-coats, surrounded by her faithful commanders. They rode out relentlessly and finally reached Kalpi where they joined forces with Tantia Tope and other rebels. She fought shoulder to shoulder with the rebels and was awe-inspiring. On the second day of battle, the 23 year old Rani lay down her life on the battle field. Sir Hugh Rose, the commander who captured Jhansi paid a rich tribute to the admirable Rani when he said “Here lay the woman who was the only man among the rebels.” She was the most outstanding leader of the revolt and a shining example of successful women leaders in the history of the world.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Phenomenal Women: Maya Angelou and Barbara Huberman

May 28, 2014 is a day that the world lost two very special ladies, Maya Angelou, the renowned American poet, author and human rights activist and Barbara Huberman, a determined advocate for sexual education in America who fought successfully against teen pregnancies. They died at the age of 86 and 72 respectively. They were both strong women who spent their lives strengthening the voice of womankind and encouraging others to do the same.  Their message deserves to be spread far and wide so that the good work they did will carry on and change lives across the globe.
Maya Angelou was best selling author of seven autobiographies, and several books of poetry and essays. She received over 30 honorary doctoral degrees and several awards including the Grammy. In February 2011, she was awarded the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’, America’s highest civilian honour.  “We need to recognize and applaud our heroes and she-roes”, said Angelou. She believed that empowered individuals, whether men or women need to be held up as shining examples to the rest of mankind to emulate and admire. Women must be applauded as she-roes, for their courage, grace, intelligence, wisdom, not just as ‘heroines’ or stereotypical consorts to the real doer- the hero.
Angelou believed in celebrating womanhood. “I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another lifetime,” she said. In her poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ Angelou captured the essence of feminity, which is beauty itself and needs no other special characteristics to render a woman beautiful.

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed,
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud,
I say,
Its in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman,
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

She felt it to be perfectly reasonable that women would stand up for women’s rights as she exclaimed, “I’m interested in women’s health because I’m a woman. I’d be a darn fool not to be on my own side.” She also supported that women strengthen themselves educationally, economically, psychologically and physically. She upheld self empowerment as the rational path to a liberated existence on earth. “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.” Her life was full of turmoil as a young African girl in America where she herself was the victim of hurtful discrimination and sexual abuse. She overcame all that to become a voice of inspiration through her books and talks.

Our second very special lady, Barbara Huberman was a nurse at a hospital in North Carolina when a life changing experience occurred. She was assigned to help with the childbirth of a girl who was little over ten years old. She held the child mother’s hand for most part of the two day labour process and the sight she saw when she came back was to find the child mother filling in a Mickey Mouse colour book with her newborn beside her. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, with the children getting younger and sadder. I said, someone’s got to work on prevention,” she later revealed. Her strategy was to open up dialogues and encourage talking about sexual issues with children and adolescents in the safe environment of home or Sunday School. She stressed that if parents and guardians don’t talk to their children about sexuality, the streets will. She also advocated policy level changes and a paradigm shift in how government viewed this problem. “Teen sexual behaviour is viewed in many contexts: a moral failing, a political issue, a private family matter, a public health concern, but seldom as a developmental matter.” She was highly criticized too, mostly by self appointed moralists. She replied to them in the State General Assembly, “To opponents of sexuality education and family planning who say… ‘It is morally wrong’, I say it is morally wrong for us to allow young people to be sent into the adult world without the knowledge skills and values to negotiate sexual decision making responsibility.”

While Maya Angelou stood for making women equal and empowered members of society and highlighting their strength, Barbara Huberman made it a life mission to put an end to the sexual vulnerability of girls and overcome their biggest weakness. Both of them succeeded and together they represent two ends of the entire spectrum of women related issues with empowerment on one end and protection on the other. These are the two aspects any nation must tackle if it hopes to have a policy that truly delivers the goods on making women part of the mainstream society and real contributors to nation building. With the new government having started on the right note with 25% of the cabinet comprising of women, one hopes that the range of issues disempowering our women today will be attacked from both ends of the spectrum.

Empowerment includes giving women the opportunities they deserve and creating an enabling environment for them to succeed on the basis of their merit. The BJP members were pressing for Women’s Reservation Bill which BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi even helped draft. Now is the time to bring it into force. Equally important is the need for the new leaders of the nation to keep up a mass communication campaign wherein all of them including the prime minister talk about the rightful status of women in society as respectable equals, not weak inferiors. This seemingly small communication effort will itself do wonders because at the roots of the material economic and political discrimination against women, lies the non-material socio-psychological cause. It needs to be addressed at that root level through communication exercises if real and lasting change is to occur.
Protection involves protecting women from rape and especially young girls from sexual predators and pedophiles, in the street, in the homes, online, everywhere. Protection of females equally involves sensitization of young girls and ensuring sexuality education for them. It includes empowering all females with self-defence classes and basic legal knowledge so that if they find that the police is not helping them, they can confidently knock at the doors of court, not be compelled to commit suicide in the false belief that all their options are closed. Also, the police needs to be sensitized to women related issues and made accountable because they are important stakeholders in the protection of women. For this to happen it is essential that the archaic imperial laws which govern our police are put away and fresh laws are brought in to ensure transparency and accountability.

A global poll by Thomson Reuters found India to be the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, following Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. Even Somalia is better off at number five. India, the biggest democracy on earth cannot find respect in the eyes of the world if it cannot ensure dignity for its women who make up 49% of the population. The voice of women must be heard in the Media, in court-rooms, in board-rooms, in defence forces, Panchayats, local political bodies and Parliament. Their representation in the nation’s power centers should not be mere tokenism but a realistic proportional representation. Every woman must have control over her own life, her body, her time and her money. This can only happen when women do not look toward others for protection or applause but protect themselves and applaud themselves.                                                                                                                                                                   ...Divya Gurnay. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Self Defence and Women

I would like to start this important article by hitting at the very value system taught to us which at times and for women, most of the times, becomes counterproductive.
Bible says, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Matt 26:52b .
But in today’s world where crime against women is rising can a woman survive by walking two miles with her assaulter if he wants her to walk one mile. The truth is a woman has to refuse to walk even an inch with an assaulter because if she does, after a quarter of a mile only, this maniac is going to victimize another woman and shall carry on doing so.
The Holy bible once again says that all who draw the sword will die by the sword, rightly so but the sword of an assaulter and that of a defender may both be made of same steel tempered in the same ice and fire but it’s the spirit behind these swords that is different. So the tenth Sikh Master beautifully said in his poetic work ZAFARNAMA,
‘Chu kar az hameh heel-te dar guzasht, halal ast burdan b-shamsheer dast’ ."If all righteous means to get justice fail, picking up of a sword is just and pious."
Crime against women is rising by day. A woman is raped every 32 minute in India, murdered every 22 minute, and molested every 15 minutes and made a victim of domestic violence every 11 minutes Its common knowledge that our country’s executive and judiciary are sleeping and women seldom get justice in such cases, and that too if they report these cases in the first place. Gone are the days when women were worshipped in India - today crime against them is on a rise at an alarming rate, and every woman is a potential victim, irrespective of her age.
Women are being teased openly, molested mercilessly, stabbed ruthlessly, thrown out of running trains, burnt alive, attacked with acid and raped - the list goes on... People who commit such crimes feel that the women are weak and can be easily be suppressed. The worst part is that the majority of crime against women is carried out by someone well known to them. The painful truth is that while most females are sociologically conditioned to depend on someone for their well-being, women cannot depend on anyone but themselves for their own protection. The most logical reaction to threat of any kind is self-defence. The most important aspects of self-defence are the awareness to recognise potential danger, avoid or neutralise any tense situation with assertiveness, verbal tactics, safety strategies and resorting to physical tactics as a last effort, which enables the would-be victim to effectively prevent, resist, escape and survive a close encounter.
Just as it is essential to know how to swim in order to survive in water, it is essential to know how to be able to protect one in order to survive on land. It is high time women overcame social conditioning to passivity, helplessness, low self-esteem and self-sacrifice and get into the right mental frame of mind to be able to protect themselves.
Self-defence can be divided into two main approaches:-
1. Prevention- Which is about taking appropriate and timely precautions. Here more is always less. In many cases, a crime is preventable with just some common sense and a generally alert and aware disposition.
2. Reaction- Once the trouble has begun, and there is no escape, a woman must have the courage and tactic to fight and injure the attacker. In reaction speed and force are very important.
The most important self defence tool you have is, of course, your brain. Use it! Let common sense prevail. Self awareness is foremost. That includes the awareness of everyone around you, where they are and what they are doing. Your best bet is to use all your senses including the sixth sense that women possess in a high degree. Here is a list of some simple things that you can do immediately that will prevent unwanted incidents:-
1- Understand your surroundings. Walk or hang out in areas that are open, well lit, and well travelled. Become familiar with the buildings, parking lots, parks, and other places you walk. Pay particular attention to places where someone could hide — such as stairways and bushes. Listen: Keep your ears open for any odd noises or the sound of footsteps following you on a lonely street. Avoid MP3 players and phones when outside your safety zone as they limit that ability. Watch: Keep your eyes open. Observe the people and objects around you. NEVER stare at the ground or look self-conscious.
2- Check out the hangouts. Do they look safe? Are you comfortable being there? Ask yourself if the people around you seem to share your views on fun activities — if you think they're being reckless, move on.
3 - Wearing revealing clothing at inappropriate places should be avoided. Doing so may get you unwanted attention from people with evil intent. In public places it is wise to dress sensibly. If you want to flaunt something it should be your attitude and the maturity with which you carry yourself.
4- Trust your instincts. Women are very intuitive. If you think a situation might be dangerous then it probably is. If you feel suspicious about a man who’s all alone in the lift, don’t enter, use the stairs. If you see or sense problems on your way, change route or go to the other side of the road and prepare to run and defend yourself. That little guardian angel should be trusted rather than ignored.
5 - Drinking alcohol if you are not used to it, or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, taking mind altering drugs and leaving ANY food or drink unattended where it may be tampered with is a recipe for disaster. Give your self an even chance.
6 - NEVER pick up hitch-hikers and ABSOLUTELY NEVER hitch-hike yourself. Life is NOT a Bollywood movie. Trusting a stranger is and absolute taboo.
7- Make sure your friends and parents know your daily schedule (classes, sports practice, club meetings, etc.). If you go on a date or with friends for an after-game snack, let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return.
8- Carry a cell phone if possible. Make sure it's programmed with your parents’ and some trusted guardians’ phone number on quick dial.
9-Be willing to report crimes in your neighbourhood and school to the police.
10- If you live alone make sure that all your mail is addressed by just your first initial followed by your surname. Never allow mail to be addressed to you with salutations like Miss, Mrs, Ms or with your given name. Those letters and parcels pass many eyes before they get to you. Change them. Make them nondescript as to your sex and marital status. Why allow anybody even one extra shred of information about you?
11– Avoid travelling alone at all costs. NEVER walk alone at night or at any time in isolated areas. Predators love these locations. Avoid lonely or unknown shortcuts. If you are forced to travel alone especially late in the night use crowded trains and buses. If it is an emergency and you are forced to hire a taxi, note down its number and text it to someone. Let the taxi driver know that your family is expecting you home and if you get late, or the taxi gets stalled, someone will be able to reach you immediately. In short make your self appear as well connected and invulnerable as possible. It can go a long way in protecting you.
12- Never act or look like an easy target. Body language is very important. Look strong, alert and confident. Most fights are won before they start, and aggressors will back down if you maintain eye contact and are not intimidated by them. Remember they are looking for an easy target.
13 - Most sexual assaults are by people who the victims knew - or, at least, thought they knew! Be friendly and polite by all means but be vigilant for tell-tale signs of "strange" behaviour. Do NOT flirt. Be very firm about any unwanted attention, particularly in the work place. Many a time young girls do not realize the importance of these lines until it is too late. A sexual attack is usually preceded by some visual sign, which is usually preceded by some verbal approach before the physical action. Recognize the sequence: the look - the talk - the attack. A group of rapists and date rapists in prison when interviewed revealed the signs they sought in women before attacking.
· Long hair as they are easy to grip. Women with short hair are not common targets.
· Revealing and inviting clothing easy to rip off or tear.
· Women obsessed with their cell phones while walking because they are off guard and can be easily overpowered.
· Women moving around alone at odd hours.
· If you put up any kind of a fight at all, an assaulter gets discouraged because it only takes a minute or two for them to realize that going after you isn't worth it, will be time-consuming and inviting trouble.
· Assaulters avoid women who have umbrellas, or other similar objects that can be used from a distance, in their hands as a weapon
RE-ACTION:- Reaction is usually only required when the prevention has been inappropriate and not vigilant enough. Attackers are very rarely strangers who jump out of dark alleys. Sadly, teens can be attacked by people they know. If the situation comes down to a physical fight remember that everything that surrounds you can be used as weapons like ashtrays, chairs, bottles, kitchen utensils, sand, stones, coins, knives, finger rings, pencils, iron sticks, knitting needles, belts or your cellular phone while outside. Any aerosol can, hair spray, body spray, spray paint, pepper, tear gas etc can be used. At any one time, people unconsciously carry many potential weapons. For example, belts may be used as garrotte or a whip with a buckle, coins may be thrown onto the face of an opponent to stun and blind him. It’s a good idea to have some chilly powder always handy in your purse. Your clothes like a big kerchief or a scarf may be used to choke and obscure vision. Handbags can be used to strike, a pen is a very useful weapon of self defence to poke into the eyes, a hairbrush to scratch across the eyes, perfume to sprays into the eyes, etc. Always practice how to quickly and effectively use them. Attack quickly, and if possible, the vulnerable points. You might have only one chance to defend yourself, do not lose it. Fight and strike first if once you feel that the situation has taken an ugly turn.
Take a Self-Defence Class: - The best way — in fact the only way — to prepare yourself to fight off an attacker is to take a self-defence class or at least buy a self help book or Video and train yourself. It would be great to learn all the right moves from an article, but some things you just have to learn in person. A good self-defence class can teach you how to size up a situation and decide how to act. Self-defence classes can also teach special techniques for breaking an attacker's grasp and other things you can do to get away, a kick in the groin or jab in the eye, for instance. A good self-defence class can teach you ways to surprise your attacker and catch him or her off guard. One of the best things people take away from self-defence classes is self-confidence. As a part of psycho self defence here is a trick that works. If someone is following you on a street or in an elevator or stair case, look them in the face and ask them a question, like what time is it or are you a local or a tourist. This shall not only make you confront the person but you also get to see his face and could identify him in a line-up. This way you also lose appeal as a soft target. If you carry pepper spray just use it before someone grabs you, you can't beat them with strength but you can by outsmarting them. After the initial hit, always GO for the GROIN. When the guy puts his hands up to you, grab his first two fingers and bend them back as far as possible with as much pressure pushing down on them as possible!
SPECIAL TIP-If you are thrown into the trunk of a car, kick out the back tail lights and stick your arm out the hole and start waving like crazy. The driver won't see you, but everybody else will. If someone is in the car with a gun to your head DO NOT DRIVEOFF, repeat: DO NOT DRIVEOFF! Instead rev up the engine and speed into anything, wrecking the car. Your Air Bag will save you. If the person is in the back seat they will get the worst of it. As soon as the car crashes bail out and run. It is better than having them find your body in a remote location. Before you get in to your parked vehicle look around you, look into your car, at the passenger side floor, and in the back seat. Get in to your car only when you feel safe.
So ladies please protect yourself, empower yourself and realize your own hidden powers as it is always better to be safe than sorry. (And better paranoid than dead.) If you feel threatened don’t let your intimidator have a field day but strike back, and strike back fast and hard so as to put off an attacker and also leave a befitting lesson for those who may dare to dare elsewhere.
                                                                                             ...Divya Gurnay.