Is Sita still a role model?
Sita has always been presented as an example for Indian women: a model for endurance, beauty and sacrifice. Surviving exile and suspicion of her chastity upon her return from Lanka and accepting agnipariksha, Sita remains the ideal wife who silently endured it all. But that was in the mythological past. Can the example of 'Sita the paragon' be thrust on modern women? Does the 21st century woman even wish to be a Sita?
Women today are multi-faceted. There is a little bit of Laxmi, Saraswati, and even a bit of Kunti if needed, in many of us.
LIFE ON A PRAYER
Take the example of Gosia Sheikh, an ordinary woman, living an extraordinary life. Born in a poor family as the second child in family of seven, she started working at 14 to support her family. Childhood passed her by.
Instead of going to school, to study and play, Gosia went to work every day as a maid. She could not afford education for herself but made sure her two younger brothers went to school regularly while she looked after their education.
“I had no option. I could never think of myself. I had to be there for my family. You tell me what else I could have done,” she says while offering me a cup of tea in her one-room home in Mumbai, wiping sweat with the corner of her musty dupatta.
“When I was just 10, my younger brother died. One day he contracted fever and two days later he just died. My mother went into depression and my older sister was too busy in her married life to take care of us. From looking after my siblings, and parents to our food and other basic needs, I had to take charge of everything,” she recalls.
“At that time, I used to pray. I used to pray for an angel, who would come and rescue not my family but me. Someone who could rescue me and take me away from all the responsibilities and sadness we were suffering from at that time.”
“Didi was too busy with her children. She didn’t have time to care about her mother or the final death rituals of her younger brother. As for my father, he was too weak to work full time. He usually spent his salary at a country bar, so we were happy if he did not help.”
Leading a life with many hurdles, the frail and tiny looking Gosia never gave up. In spite of her struggles, she smiled and moved on. She learned how to live.
“It was irrelevant that I was a minor. People used to hire me any way. But instead of working at many places in a day, I took up a full time job. During my difficult times my Madam helped me with money loans. She bought me new clothes, make up and even took me to the cinema and fancy restaurants! At 16, she gave me everything I needed and she kept me very happy. Finally I experienced what girls my age would generally do,” she says.
A justified glow twinkled in her eyes as she went on talking about her employer. But destiny had something else planned for her. As soon as Gosia turned 18, her parents got her married to her neighbour, who was also her distant cousin and 12 years older than her.
“I had to get married and I could not say no. It is against my culture and also I had to keep my family name unharmed,” she said with a mixed feeling of pride and disappointment.
Marriage to an alcoholic husband was not always blissful and filled with roses for Gosia. A victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse, Gosia never felt the need to report to the police or any women NGO.
“There was no need of a police report. There were many times when he forced himself on me and when I told my mother, she simply ushered me back to my house and said ‘don’t say anything to anyone now. He is your husband and he can do whatever he wants. Always remember you no longer have a voice’” she said bleakly. On the surface she seemed busy drying her clothes, but silently she wiped the tears rolling down her dusky skin.
Gosia’s future may not be very bright. Dealing with a drunken husband, forceful in-laws and vulnerable parents, her only happiness lies in her brother. She lives her dreams and life through their education and their progress. Life has created many obstacles for her and it may continue to create them, but Gosia Sheikh living in the midst of tradition and culture, is making sure she never loses hope.
ANOTHER fine example of a zealous woman is Sneha Sharma (name changed). Her son, Arjun was three months old when he was diagnosed with congenital heart disease (CHD).
Sneha recalls that scary day when she thought she would lose her child. “The doctors were not sure if they could save my son’s life, when they took him away from me for the operation,” she says.
“The only time I wept was when I handed my son to the doctors. He was small and fragile and I dint know if I would be able to ever see him again. I was in two minds. I could not decide if I wanted to hand over my child or hold him safely close to my heart and never let him go,” she continues.
In spite of doctor’s reassurance, the problem was much worse than expected. Later while growing up, this resulted in delayed physical milestones such as delayed speech and myopia eye sight.
“It was so painful to see my baby connected to so many tubes. But after the initial 72 hours the doctors came up to me and said that I have won my child’s life. I had my own fears but I was thankful. My faith in God reinstated and I felt blessed,” Sneha said as she tried to teach her son geography while making some sandwiches for me to nibble.
Now in the fifth grade, Arjun may not be as quick or able to grasp simple concepts as his peers, but he does not give up. “His principle, classmates and teachers are very supportive. More importantly they are patient while teaching him. His friends at school provide him both the social and emotional support he seeks at his age. This helps him to grow and develop better,” Sneha spoke in a calm voice.
Along with an over-bearing mother-in-law, Sneha dealt with her pregnancy without the support from her family. “All of my energies went into bringing him up. We have been going to end number of neurologist to paediatricians and psychiatrists for his analysis since he was two. We followed it all with speech and occupational therapy. The only thought I had was to able impart any knowledge I could seek, for the improvement and development of my son” Sneha said with a firm voice, in spite of tears rolling down.
With discrimination starting at home, not only strangers but also relatives had a pre conceived attitude towards Arjun. People failed to understand or accept him. Fighting a one man’s battle, Sneha took care of all her child’s needs from therapies to school work and even playing with him.
Unable to communicate with his peers through words, Arjun took the support of actions. To express love he would hug tightly or to play he would tug one’s arm. These actions were usually with more force than Arjun intended; hence they were misinterpreted as hurtful and upsetting his peers and their parents.
“The last 10 years were easier. But now Arjun understands that kids don’t want to play with him. He understands that he is different. He understands people’s strange behaviour towards him and that he is not accepted. This kills me.
“The only time I felt hopeless was when one parent came up to me and laughed at my son. At that time I felt all our work and energy was a waste. Life seemed meaningless and felt a tight slap on our efforts. I was depressed for few days but staying in bed and crying was not an option for me. This is not a choice in my life. This is just something I have to do and I will leave no stone unturned,” Sneha said.
Due to constant rejection Arjun had behavioural issues. Afraid that he will be accustomed to ‘no’, Sneha continues to pray and work hard for the educational and psychological development of her son.
Looking admiringly at her son, Sneha said, “I know that God will not give me anything I cannot handle. I just wished that he dint trust me so much.”
HALF THE SKY
Extraordinary situations make warriors out of ordinary women. And every time, it is not necessary that they follow the path of Sita. In fact, regardless whether she is compared to Sita or Kunti, each woman should make her own identity, judgement and choices. Whether fiercly loyal to her family like Gosia or strong-willed like Sneha, she should be true to herself, her dreams and her expectations from life. After all, women make up half the world! We need to stop living in our past and start living in a present that only we can create.