The first satyagrahi of them all


In our feminist haste, we might have ignored one of our most powerful female icons, says Madhu Kishwar

I GOT INTERESTED in Sita only because I witnessed the widespread obsession with and admiration for Sita among Indian women and men alike, cutting across caste, class, regional, religious and educational divides.

I found it very puzzling that while most feminists hold her in contempt and treat her as a negative role model, the vast majority of women across the country admire Sita as a symbol of perfect womanhood.

The continuing hold of Sita on the popular imagination ought not to be interpreted as proof of Indians not having broken the hold of crippling traditions. Sita is wrongly seen by some feminists as a harmful role model which culturally enslaves women, conditions them into accepting subordination and maltreatment at the hands of men and leaves them without the courage to protest or retaliate.

To see her suffering as a ‘victim’, or imagine her as lacking in selfhood, or to condemn her for her passivity and subservience is to negate the power of satyagraha.

We may not want to be Sita-like but we don’t need to treat her as an adversary whose influence among women is to be countered. Most feminists identify with the aggressive militant goddesses such as Durga and Kali. Goddesses who are content with matrimony are viewed with disapproval, even if they are honoured as spouses, as was Parvati – and Sita for most of her life.

The broad thrust of feminist politics has been to encourage women to reject the Sita mould. As opposed to the mainstream society’s efforts to reformulate Rama and make him worthy of Sita, the feminist project tends to be ‘reform Sita’ and make her forget Rama.


‘Imagine living with a Kali all the time! Sita’s defiance is dignified. Whoever reads the Ramayana is on Sita’s side, not Rama’s. Is that winning or losing?’

MADHU KISHWAR, Editor, Manushi


This school of thought would like to see Sita emulate Ibsen’s Nora and defiantly walk out on her husband to build a new life for herself or, better still, be an Erica Jong. If she has to stay within the traditional framework, she becomes acceptable only in a Kali – Durga roop. Why force Sita to act like Ibsen’s Nora, or insist that Sitas and Radhas turn into Durgas and Kalis? Such monotheistic, one-dimensional, standardised behaviour is neither good for ordinary women nor for goddesses, not even, for that matter, for men. (from ‘Trial By Fire’)



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