Women Poets Discuss Religion, Caste and Myths

Women poets

Why do topics on social issues and religion invariably crop up in feminist poetry? How can poetry serve as a salve for hardships thrust upon women? These were some of the questions that six women poets discussed  in a scintillating panel at the ‘Poets Translating Poets’ festival over the weekend.

Author and poet, Annie Zaidi, moderated the discussion between German poet, Sylvia Geist, Tamil poet Sukirtharani, Sindhi poet, Attiya Dawood, Savita Singh who writes in Hindi and Jayaprabha who writes in Telugu.

The question of religion is one that all women pondered on at some length

Attiya Dawood said that in almost every religion, women are depicted as mothers, daughters and wives. They are never the prophets, the writers or the sages.

“The oppression of religion and its rituals is a lived experience for women, and women speak about it because it guides their lives,” she said. “It is impossible for a woman poet to not address religion. All poetry is against religion.”

Dawood also spoke about Sindhi culture. She finds it unbelievable that there is a death penalty just for falling in love. Many of her poems speak about this issue, she said.

Sylvia Geist said that in any great religion, the woman is secondary. Women have been oppressed by the church, she said. Earlier in history, the only way a woman would have been free to pursue her interests would be if she decided not to get married and become a nun, Geist said.

Poet Jayaprabha said that religion, and sometimes backward traditions, affects all women, even if they are financially independent.

Issues of Caste and Class

Religion and the the way society is organised are closely linked. And so the discussion moved on to how class and a woman’s place in the patriarchal system were topics the poets often bring out in their work.

Sukirtharani, a prominent Dalit poet, spoke about how the injustices of the identity that was cast on her gave her no choice but to speak out against them. She recounts a heartbreaking story about how when she was in the second standard, a girl refused to take sweets that she had brought to the class. The girl had tossed her hand away, and had dismissed her. Sukirtharani said that children were taught not to mix with Dalits, and that she had had no friends while growing up.

“The spirit of fight and protest will always be a part of my poetry,” she said.

She writes for two causes – for women and Dalits. She said that while all women suffer, Dalit women often have to deal with added brutal atrocities. And she cannot but write out of that awareness. The mark of my caste has never left me, she said. Even though she is educated and is doing well, she still cannot enter a temple, she will be buried in a separate cemetery, people will not offer her food in her colony and in the school where she teaches because of her so-called caste.

Mythical women in poetry

Zaidi pointed out that figures in cultural history often feature in women’s writing. The poets had differing views on using mythological women in their writing. Savita Singh said that she does not choose mythical women as subjects for her poetry. Instead, she writes about ordinary women in society.

“I talk about the ordinary women and speak about the extra-ordinariness of their suffering,” she said.

According to Singh, Indian myths are filled with troubling stories. The classic example is that of Draupadi’s story. She said that she went back to read it multiple times, and found that the authors of these texts do not bother with explaining Draupadi’s feelings. “In which way can I redeem her?” Singh asked.

German poet Geist, said that she does like to use mythical women, especially strong characters like Medusa. She said that these women helped her transform her writing. They allowed her to break free from the paradigm of speaking about herself as a victim.

Jayaprabha spoke about how there are powerful women in myths. However, she said there are also some very troubling stories. “We came late in literary history,” she said. And we will write about our experiences.” she said.

Also Read: Meet The Poets Series

SheThePeople.TV partnered with the Poets Translating Poets Festival. 50 poets have participated in a two-year-long project which aimed to provide a forum to contemporary poets from India and other South Asian countries to translate poetry in German and vice-versa.  

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