Sunday, August 20, 2006

divine wrath as an excuse for human folly

The entry of women into Sabarimala is a controversy that's been raging for a while now, especially since the Kerala government has gone into overdrive with contradicting statements.

The story so far
The Sabarimala story begins with a couple of South Indian actors who confessed recently to entering the temple. Ironically, one of them has been undergoing penance ever since, apparently to atone for the misdeed.

Following the revelation by the actors, a group of lawyers filed a PIL in the Supreme Court challenging the ban on the entry of women into the temple. G. Sudhakaran, the Minister for Cooperatives and Devasoms, got into the act and initially said that the Achutanandan government wanted to preserve 'tradition'. Soon after, within hours of the Supreme Court issuing a notice to the Kerala government, Sudhakaran did a volte-face and said the Government was not opposed to allowing women to the temple. V.S. Achuthanandan, the Chief Minister, put in his two-bit by promptly disowning Sudhakaran's views on women entering the Sabarimala shrine as his (Sudhakaran's) own opinion.

Characteristically, the tantris have been huffing and puffing that tradition must be maintained.

And the story continues
While the matter is currently sub-judice, all major public (and not so public) figures in Kerala, have played camoes in the still unfolding tamasha.

Anita Nair, the author, recently made a statement saying she would NOT like any changes to the present customs. She asks here:
Can women undertake the rigorous penance (41 days) associated with the Sabarimala trek?

And assures us here that:
They would find it difficult and my opinion is that let the customs and traditions of Sabarimala continue as it is now.

I am not sure what hardships
she meant. If it is the long trek, let me assure you that today it isn't much more than a walk up a flight of stairs. Most pilgrims today don't take the arduous Veliya Paatha, or the Long Path, which is a long trek over the seven hills that surround Sabarimala (see picture). Not once in my 11 trips to Sabarimala did I walk the entire 18 kilometers. The trek uphill from Pamba is a mere 4 kms, and is along a completely concretised path. And if it the 41-day vrata she meant, that is a ritual followed only by the most committed pilgrims.

The most offensive perhaps, is the assumption that women are inherently weaker and therefore cannot undertake the journey. It is an argument my mother, a practising Hindu, uses when asked about Sabarimala. They will find it difficult. They are impure. Tradition must be respected. Why this temple? Let them go elsewhere.

There is no hope of arguing successfully against that kind of dogma.

The very same arguments were once used to keep Dalits out of temples until the Vaikom Satyagraham changed all that. It is ironic that the present Government, played a pivotal role in that movement for equal rights more than eight decades ago.

Tradition has always tended towards being a regressive, normalising force. If tradition is a recorded form (oral or otherwise) of a living, breathing, evolving culture. The understanding of the culture of yesteryear is invariably coloured by the dogmas of our own generation. And it is in this sense that the Government, and others like Anita Nair, would be setting us back by centuries in opposing the entry of women into Sabarimala.

It is time the government acted firmly and decisively, and tooka clear stand on the issue. The ban must be withdrawn. Unequivocally.

'The Lord is not happy'
The charged political atmosphere and the shape-shifting vote banks in Kerala may prevent a quick resolution to this issue. The Shiv Sena has been attempting to make inroads into Kerala for a while now, and is sure to pounce on any attempt at reform. There is no immediate serious risk from them for now though. (Are they even important in Mumbai anymore?)

The threat lies in an alliance between the NSS and the VHP. The NSS is a significant player in Kerala politics. Traditional Karunakaran supporters, they are not quite in the fire and brimstone VHP mould. At least, not yet. This is what Kummanam Rajashekharan, State Organising Secretary of VHP, and State President of Hindu Aikya Vedi has to say in the BJP mouthpiece The Organiser.
The nimithams (omens) were also positive since a woman entered the devaprashnam hall when he was speaking of a woman’s entry into Sreekovil. Similarly, when he spoke of fight for money, three fighting cats entered the hall and started fighting and crying. The ‘DP’ suggested free annadanam for all pilgrims and bringing of Vavur mosque (Ayyappa’s friend) under the control of Sabarimala temple since non-temple activities and fleecing of devotees are going on at Vavur mosque. The total summary of the ‘DP’ is that due to the arrival of crores of devotees, hundreds of crores of rupees are being pumped into Sabarimala, which is not being used for welfare of pilgrims but being swindled by the money mafia. The net result is that the Lord is not happy with the conduct in Sabarimala.
About 75 per cent of the hotels in Sabarimala and most of the hotels in Ranni, Erumeli and Karimala route are being run by Muslims or Christians who are the main financiers of politicians and Devaswom authorities. If as per ‘DP’ annadanam is provided, they stand to lose crores of rupees. I suspect the hand of the Christian-Muslim lobby in the attempts to belittle the ‘DP’ and destroy Sabarimala, its culture and traditions.
['DP' stands for devaprasnam, which is a form of divination that concerns temples, and modes of worship. Emphasis added throughout.]

Read the entire interview here.

Come to think of it, I am surprised he did not argue that the Chief Priest's alleged involvement in a sex scandal was the result of divine wrath. Maybe he is saving it for the next issue of The Organiser.

Sabarimala is one often held up as a beacon of communal harmony. While that may be overstating the case, especially with Hindu Aikya Vedi and others playing a role of late, Sabarimala is remarkably representative in its myths of origin. Read about it here and here.

Categories: politics, ideology, myth, india, personal, rights


Raindrop said...

That doesn't surprise me one bit.

I have no trouble accepting the fact that women are physically weaker. We are, on average. It doesn't offend me any more than it would offend a man who is told that he doesn't have breasts.

However, the real reason women are not allowed is that menstruation is regarded as unclean. This is a view that was almost universally shared, recall Nietzsche's total disgust with female bodily functions.

God isn't free from prejudices. The Catholic god doesn't like abortions and contraceptives. The Muslim god and the Jewish god don't take too kindly to their followers consuming pork. The Hindu gods are whimsical. But most gods are unanimous in their dislike for women's rights, female priests and gay people.

What does one do? Invent an ideal god who is free from prejudice?

At least the prejudiced gods have been tried and tested, and have tens of millions of followers who will vouch for their existence.

roswitha said...

Sometimes I wish Stephen Colbert did an India beat. And that is ALL I feel capable of sputtering at this moment. Who is this Anita Nair and why is she being allowed to say things where human beings can hear them? Has someone forgotten the salient fact that LITTLE GIRLS and OLD WOMEN, by no means the healthiest representatives of the female gender, do undertake the trek successfully each year?

I secede from humanity. Swamiye sharanam.

angry fix said...

I am not so sure about women being inherently weaker. There are too many variables in that statement, not the least being: What exactly is normal strength? (Also see Roswitha's comment above, where she makes the point, in a different context.)

And what you say about menstruation is totally right. (And I tried hard to recall Nietzsche, but then I realised I hadn't read him. Which book, if you remember?)

Anita Nair is an author who wrote Ladies Coupe and The Better Man. Although I must clarify that I have been fortunate not to have read her. Also, I suspect she imagines she is speaking for the educated liberated Mallu women the world over.

Non-Mallu World, (I like addressing the impoverished minority from time to time)
The incomprehensible bit at the end of Ros's comment literally translates as "The Lord Alone is My Succour", a favourite chant of Mallu pilgrims at Sabarimala.

roswitha said...

Would it be iconoclastic or just in really bad taste to make an inappropriate play on the word 'succour'? I know being tasteless and iconoclastic are not mutually exclusive states of being. Then again, it's just too obvious. There's a twelve-year-old male inside all of us.

angry fix said...

I knew that succour-sucker thing was coming!
I just KNEW it.

Raindrop said...

I didn't say 'inherently weaker'. I said 'physically weaker'. There's a world of difference! Surely you aren't disputing the fact that men are physically stronger? I know that if I ever had to bet on the outcome of a wrestling match between an average male and an average female, I'd bet on the male.

Also, notice that I stated later that physical weakness wasn't the real reason women are kept out anyway!

arjun said...

hey I wanted to point out the obvious legal problems with changing Sabrimala and put forward a vaguely silver lining!

In london various gentlemans clubs have been around since the 1700's. They are very exclusive. Some require peerage. Others large wads of cash but all require a penis. Yet nobody is fighting to change them. Forget the Penis Clause, Nobody in London asks these clubs to accept ppl of lower peerage either(certainly as defunct a concept as the 'weaker sex'). Why?

Well the answer is that its their choice. In fact in response womens only clubs have sprung up in far posher areas of london and they are doing brisk business(many of these demand peerage as well). It isnt in the hands of the courts to force owners of establishments to allow people they dont want to allow. If the court did that it would set legal precedent to dictate who a restaraunt allows in. which is why nobody is changing things in london and which is why nobody Can Change things at Sabrimala.

The only way to do this would be to debate with the priests and convince them that their beliefs were forged in a fire of testosterone. Which is not happening!

On a far vaguer and highly philosophical note. Its better if women are not allowed into these places because, I hope, it will help them shun religion(their major bane for all these years anyway)quicker than men Who will cling to it for power. This can only work in their favour in the Rational world We hope is our future.

angry fix said...

When I wrote about the Sabarimala issue, I certainly wasn't writing about anything remotely religious. And if at all religion has anything to do with it, it is only in the sense that religion has tended to uphold tradition, which has always been a stumbling block to any knid of social reform. And I take exception to your inference that all religion is inherently a Bad Thing.

Moreover, I don't have any problems with private gentleman's clubs. clubs are attractive to their clientele only because of their exclusivity. Most define it with noble blood (big surname, no money) or social status (big money, no surname).
To quote Groucho Marx: 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.'

And a good place to start with my objections to what you said would be to state a simple fact: Sabarimala is not a private club/ restaurant.

arjun said...

oh yeah sure...the point i was making of course is oversimplified/ see sabrimala is still not government property and so courts will have a hard time enforcing anything. There were movements against clubs in london that failed on the grounds that they were owned by private trusts as are most Indian places of worship. So those cases sort of form a precedent( not that indian courts listen to UK precedents but it is suggestive of given our similar legal structures). So I was just saying that the PIL might fail! thats all. Is that wrong? if so why?

and the fact that religion is inherently bad is never a debate I intended to engage in (I secretly believe it, but currently can only debate it on TIFR campus, where People are naturally predisposed to a future where Religion isnt in your face and is a private not a public enterprise....of course someday, I hope in my lifetime, you layppl will appreciate it as well ;-))

roswitha said...

Excellent idea, Arjun! Religion has played a large part in allowing the patriarchy to oppress women. Taking the very choice of religion away from them should advance female independence so much more.

How about leaving women to decide whether or not they want to eschew religion AFTER they have access to it? Your vague and philosophical argument makes as much sense as saying gays shouldn't be allowed to marry since marriage is a flawed institution anyway.

And while we're at it, I'd like us to know who the average man and the average woman are, exactly, and why a wrestling match is a normalised indicator of strength. Viv, if you're up to a wrestling match I don't mind fighting it out with you.

angry fix said...

I think you're a bit of a Captain Obvious. Surely you don't have to ask: who the average man and the average woman are!
It's quite obvious: I am the average man, and Karnam Malleswari is the average woman.

And I hav NO intention of being beaten to pulp, so you'll have to realise your Lawrencian dreams all by yourself I'm afraid. Unless you find other unsuspecting suckers (succours?)

roswitha said...

Succour up, not about to manhandle you. Lawrencian dreams would involve NAKED wrestling. My subconscious is free from Lawrencian dreams, believe me.

arjun said...

I see while Ive been away two lit ppl have been tearing me apart.

well thats ok. I think I'll wait till the PIL fails and then graciously decide not to say I told you so.

Btw I love how both of you happily took no note of my main point and Jumped at my li'l silver lining. And I thought only Pratty jumped at my more fundoo concepts!

He once got mad because I said The ability of mullahs to procreate (as opposed to padres) increased the genetic propensity amongst muslims to be religiously intollerant.

do you people want to delight yourselves tearing that one apart! I have many more teasers where those came from. I dare say I could entertain you for a while yet!

arjun said...

ok sorry!

I was a little jumpy there myself. Firstly, it seems only one lit person was after me, the other didnt respond. and I guess My fundoo concepts elicit that response from everyone not only pratty and you. (I'm still willing to give you more if youre interested.)

Sorry If I sounded rude in the above comment. In my defense I had a tiring day, not to mention I got chewed up by two profs because as it turned out I actually didnt understand 'Percolation' as well as I had thought!

Raindrop said...

Roswitha, surely you know who the average man and woman are! I don't mean to name drop, but I've had them over for tea, oh heavens, countless times.

Now I admit I just threw 'wrestling match' out there without giving it too much thought, but feel free to come up with your own suggestions.

And Arjun merely expressed a hope, and the way I see it, he wasn't taking a pro-temple authorities stance, given his obvious contempt for all things religious. Neither am I, if that was somehow missed. Like him, however, I fail to be shocked. Yes, I'm a hardened cynic indeed.

On a side note, I'm free from Lawrencian dreams. I now suffer Lorentzian nightmares. And occasionally, my nightmares will take on softer, more Gaussian tones.

Arjun, did you know that the actress Danica McKellar who played Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years wrote a paper on percolation while at UCLA?

arjun said...

ooooh I always thot winnie cooper was cute!

I did a quick search on google.... she wrote

"Percolation and Gibbs State Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models in Two Dimensions"

Winnie cooper proved the
Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorum


Winnie you can coach me anytime!

And raindrop dont let it get to you...

This is an old style of argumentation...selective listening. note how choice words "wrestling" "average man" have been chosen and blown out of proportion to manufacture a fight when all you were saying was that women are different from men in many ways.

now I personally think your male-female differences argument is an unrelated issue with no bearing whatsoever! and your first post enlightens us about nietzche but cant be challenged purely because it doesnt really make any points. and ro+angryfix coulda/shoulda said that

Ro + Angryfix you two seem to do this unconciously! try to look at all the posts and see if you two arent a little to eager to pick a fight.

an antidote to selective listening can be found in some wise words by Michael fisher. He was a great great statistical physicist who always lost arguments, he used to plead with ppl that "the ideas are more important than the words."

another antidote is in some wiser words from many xavierites i know

"its all good"

sorry to preach
thats it from me i promise


angry fix said...

Thank you very much for the advice. Will convey it to roswitha personally.

arjun said...

Maybe its just a guilty Conscience but I smell sarcasm...I seriously didnt mean to preach had been a bad set of days at work in my defense.

anyway...If you dont mind, I'll keep reading your blog of and on and continue to post comment unfazed by attacks ;-)

roswitha said...

raindrop: Tea is a petty bourgeois meal! Do not corrupt the average man and woman; you would do better off inviting them to that glorious proletarian ritual, the Breakfast of Champions.

As for an example of male v/s female physical strength, I'm ambivalent but border on disagreeing with you. It's true that things like scores in athletics and most sporting events reflect a significant difference in male/female achievement, but I don't know enough about this. I suppose you could argue that if a boy and a girl were raised in identical environments that gave them the same physical and mental conditioning they might match each other. However, in average situations, and among - ahem - the average man and woman I don't often see the difference: a woman lifting bricks at a construction site seems to do the same work (and receive the same wages) as a man; housewives do as much if not more medium-to-heavy lifting than their husbands, and so on. It's very much something I would like to see talked about more.

arjun: thanks for the enlightenment. I'd go and work on the anger management, but it's getting in the way of my 'language of ideas' class. Ah, progress. It is a slow thing.

Raindrop said...

Roswitha, I'll start off by agreeing with you. In average situations, women probably do more work at home than men do at their desk jobs. But this hasn't always been the case, since men have typically had to do more labor-intensive work in the past. A hundred years of mechanization cannot erase the effects of a hundred thousand years of evolution.

However, using physical strength as an excuse to keep women out of Sabrimala, which falls well within the ability of MOST human beings, is as absurd as enforcing a blanket ban on the entry of all males above a certain arbitrarily chosen 'old' age. In this, I am with you. The real reason women are kept out, of course, is obviously menstruation. Which is just as ridiculous in modern society. I have my own theories as to why menstruating women were historically kept out of places of worship.

Here's a Norwegian study on physical strength. I particularly trust this, because Norway's been referred to as 'a haven for gender equality' in many UN studies on gender.

The study concludes that while males and females have identical muscle quality, it's quantity that contributes to physical strength in the end. Males have more muscle because on average,
a) men are bigger
b) men have higher muscle mass to body fat ratios. It turns out that women need more body fat to be healthy.

'I suppose you could argue that if a boy and a girl were raised in identical environments that gave them the same physical and mental conditioning they might match each other.'

Okay, so you're using the blank slate (tabula rasa) ideology. Now it's been the basis for many feminist arguments, but I think that's all set to change in light of the fact that the ideology has been thoroughly refuted by most cognitive psychologists. However, even blank-slate ideologists do not extend their theories to obvious physical differences, such as strength and height.

It turns out that many gender differences are innate, and independent of social conditioning.

I think this is a great article. I find it particularly interesting that male infant humans AND male infant monkeys show a preference for trucks, while female babies and female infant monkeys show a preference for dolls.

While this article urgues one to treat with caution studies that reveal differences in behavior in men and women, there is a lot of scientific literature available to just that effect. Because hormones play a rather large role in behavior.

Take the simple case of PMS. It is hormonal, and is widely known to affect behavior. In some women, it manifests itself in extreme forms, causing acute depression and even suicidal tendencies. Since men and women have different hormones coursing through them, one might expect them to exhibit different behavioral traits. And indeed, this is borne out by various meta-analyses that I could dig up for you, if you wanted.

The blank slate ideology encourages the belief that women can do anything a man can do and vice versa. I consider myself not too far off from my peak fitness levels, but my male friend considers himself far from his fitness ideal. However, he can comfortably run 5 miles at a stretch, something I can only do with CONSIDERABLE effort. I've stopped berating myself for my inability to run five miles, because I know that he's never going to have to endure 9 months of pregnancy, and a possible 48 hour long labor.

Now on to female construction workers. Yes, they engage in as much hard physical labor as men do. And they often receive less compensation for it than a man would. This is grossly unfair, not only for obvious reasons, but also because the female construction worker is taxing her body far more than the man is, thereby putting herself at a greater health risk. Feminism that's based on the blank-slate theory fails to recognize this.

So 'physical strength', as it is currently defined, is an area where males seem to emerge victorious. Endurance/pain threshold etc, are areas where women appear to win out. Gender differences do not justify any claim that either sex is 'better' than the other. Such a claim would simply be unscientific.

I think it's very encouraging that feminism is now distancing itself away from the blank slate ideology. Seeing the world for what it is, is an important step towards realizing the gender equality that biological and cognitive studies repeatedly demonstrate.

roswitha said...

Thanks for the links - I shall read them with interest. Totally agree with you about the byproducts of evolution, which portion upper-body strength to men and endurance to females - we're simply caught in this particular cycle of biohistory.

It's good to think of making it possible for human beings to do most things across gender boundaries, not because they are inherently exactly similar (because, as you say, they are not) but because they're afforded exactly the same opportunities.

angry fix said...

Thanks a lot for the links, and the excellent points you raise.

I must confess first up that I am a little out of my depth when it comes to biological sciences, and I hope you will repond to the points I raise.

My problems with the Team Anti-tabula rasa is that it does seem to uphold nature over nurture. (Refer this excellent debate:
Pinker vs. Spelke)

While I am most definitely not in denial of biological differences, treating the sexes purely on the basis of innate differences seems, at best, flawed to me.

Abhinandan has a related post here.

Raindrop said...

Roswitha, I completely agree. I've been meaning to ask about your blogger name, is it named after the German playwright Hrosvita?

Angry Fix, I typed out a long detailed response to you, and my computer froze. I'll respond to your arguments soon, when I'm done battling my frustration with blogger. :)
For some reason, my browser slows down immensely when I'm at your blog. Does anyone else have this problem?

angry fix said...

It could be because of the number of links on each page.
My browser is slow anyway, so I hadn't noticed!

Also, looking forward to your response.
(Incidentally, after I had given you the Pinker vs. Spelke link, I noticed you'd mentioned it in one of your posts, and drawn the opposite inference!)

roswitha said...

It is that fine Terence-loving nun, indeed. :)

Raindrop said...

Angry Fix, so here's where it all just becomes a matter of opinion, I suppose. I read Abhinandan's post, but I wouldn't draw the conclusions he draws. Likewise with the Pinker-Spelke debate.

Pinker doesn't argue that nurture does not play a role, he just seeks to challenge thes idea that's been popular since the 70s, that nature's role can safely be neglected. Now tabula rasa cannot explain certain extreme behavioral abnormalities like schizophrenia, where the best predictor of whether or not an individual will develop schizophrenia is if his identical twin has it. Extensive research on separated identical twins shows a very high degree of correlation in political preference!

Now it has always been well-known that members of a family tend to share political views. It appears that this might have a genetic basis to it, since family members tend to share their genes. The American two party system lends itself well to this kind of polical research; I doubt it would work in a complex political system like ours.

And finally, a personal observation. As a woman in a field that's highly male dominated, I do tend to see some rather obvious differences. These differences, as Roswitha pointed out, do not manifest themselves in average situations, because males and females devise different, but comparable strategies to approach certain problems. Now the reason you find more 'greatness' among male scientists is that males tend to lie on extreme ends of the mental abilities spectrum. Which means that while there are more male geniuses, there are also more male idiots. (Recall the IQ distribution of Scottish males and females.)

I've had a little teaching experience in my field. Men, by and large, seem to show more intuition. Women work harder, and are far more conscientious. So men and women end up getting the same grades.

Now cognitive psychology, as Pinker points out, is a female-dominated field. I have no trouble believing that women have better intuition there. With language too.

Unfortunately, there seems to be this view that 'hard' sciences require greater intellect than the 'softer' ones. My field happens to be one of those 'hard' sciences, and I'm all too aware of the kind of arrogance that, regrettably, prevails here. This is exactly the sort of thinking that encourages the idea that the lack of women in cedrtain 'elite' sciences is indicative of some serious social injustice.

The nations that incorporated the blank slate ideology into their school systems (most of Scandinavia), still have very low female enrolment in certain fields such as mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering; and high female enrolment in certain other fields.

Interestingly, these nations have no trouble electing female politicians to power, and have as many women in their parliaments as men, without any kind of reservation. This is unlike South Asian nations, where elected women tend to illustrate the power of dynasties rather than gender equality.

As I write this, I can't help wishing that Ibsen would come to Indian society's rescue..

Roswitha, are there any internet resources where I can find her plays?

I hope that was coherent. I'm woozy with the flu right now. Can't seem to string sentences together. :)

Raindrop said...

Roswitha's plays, I mean. I didn't mean to imply that Ibsen was female, although I'd gladly make him an honorary woman. :)

angry fix said...

Thank you, Raindrop.

Excellent argument!

The nations that incorporated the blank slate ideology into their school systems (most of Scandinavia), still have very low female enrolment in certain fields such as mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering; and high female enrolment in certain other fields.

That's a telling point. But what do you think would be a pro-active and effective measure?

Your points are very compelling, and I see what you are basing your arguments on. Through your arguments, my chief objection was to the disproportionate (in my opinion) weightage given to nature over nurture. I say this in spite of your clarification over Pinker's stand, because I wonder if it's not dangerously close to the age-old predetermination argument. But I must concede I don't quite have the factual firepower to argue on this topic. Thanks a lot for your excellent (and chiefly unopposed) arguments. :)

Also, this is where I found the original Roswitha's plays.