Parvati’s Burden: Scratching the Surface of Motherhood in India

by Mandy Van Deven
- India -

Unlike the abundance of exploration into the many dilemmas of motherhood by feminists in the West, in India the subject is so under-examined that it might as well not even exist. In fact, the magnitude of the topic is so daunting that my initial approach to Veena Poonancha, the Director of the Research Centre for Women's Studies at Mumbai's SNDT Women’s University and a contributor to the newly published Motherhood in India: Glorification without Empowerment?, yielded much apprehension. Veena was worried our interview wouldn’t be sufficient to do justice to the surplus of issues needing to be addressed—and honestly, she was right.

Veena and I could have spent days contemplating the predicament of mothers in India, and each matter addressed in the 350 pages of this collection could easily be expanded into multiple volumes of their own. Perhaps this is exactly what Veena’s colleague, Maithreyi Krishnaraj, had in mind when pulling together the disparate essays. Covering areas ranging from the impact Hindu mother-goddess worship on the status of mortal mothers to the representation of mothers in modern television serials, Motherhood in India is the start of a dialogue that has the potential to shed a little public light on these personal problems that, in India, have yet to be named. Sometimes all you need for a plant to grow is to give it the tiniest bit of sun.

Motherhood in India puts forth the idea that the supposedly exalted status of mothers is a falsehood. What are some of the signs that the glorification of motherhood is simply a façade?

The maternal mortality rates in India are evidence of the devaluation of women’s reproduction, and there are many other signs, such as maternal malnourishment and that children are seen as belonging to their fathers. Despite the fact that there are no legal sanctions against women opening bank accounts in the names of their children, many banks ask for the father’s signature saying that the man is the natural guardian of the child. In cases of divorce, the mother very often loses custody of the child, and although the law doesn’t discriminate against illegitimate children, there are social sanctions against them. Mothers of daughters are also discriminated against by their families within many communities.

Since India is a country of many cultures and religions, how do differing ideas about motherhood impact women’s status throughout the country?

India is a country of great cultural diversity; therefore, the glorification of motherhood and the status of mothers are very specific to each community. To understand the experience of motherhood in Coorg (a district in the southern state of Karnataka) one must know that the Coorgs have a strong mother-goddess tradition, and that the honorific title by which every woman and girl—whether she is a mother or not—is called is amma, which means mother. Although Coorg society is patri-lineal, the customary practices give special protections for pregnant and lactating mothers—like they can’t be punished for any crime they might commit. The Coorgs also make efforts to protect children born out of wedlock to ensure the child is integrated into either the family of the mother or father. Undoubtedly, all patriarchal societies provide protections for socially approved forms of motherhood, but these vary according how motherhood is valued.

Though there are variables in different regions and among different religious and cultural groups, there are nonetheless common motifs and metaphors through which motherhood is expressed across the subcontinent. The way motherhood is idealized goes beyond spatial and historical boundaries; this is apparent in Indian popular culture. The point I made in my chapter in the book is that while entitlements vary locally according to the prevailing historical and material conditions of women in a particular community, women as a group are losing rights because of the changes in the political economy, which is becoming less localized.

Bearing a child seems to be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is used as an excuse to exclude women who are mothers from the public domain, yet women who choose not to procreate are seen as somehow tainted and also excluded. How can women overcome this paradox?

The politics of motherhood has definitely sought to exclude women from the public domain. To change this situation, the women’s movement will have to struggle for structural changes in the workplace and other institutions. It will also have to seek changes in the people’s attitudes, as men and women have internalized these outmoded values. This struggle, however, is not easy as it poses critical challenges.

For one, it challenges the concept of equality. On what basis do women claim their right to equality? If they claim equality on the ground that they must have the same rights as men do, it means they can’t ask for special protections—rights granted to minorities to increase social equality—on the grounds of their differences. If, on the other hand, they do ask for special protections that enable them to fulfill their motherhood roles, it leads to their exclusion from the main power centers.

With the understanding that feminist thought is pluralistic, I wonder if you can talk about the impact feminism has on the struggles of mothers in India.

The influences of Western feminism can be seen in the women’s movement in India, although none of the independent Indian feminist groups would define themselves through any particular Western feminist school of thought. The current struggle for gay and lesbian rights, for instance, would no doubt resonate with Western feminists. However, while Western feminist thought can and has deepened the theoretical insights of the Indian feminist movement, feminism in India—as in other parts of the world—has deep indigenous historical roots.

Since the 19th century, Indian feminist struggles have gone beyond sexual politics to question colonialism and caste hierarchies, and Indian feminism has engaged with development issues and questions on neo-colonialism to a far greater extent than Western feminist writings have. As the need for action arises within the Indian social context, feminist political struggles are distinctly a response to indigenous situations.

I think it’s interesting that some Western feminists point to mother-goddess worship as evidence of motherhood’s value, but the popularity of Shaktism (worship of the divine Hindu Mother) doesn’t seem to affect the status of mothers in India. Is there a connection between the worship of a divine mother-goddess and the status of mortal mothers?

Worship of the mother-goddess has not changed the situation for women. A man might have a deeply emotive relationship with his own mother, but he does not necessarily see all women as worthy of equal respect.

Interestingly, many of the goddesses—including the village deities—are not biological mothers. In the Bagavati Purana, a Hindu text which speaks of the power of various goddesses, almost none of these goddesses were actual biological mothers.

Has the Indian women’s movement been successful in fighting for the rights of mothers?

While the Indian women’s movement has challenged reproductive technologies and also debated on women’s abortion rights (though the discussion on women’s right to abortion in India is framed much differently from the West because while the Indian women have the right to abortion, they have had to struggle against sex-selective abortions), they have not specifically addressed the rights of mothers. Instead, the rights of working mothers get addressed within the labor movements.

That makes sense, to some degree, because a major argument is that women’s status will increase as they become economically self-sufficient, and the growing middle class in India appears to have provided a small number of women with more control over their lives. What changes do you see resulting from India’s changing economy?

It’s difficult to answer this question categorically. However, studies have indicated that economic affluence and the rise of consumerism have actually undermined the status of women in wealthier communities, or created new problems. For example, sex-selective abortions are not problems in the poor or tribal communities. They are more prevalent in the affluent communities. In the large, cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, the gender equity gap is wider in South Mumbai where the wealthy live than it is in the suburbs. This is also true of the rich districts in Maharashtra.

A strong critique of the use of reproductive technologies that emerge from the West is that they reduce women to body parts. Some women agree to be surrogates for Western couples because it helps them to give economic security to their other children. Gujarat for instance is a global hub for surrogacy—especially Anand. Frankly these are all still vastly under-researched areas.

Who is fighting for the rights of mothers in India today and what remains to be done?

I doubt if anyone is fighting for the rights of mothers as a group. There have been landmark cases where feminist lawyers have fought for the custody rights of individual mothers that will have some bearing on the rights of all mothers, but the answer to this question is located in the need to change the overall status of women. What has to be done to change that status is everything. This would entail addressing their multiple socio-economic and political needs of women and ensuring they have a fair share of and equal entitlement to the resources of the community.

About the Author
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.

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2 comments on “Parvati’s Burden: Scratching the Surface of Motherhood in India
  1. parwatisingari says:

    interesting read Mandy,
    YOu must have come cross enough women to realize that oppressed indian woman is a partial truth.
    Matriachal society of south is now being polluted with male domination of the northern cult. Infact in the south particularly in Kerala children were known by the mother’s family.
    the irratic westernization has destroyed the balance factor. we are also begining to adopt the rootless west culture where everything needs a forum to be addressed.

  2. mandyvandeven says:

    Thanks Parwati. I think the systematic oppression of Indian women is truth. But I also know my experience with India is severely limited in that I have only lived in Kolkata. The contributors to this book, such as Veena Poonancha, are much more qualified to address that issue than I am.
    I wonder if it is actually that Westernization and Western culture is being adopted or if it’s being co-opted. More and more I think it’s the latter because it’s not a wholesale import by any means. I also wonder if the changing economic makeup of India as a whole (i.e., a growing middle class) isn’t a primary cause of the advancement of women’s rights. But I’m also basing that on a Western model, as feminism in the US grew as middle class women entered the workplace in larger numbers. This is all simply my own speculation, of course.

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