Sita, after a 14 year long traumatising captivity was asked to prove her ‘innocence’ by her husband in her kidnapping as he asked her to give agnipareeksha or state her ‘purity’ by walking through fire. Sita acquiesced to the demand to prove her captivity was not her fault, and she, in fact, did not want to be kidnapped, along with the fact she did not indulge in any sexual activity while living at the mercy of her kidnapper.
Needless to say, her husband was not asked to extend the same courtesy, that is to state his purity and prove he did not engage in infidelity. Later, he left her when she was six months pregnant in the woods. She was escorted to the woods by his brother who broke the news to her that she was to never come back, as it would reflect poorly on her husband who had to set an example.
Sita’s acquiescence, her ability to accept the suffering she was subjected to without having done anything to deserve it, without a single word of protest, is what largely the conservative sections of society hold as an ideal woman. The problem is our society is largely conservative.
In 1902, there was a woman who went by the name Maria Goretti living in Colle Gianturco, which was fifty miles from Rome, Italy. She lived there with her deeply religious family and was a devout Christian herself. She found herself the subject of unwanted sexual advances by her neighbour Alessandro.
She repeatedly refused his advances stating they were indulging in carnal desire and its validation is against Christian values and as she was deeply religious she could not entertain the idea of anything sensual. Alessandro was persistent in his advances and only grew bolder, and one such encounter one such encounter one afternoon proved fatal for Maria Goretti when she refused his advances again.
This time Alessandro was more aggressive than usual and he had a knife, he asked her to submit herself to him or die. She chose death over surrendering herself to him as she would never compromise on her Christian values. She was stabbed by Alessandro 11 times in the stomach. The wounds were fatal.
She was hospitalised immediately and soon after the incident and underwent surgery without anaesthesia. She succumbed to her injuries despite the surgery and moments before her death forgave Alessandro for his misdoing.
both our societies tend to romanticise women’s silent suffering by rewarding them for it.
On June 24, 1950, Maria Goretti was canonized as a saint by Pius XII, as the Saint Agnes of the 20th century.
The point of this is this – both our societies tend to romanticise women’s silent suffering by rewarding them for it. That is not to say endurance is necessarily not a virtue, but to have that virtue thrust upon you amid the injustice you face, and denying you agency or space for any other reaction is emotional violence.
Of course, patriarchal structure and the way it operates is universal in its concept. But some societies culturally tend to be more similar than others, and patriarchy varies in accordance with how people reward its perpetuation in their own culture.
Italian art and mythology, much like Indian art and Mythology indulge in imageries of women that are powerful and are characterised with strong individuation (though still catering to male gaze) but prefer who are a part of their own culture to be domesticated and subservient.
In both Indian and Italian society, there is a cognitive dissonance in the mythical representation of women and their ground reality, they are not given the space for sexual liberation or a free thinking space to reflect their position. Their subjugation and silent suffering are romanticised, something the myths and literature derived from folklore perpetuate.
The story of Maria Goretti is neither a myth nor a folklore, but only an active example of a woman subjugated to suffering and forgiving her perpetrator. Her compassion in this example is endless, and no one should have to discredit that. But the association of woman with this singular image of an ever-forgiving entity is problematic. Endurance does not address the underlying problems which need to be addressed to avoid repetition of these incidents, and these underlying problems most often in a patriarchal society point towards male entitlement.
Both societies have also indulged in witch hunts. At the time witch hunts were rationalised as women who ‘deviate’ from social norms, incur the wrath of god and must be punished for their ‘deviations’. One of the primary deviations which incited hatred among the community for these women was “love magic”. The expression of sexual desire by a woman was equated to a crime punishable by a painful death. Sadistic pleasure was often taken at punishing women for not being subservient.
Italian society is a deeply Christian one in its majority, and the practice of Catholicism often lies in direct contradiction with progress for women. The Catholic Church often instigated witch hunts against women who expressed any sort of agency.
The ideologue behind the concept of an ideal woman as exemplified and manifested in mythology does have its consequences in the mainstream modern narrative, for when archaic ideas such as one of the submissive woman taking upon herself not to inconvenience anyone by expressing agency in refusal to bear with the injustice such as in the instance of Ramayana is celebrated, it perpetuates victim blaming. And when the victim tries take the narrative into their own hands, they are vilified for non-conformity.
The image of a subservient woman who doesn’t deviate from existing norms and is faithful to her husband and uncompromising of the honour placed on her, despite his own deviant behaviour is a rather common occurrence in Indian mythology and literature derived from folklore. And not only does this stream of narrative deny modernity and progress to our current society, it encourages regression.
It is also a tad bit baffling we have to affirm the archaic nature of mythology in the 21st century. Where does the idea of romanticising regression comes from? Does it come from the delusion that when certain things were in place, the society worked better?
there is a cognitive dissonance in the mythical representation of women and their ground reality.
The argument to build a regressive society is rarely ever nuanced, and people tend to have the idea that societies devoid of protests and dissent work better when mostly they thrive on oppression and perpetuate a culture of silence and capitalise on the suffering of the oppressed. The existing discourse of mythology in our society tends to lean towards a society which doesn’t provide space for either dissent or protest, which is against human rights itself.
The archaic idea, which was problematic to begin with, as to what should an ideal woman be like is failing half of our population. To be assigned a singular image and having to live up to it without a choice can be stifling, and both India and Italy to a large extent encourage this endurance which is complicit in giving precedence to male supremacy. This is rationalised by through mythic representations and superstitions, and prejudice against women is justified.
Let me conclude by saying this, societies reward the perpetuation of patriarchy in their own way, and we need to identify what all are complicit in this perpetuation even if it includes questioning beliefs and ideologies we consider sacred.
Note: These are not the only examples, only one or two amongst the majority of them are only used for establishing the purpose of comparing the similarities in how patriarchy operates in both societies.