Every day we hear chilling reports of women being abused at shelter homes, public transport, hospitals or bars. Women are groped, raped, molested and abused across countries and cultures. Violence against women is rampant in both public and private spaces. As per UN Women, one in three women worldwide have experienced sexual assault whether at home, on the streets or during the war. The body of women has historically been used as a tool of oppression, subjugation, and control of women.
Let’s admit it, women are not safe anywhere and from anyone and it’s not ok or acceptable! The ‘Me Too’ movement has once again highlighted the widespread prevalence, extent, and magnitude of the problem.
The assault against women has also been a recurrent theme in our myths, folktales, and legends. Though the sexual assault has never been endorsed or had the approval of any religion. But it was prevalent in varying degrees across societies and cultures since time immemorial.
Patricia Monaghan, in her book, ‘The Book of Goddesses and Heroines’ writes about Akycha, a solar goddess worshipped in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Akycha was a young woman and moon was her brother. She lived alone on the earth. One day in the dark of night, a young man broke into her house and raped her. This crime was frequently repeated, but she could never see the face of the man. To determine the identity of the man, she smeared his face with the soot of the oil lamp. Next morning, she saw the blackened face of her brother. She cut off her left breast and threw it towards him. Then she grabbed a burning wood and ran towards him. Both ran towards the sky and are still following each other.
Hina is another dawn goddess from Polynesia who was raped by her father. She got embarrassed when she came to know of the identity of her father. She ran away to the underworld. Another version of the myth presents Hina as the wife of Maui. Hina was bathing in a pool one day when the father of all eels molested her by pressing her genitals.
In the book, ‘Women Who Ran with the Wolves’ by Estes, Clarissa, she writes about a Greek tale of Persephone, who was the daughter of Mother Earth Demeter. Persephone was playing in a garden of flowers one day. The earth starts shaking, and from deep within the ground, emerges Hades, the God of the Underworld. Hades was tall and mighty and was riding a chariot driven by four horses.
Hades seized the young girl, into his chariot. The girl desperately cried for help with her veiled and sandals flying. The chariot plunged back into the darkness of the earth,
Seizing the terrified girl, he plunged back with her under the ground and into obscurity. Her mother Demeter could hear the cries through stone and water but could not see her daughter. Demeter overcome by grief due to loss of her daughter began the long and crazy search for her daughter. This is popularly known as the Rape of Persephone in classical Greek mythology.
The story has similarities with the abduction of Sita, wife of Lord Ram by Ravana. In Ramayana, the great Indian epic, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Ram’s wife Sita to exact vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister, Shurpanakha. Every year, an effigy of Ravan is burnt in India to symbolically, send a message across the society that good always prevails over evil.
Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika were daughters of the King of Kashi who were abducted by Bhishma for his brother from their Swayamwara or the wedding ceremony. Later, Amba takes the birth of Shikhandi to seek revenge and kills Bhishma in the battlefield.
Staking Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas in the game of dice, is a defining moment in the ancient epic, Mahabharata. One of the fiercest, bold and articulate women in the Hindu tradition was treated as mere property or an object by men in the Court. As she was lost in the bet, she was dragged to the Court full of men and tries to disrobe her in public. Though she was timely rescued by Lord Krishna. To provoke and humiliate the Pandavas, Duryodhana asks Draupadi to sit on his thigh. The humiliation of Draupadi is the humiliation of Pandavas. Draupadi does question her family sitting over there about her fault and reminds them of their duty to protect her honor. But her plea fells on deaf years. Her five husband later take the revenge and kill her culprits.
Ahalya is another strong and learned woman in the Hindu tradition. She is married to sage Gautama Maharishi. Indra, the king of Devas, is enamored by the beauty of Ahalya, comes disguised as her husband in the morning when sage was having a bath in the river. He makes love with Ahalya, though Ahalya with her powers could see that it was Indra and not her husband. She nevertheless accepts his advances. Though there are different versions of the story, some say Lord Indra seduced her and absolve her of adultery. But eventually, her husband cursed her, and she turns into stone. She later gains her human form when Lord Ram touches her.
Interestingly, both Ahalya and Draupadi are considered Panchkanya or five virgins along with Kunti, Mandodri, and Tara. They are worshipped as ideal and chaste women in the Hindu culture.
There is a similar story mentioned in Padma Puran, where Lord Vishnu goes to Tulsi in the guise of her husband to destroy her chastity. The breach of chastity would help Lord Shiva to kill the demon Shankhachuda, who derived his power and invincibility from Tulsi’s devotion. When Tulsi comes to know of deceit, she curses Lord Vishnu to become a stone. Lord Vishnu takes the form of Shaligram and marries Tulsi.
Monaghan in her book also writes about Hera, Greek Goddess of women, marriage, and sexuality. She writes that Hera initially had no consort. But she was later tricked into marriage by sky god- Zeus. Zeus was primarily the God of patriarchal tribes in that area. Union of the two would conveniently establish the dominance of Zeus. Zeus took the form of a Cuckoo bird, which was very dear to Hera. When Hera took the bird on her lap and soothed her, Zeus raped her. To restore her dignity, she had to marry Zeus.
Marrying a rapist is a convenient way of exonerating the man from the crime of the rape.
The sexual assault culture is still embedded and is part of our patriarchal society across the globe in varying degrees. Misogyny and sexism are still being tolerated by families and societies everywhere.
And we need to stop that!
Image: Draupadi being disrobed in the Court