We all have grown up listening to religious stories and myths. Some we loved to hate while others we mugged up to inspire us in our lives. But owing to the long-standing patriarchal structure and interpretation of the myth and its character, mythologies are devoid of women’s narratives and agency. As many activists and philosophers supporting feminism have argued that history and literature that we have in our archives rarely have women’s voice in them. Either women weren’t there at all, which is not possible as women form half of the population in the world, or else they were never listened to or allowed to speak. Similarly, the voices and experiences of women mythological characters have been subdued or obliterated by the patriarchal narratives and interpretations. So this lack of feminine and feminist narrative can be mended by opening the myths to multiple interpretations. So here are a few mythological feminist characters who we never knew were feminist.
Whenever the discussion of an ideal woman or wife is held, Sita, wife of Ram, is evoked as a symbol of purity and self-sacrifice. But apart from her duty as a virtuous wife, she was a defiant and brave woman who posed an unbeatable resistance to Ravana’s advances. Moreover, she spent half of her life as a single mother to two sons in an ashram in the middle of the forest which is not normal in many sections of the society even today. Devdutta Pattanaika has rightly portrayed Sita as the woman who chose as she makes five important choices in Ramayana. Firstly, she chooses to go to the forest and accompany Ram on his 14-year exile. Secondly, she chooses to cross the Lakshman Rekha. Thirdly, she chooses to not return to Ram with Hanuman. Thirdly, she chooses to go on exile and also come back to Ayodhya. And lastly, she chooses to go under the earth.
Shurpanakha, the sister of Ravana, has been vilified in the epic of Ramayana as the woman who became the reason behind Sita’s abduction and the war between Ram and Ravana. But Shurpanakha was not a villain but only a woman who exercised her agency over her sexuality and desires by proposing Ram or Lakshman for marriage. But she received a cruel and unjust punishment for transgressing the society that believes in controlling women’s sexuality. The vilification of Shurpanakha reminds us of two patriarchal stereotypes that society follows even today. To respect women as Goddesses, society looks for her “good” character, the definition of which is rooted in misogyny and double standards. Moreover, patriarchal society tends to villainise women who transgress to sustain its control on other women by inducing fear and hatred towards the act of transgression.
Many people who know about Mahabharata would characterise Draupadi as a damsel in distress who had to marry five men and was publicly abused and disrobed when one of her husbands lost her in bet. Even though all this is true and distressing, Draupadi refused to be a damsel in distress. Rather she was a brave woman who swore bloody revenge and sought justice for the wrong that was done to her. She did not give up her will to avenge her abusers even though they were her family members. Showcasing her willpower and boldness, Draupadi had vowed to not tie her hair until she washed it with Dussashan’s blood. Moreover, she was clever and insightful and frequently advised her husbands in political matters. Even though she was restricted under the role of a virtuous wife, she was not a conventional wife. Polygamy was commonly practised in society at that time but a woman having five husbands was unconventional. Draupadi had to face a lot of criticism for being a Panchali. This all reminds us of the slut-shaming that women face even today. But Draupadi never let these criticisms affect her self-respect and, continues to be remembered as a defiant feminist of Mahabharata.
4. Goddess Kali
Although all the faces of Goddess Durga are fierce feminists, Goddess Kali has an unerasable impact as a strong and unconventional woman. She is known for her anger and power with which she slaughtered the monster Rakhtabeej. Hence she normalised anger and its uninhibited expression in women who are mainly expected to be meek and subordinate. Women in a patriarchal society are expected to always dress, behave and sit properly. They are expected to wear uncomfortable clothes like a brasserie, lehengas (in chilled winters), sarees and what not and apply fairness creams against their choice to look beautiful and hence acceptable. As opposed to this, Goddess Kali’s appearance weaves a new unconventional face of women- dark, dishevelled and daring.
Hidimba was a female monster who fell in love with Bheema, one of the Pandavas in Mahabharata. Her feminism is rooted in the fact that she exercised her sexual agency and proposed Bheema to marry her. It is still not common in our society for women to be the first one to propose their partners because it is seen as inappropriate for them to make decisions about life and especially their sexuality. In the face of this, Hidimba gives us the feminist goals to pursue the man we love and express our love unabashedly. Moreover, her feminism is also visible when she decides to live alone in the forest and raise Gahtotkach as a single mother.
6. Sati and Savitri
You would have often heard the term Sati-Savitri used to refer women who can easily be manipulated and oppressed. But, this is just a patriarchal interpretation of these prominent women characters because both Sati and Savitri were strong feminists. Sati married Shiva against her father’s choice showcasing a woman’s agency and freedom to love and marry a man of her choice. Savitri, on the other hand, embodied divine love and dedication by bringing her husband’s soul back from Yamaraj, the God of death. It will not be wrong to say that the love stories of Sati and Savitri give us goals of feminist love stories where women have the choice and the freedom and bravery to exercise them too.