Most Tamils will know of a movie called ‘Rosapoo Ravikkaikkari’ (The Woman in a Rose Blouse) that came out in 1979.
It is a commercial movie that brings out some subliminal messages on the politics of how women’s bodies are seen by themselves and changing attitudes to the male gaze.
To put in short, a pretty young woman is married to a simpleton in a remote mountain village where none of the women wear blouses. She insists on her besotted husband buying her a blouse, a want that is resented and objected to by the elder women of the village, especially the mother-in-law. They believe a woman who insists on a blouse for herself is being uppity and superior. Things come to a head when the older woman tears the blouse off.
The pretty woman later is infatuated with a young man from a nearby town. The movie ends with the husband finding her in a compromising position with her lover, where she has taken her blouse off! It is the same piece of clothing that he defied his mother to buy her.
The movie drives the message of a woman under the ‘modern’ influence sexualizing her own upper body, since she seeks to cover it for all but a lover’s gaze.
In the more remote villages of Tamil Nadu, it was common for older women to cover their upper bodies with only the drape of their sarees. Pre-pubescent girls frequently went in the streets and by-lanes of their villages with no upper body covering. In fact, the notion of covering up women’s bodies to protect them from men’s unwanted gaze seems to have been quite unknown in peninsular India before the 17th Century. Thinking of women’s bodies as commodities to be wrapped up from men’s vision is an idea imported with assorted Abrahamic invasions.
Most Indians do not find the choice of a saree bothersome from a male gaze perspective. However, Prof Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, advisor to the Indian Christian Secular Party is said to have declared the saree a symbol of oppression as it left women ‘half-naked’ and exhorted them to wear jeans as a symbol of emancipation. Of course if the women wear short tops or sphagetti strap tops on jeans will leave her as much exposed if not more seems to have lost on Ilaiah or may be he wants to have a diktat that women should wear only fully covered tops on jeans.
It is in this background and context that we have to view the media reporting around a practice in a village called Vellalur in Melur Taluk, Madurai District.
Parents pray to the Goddess Ezhai Kaatha Amman (the Mother who saved the seven children). To commemorate local legends of 7 girl children miraculously turning to stone and then being revived. 7 girl children are dressed, garlanded, decked in jewels and housed in the temple for 15 days. During this time, these children are seen as embodiments of the Goddess herself and people pray to these children. The parents accompany these children and ensure their safety. Each year, 7 children are selected from the 60 villages that constitute the community celebrating this annual temple festival.
From reports, it appears that these are pre-pubescent children between the ages of 7 and 10. It is apparently considered inauspicious for a girl undergoing this ritual to have her periods, hence only children that have no chance of attaining puberty are selected for this ritual. After the ritual that lasts 7 days, by all evidence, these children go back to their usual lives. During this period of 15 days, the children stay in the temple and are treated as living embodiments of the Goddess herself. They travel to all the villages and bless people.
Whatever one may think of the ritual, it is a community activity, in which parents and children participate willingly and nobody seems to be harmed by it. It’s a festival in which the entire community participates. One can even see older women without blouses, as was common during earlier times.
This has been reported earlier in Tamil media as mere news and no-one thought much of it. This report in Tamil The Hindu reports it as such. These 15 days are seen as a period of fasting when villagers avoid meat, oily food, avoid cutting down trees and digging holes in the ground (presumably to avoid harming worms and insects).
However, based on an inflammatory article in the little-known website Covai Post, district authorities were petitioned by a foreign funded NGO, SOCO Trust, and have found no evidence of any wrong-doing. This has been picked up by national news outlets like NDTV for prurient reporting.
In the meantime, Covai Post has started playing the victimhood game, by alleging threatening calls and harvesting those 15 minutes of fame.
There are many videos, from Tamil media like Makkal TV and SUN TV and from general public, which show that these children are garlanded and are in the public eye. Therefore, there is not much scope of the children undergoing mental or physical stress.
Here is a tweet series from a certain Balaji, who is a native of the region and has actually been there, unlike most English Language media that wouldn’t know Melur from Meerut.
In our opinion, the root cause of such irresponsible reporting comes from the elitist mind-set of the media, where age-old practices of a villagers are seen as naturally ‘superstitious’, ‘primitive’ and the tendency is to exoticize them. Historically most Indian women didn’t wear a blouse. Either the saree was wrapped in a fashion so as to partially cover the breast or big breasted women used cholis to get some support. The Victorian concept of saree blouse came into vogue during the British era and was essentially fostered on the Indian woman since the British didn’t like our customs.
From the ‘modern’ perspective, the female body is seen as being susceptible to the male gaze always, and must either be covered up to protect or displayed to attract. There is nothing in between. The same people in the media would have no problems with pre-pubescent girls being topless on a beach in the West, or with the sexualized images of teenagers and tweens that TV and reality shows constantly beam, since these are approved from a Western Point of View.
The Hindu’s English edition had earlier reported the practice of dedicating girls to the Goddess Mathamma, as a practice similar to devadasi-hood, in 2003.
These two reports have been conflated, and based on an inflammatory article in the web-site Covai Post, a full-fledged media controversy has been generated.
Lurid reports have appeared in the Times of India, The New Indian Express, where the locations have been confused – between Tiruvallur District in TN to Andhra Pradesh, the ages of the girls involved have been revised upward to 14, additional activities invented such as clothes getting torn off by boys, and finally, reports of the children being forced into prostitution have been invented.
Incidentally, SOCO Trust, the NGO that picked up and publicized this issue had earlier moved court against any curbs on sale and slaughter of cattle. SOCO Trust receives funding from such organizations as Action Aid, UK and Centre for World Solidarity. The influence of a Abrahamic mind-set, which sees women’s bodies and animal bodies merely as commodities of consumerism, is quite clear. The woman’s body is for sexual consumption while the animal’s body is to be eaten as meat.
Is this mind-set not the same as that of the cleric who called exposed female bodies ‘meat’? The organisations which fund SOCO in their parent country have nudist colonies where the whole population is allowed live as per their wishes. Do these organisations encourage PILs to shut down these nudist camps?
Why do these FCRA NGOs have issues ONLY with Hindu rituals and customs ? Amongst Muslims women are married off at age 15, have to wear a Burkha when as young as 5 years of age and have to undergo genital mutilation without consent when they can barely understand. But we rarely see any PIL demanding any changes in Muslim codes of law and culture.
The perverse mentality of destroying indigenous cultural practices to suit Abrahamic sensibilities has to stop.
We live in times when the ‘feminist’ movement has gained momentum. Women, are talking about reclaiming their dignity and not being reduced to sexualised objects. The dichotomy reveals itself when women do it in the name “modern values” not realising that the tradition of sexualising the female form started with Abrahamic and later, British onslaught.
Traditional Hindu values treat women as a form of Shakti. It is indeed these so called ‘modern values’ that seek to reduce women to sexual objects. Perhaps then, it becomes important to understand how the wheels of time have come a full circle. Where we fight to regain lost glory, but ignorantly, attribute it to ‘fighting against tradition’. While people like Prof Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd pretend to espouse the ‘progressive thought’, what they in actuality perpetuate, is the Abrahamic value of sexualisation, not the indic tradition of liberation, freedom, emancipation and strength.
(The authors thank Singhbaboo and @zeneraalstuff for discussions and insights on rural practices of Tamil Nadu)