Updated: Nov 16
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Power and authority have always flattered human beings, the sense of superiority has fuelled misogyny and patriarchy. To be governed by women, to have a woman be more intelligent or just a better human, has often scared the fragile masculinity that men carry. Women throughout history have been expected to follow the norms and rules set by the men in authority. Those who did not confer themselves to these restrictions were made targets of the wrath of men. It is also crucial to understand the need to not accept history at its face value as it is mostly written by misogynistic males. Many women in history have perished in their struggle for liberation while others have been labelled witches or mentally ill.
Autonomy refers to the ability to control one's life. It is the freedom to choose what one wishes to do with their life. One of the important offshoots of autonomy is body autonomy which is the liberty to govern over one’s own body. We can practice autonomy by silencing the voices that say our bodies are only relevant when they exist within a specific framework or to serve others. (1)
It is crucial to understand that when a person has control over their own body they experience liberation on a very personal level. This liberation is accompanied by a sense of confidence and good self-worth which helps the individual become a better self and attain greater heights.
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However, history is evidence that bodily autonomy did not come naturally to women as it did to men. Women have always experienced suppression and silencing when they have tried to live their life on their own accord. Something so important yet natural like bodily autonomy has been a struggle for them. Almost all societies have established a set of unwritten standards for women that determine the simplest to the most complex decisions regarding every facet of their lives. For instance, back in the 16th century, women wore corsets made of whalebone which were notoriously uncomfortable because when laced into a tight, rigid corset, it was not possible for them to raise their arms above their heads or to move too quickly without running out of breath. These corsets were literal cages as by the 19th century doctors started warning women against wearing too-tight corsets as they were now turning into a health hazard.
Fortunately, with the advent of the 20th-century corsets were replaced by bras that were comparatively comfortable and safe. This illustrates how societal pressure to look “beautiful” at the cost of one’s health was prevalent and even appreciated in women’s clothing culture. Those who rebelled or could not conform to these rules were considered ugly or abnormal. The literature in this era showcased a very rigid canon of which part of the body the poets dwelled upon in their works and omitted from any consideration. Therefore, objectifying women as items of beauty needed to match the unrealistic beauty standard set by society.
WITCHCRAFT-- A DEMENTED NARRATIVE FABRICATED FOR PATRIARCHY
In the 19th century, Matilda Joslyn Gage talked about the “witches”. According to her, the women persecuted on the grounds of witchcraft were women with superior intellect. (2) The very word “witch” carries with it a stigma and a sense of maliciousness while the term used for men practising witchcraft- sorcerer, wizard, or magus, does not carry the notoriety. This contradiction is an example of the embedded misogyny and sexism that women went through.
The famous children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an attempt to tackle this very stigma and describes a witch as good. In the book, Glinda– the good witch, tells the protagonist Dorothy that she has the “power” within herself to reach back home. This can be understood as a symbol of women having the power within themselves to attain liberty and equality. It was often noticed that the women accused of “witchcraft” were educated women who challenged the existing societal structures. The institutions of power did not intervene to put a stop to these trials but rather exercise their authority to promote them. When women move out of the precise role of society they become easy targets for the men in power to suppress. For instance, a woman acquiring too much wealth was accused of sinful gains, too many children were seen as the mother having a deal with the Devil, and too few children were suspicious too. If we look at the case of Mary Webster of Hadley, Massachusetts who was accused of witchcraft, we see that she was a perfectly normal human being. She wasn’t docile or polite to her neighbours who started abusing her by calling her a witch. She was declared not guilty but after one of her accusers fell ill the residents blamed her and attempted to hang her. This case clearly shows how the unpleasantness of a lady (which does not confer to the norms of society for women) resulted in her getting labelled as a witch. Richard Godbeer in his book “Escaping Salem” talked about two Connecticut women being imprisoned for witchcraft who were both confident and determined ready to express themselves and stand on their ground when crossed, in other words, they didn't stay in the line. (2)
The situation was not unique to the West as it is observed that the state of affairs pertaining to the narrative of witchcraft is not very different in 19th century India. The British Library contains the records of witchcraft when women were executed without trial or being heard in defence. An accusation was more than enough to put a woman to death. There are instances of women being killed on the grounds of witchcraft when actuality it was out of personal vengeance or other reasons. These acts only benefited the bhopa or the witch hunter who extorted money out of the villagers to help them get rid of the “witch”. The then government was keen on eliminating the practice but did not wish to intervene in the traditions and beliefs of the locals. Thus, the response was to convict the bhopas and fine the leaders of the village in the hopes of putting a stop to this malevolent practice of torture and murder. (3)
Hence, it can be argued that women with strong intellects or even those who wished to step out of the confined norms and standards of society were labelled as “witches” and seen as a threat to the very civilization, which was yet another manifestation of patriarchy.
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The women in power were also not left out of oppression and shaming in history. Every time we see a woman emerge out as strong and influential she carries with herself an extremely disappointing label that the men at the time gave her. There are numerous instances of Queens being misunderstood and shunned in history just because being women in power, one such is the case of Mary Antoinette. The queen was subjected to brutal accusations and rumours (which were not true), and she faced many rebellions and revolts during her regime. She also became the target of pornography and false propaganda which painted her image as an immoral and corrupt woman. During the French Revolution, in order to portray the monarchy as corrupt the revolters sought to destroy the image of the Queen rather than the incompetent King Louis XVI. It is impossible to not mention Cleopatra while discussing the powerful Queens that history has seen. She was a phenomenal ruler of Egypt that brought around 22 years of stability and prosperity. However, despite being such a strong leader she is often defined by her beauty and sexuality. Cleopatra is known for her affairs with Julias Caesar and Mark Antony, however, both the Roman leaders have had numerous affairs but they are never known because of them. It is often quoted that Cleopatra’s success was a result of her connections with these two Roman men. The question that arises here is- Why are Caesar and Antony’s accounts absent of Cleopatra’s role in their lives?
Even in India, we had strong Queens being underestimated and failing only due to their gender. Chand Bibi of the Deccan was an exceptionally good diplomat and wise ruler, a perfect example of this. She was courageous enough to not succumb to her territory to the Mughal Sultanate. She decided to wisely negotiate with Akbar, the Mughal ruler when her courage resulted in a warlike situation. However, her actions were misunderstood by her troops and they assassinated her believing that she had betrayed them.
The story of Queen Didda of Kashmir is yet another interesting one where the intellect of a clever queen was narrowed down to her physical deformity. Although she ruled over her kingdom successfully and was influential enough that her husband got coins minted in her name, she is referred to as “lame”, “manipulative” and “notorious” due to her disability and was given the title of “The Witch Queen”.
These are a few of many such instances where women attaining power and authority were seen as signs of destruction and all possible efforts were made to remove them from their position.
Be it the famous Razia Sultan or Joan of Arc, they were never considered good leaders and able rulers despite their potential and qualities. Keeping women inferior was seen as more important than the prosperity of the kingdom.
“Gārgī, the daughter of Vacaknu, asked him. ‘Yājñavalkya,’ she said,
‘if all this is pervaded by water, by what is water pervaded?’ ‘By air, O Gārgi.’
‘By what is air pervaded?’ ‘By the sky, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the sky pervaded?’ ‘By the world of the Gandharvas, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the world of the Gandharvas pervaded?’ ‘By the sun, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the sun pervaded?’ ‘By the moon, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the moon pervaded?’ ‘By the stars, O Gārgī.’
‘By what are the stars pervaded?’ ‘By the world of the gods, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the world of the gods pervaded?’ ‘By the world of Indra, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the world of Indra pervaded?’ ‘By the world of Virāj, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the world of Virāj pervaded?’ ‘By the world of Hiraṇyagarbha, O Gārgī.’
‘By what is the world of Hiraṇyagarbha pervaded?’
He said, ‘Do not, O Gārgī, push your inquiry too far, lest your head should fall off. You are questioning a deity that should not be reasoned about. Do not, O Gārgī; push your inquiry too far.’ Thereupon Gārgī, the daughter of Vacaknu, kept silent.” (4)
This is the story of Gargi, a very learned and smart lady who indulged in a debate with Yājñavalkya who was a scholar. We see how he asks Gargi to not inquire too much or else her head might fall off i.e. beheaded.
Religion and mythology form the hub of misogyny and oppression. From Christianity to Hinduism we have “evidence” of the fulfilment of women’s desires leading to catastrophic results. Almost all religions have a tendency to see women as a potential threat to civilization and the very existence of humanity.
Women in Hinduism have often been portrayed as the reason for war and crisis. For instance, in the epic Ramayana, we see that Surpanakha can be portrayed as the reason behind the war between the asuras and the Rama-Lakshmana duo. Surpanakha was a liberated woman living in forests not fearing her strong and powerful brothers. She was portrayed as a woman making her own life choices. When she encountered Rama in the forest she was enchanted by his good looks and unabashedly proposed to him. Rama rejected her and advised her to approach Lakshman. The brothers berated her and even mutilated her ears and nose which resulted in the war. However, neither the brothers nor the asuras were seen sympathizing with the abused woman. And throughout the epic, no mention of injustice against her is seen. However, her liberation and freedom are portrayed as the very reason for the war.
Some prime examples that we can take from the epic Mahabharata are Draupadi, Gandhari, Kunti, and many more. Gandhari realized moments before her marriage that her future husband is blind and decided to remain blindfolded for the rest of her life. This instance is often projected as a sign of a devoted wife while in actuality it is just a silent and implicit indication to women to make sacrifices for their husbands without a thought. However, if we look closely this decision was a result of betrayal and grief rather than love. Similarly, the character of Kunti is seen to be used in accordance with the wishes of her sons. When she unknowingly asked her sons to share Draupadi, she was shown to hold a position of power while when Bhima decided to marry Hidimba, the approval of Yudhistira mattered and Kunti had no say. The prime character, Draupadi, is shown facing severe insults and abuse from the patriarchal system which she is expected to bear while her demand for revenge for harassment is fuelled by revenge and not a means to attain her lost dignity.
In Christianity, Mary Magdalene is the epic example of the twisted understanding of women. Mary Magdalene was a female disciple which has been a famous topic of debate. Many believe that she was a prostitute while others claim her to be the wife of Jesus. However, both agree that she was one of the closest associates of Jesus who believed they had a spiritual connection with Jesus better than any of his disciples. In 1969, the church accepted it was a mistake of labeling Mary as a sex worker and she was acknowledged to be the only disciple who understood the true intent of Jesus. However, the question is how many realize this divine connection. We ignore her devotion and understanding only because she is a woman. She is capable of overthrowing the underlying superiority of the men and that is what led her to be labelled as a prostitute rather than a devout disciple.
Mythology and religion always try to shun women and portray them as the root cause of conflict. The more we ignore misogyny and injustice, the longer it takes to attain equality.
Every era has witnessed the oppression and torture of women which goes unnoticed and ignored. The ill fate of all the strong and influential women in history is a consequence of this fear of losing control. While we give Rani Laksmibai of Jhansi the much-deserved appreciation and respect we ignore the equally influential and powerful Chand Bibis who gave their best for the prosperity of their kingdoms. We need to appreciate and acknowledge these women in history who struggled for liberation. Unless we do that, attaining equality would be a dream. Autonomy over body and life, even in contemporary times, is not natural to women. It just shows that the consequences of the struggle for the attainment and sustenance of liberation might have changed or reduced but the very attainment exists as a mirage to women all over the globe.
An undergraduate Political Science student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at Delhi University, Charvee is an enthusiastic writer intrigued by the politics of India. She can be found reading fiction books or deliberating about social issues. She is a clumsy ambivert with a zeal to create a mark in the bustling world.