This is the first in a series. Read the second one here.
Quick caveat: this essay will be unpleasant. Given the title, you can probably guess the nature of the impending unpleasantness. So, if you think that’s a topic you shouldn’t be reading about right now, then you should skip this.
But it’s something I figured that I should eventually write an essay about. Because a major theme of my work is violence against women. And this is a topic that I can’t easily claim I’m writing about just because it’s important in the Ramayana – my plan from the beginning was to write about violence against women, and a major incentive for me to work with the Ramayana was that it provides a good scaffolding to do so.
And I should also apologize right from the beginning that some of this will sound sacrilegious. Because, yes, the relationship between Rama and Sita is often put forward as the ideal. And it can seem crumby to have aspects of your religion analyzed in a critical light.
But for this project, I am trying to engage with The Ramayana as mythology first, rather than as a religious text. In the same way I’m engaging with The Bible as a collection of stories, and I’ll try to include some of that in this essay too: obviously the text underlying Christianity has many troubling instances of violence against women as well. As a minor justification for this view, I’d like to quote A.K. Ramanujan from his essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in which he compares and contrasts many of the Ramayana variants that exist throughout South-east Asia.
“Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in Ravana’s grove, and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest, where she gives birth to twins.”
So, even when considering only the Valmiki Ramayana (the other variant mentioned in the quote above is typically referred to as the Kamba Ramayana, which was written in Tamil much later than the Valmiki Ramayana. I hope to write an essay about south Indian variants soon — other than its engagement with violence against women, the other biggest draw toward working with the Ramayana, for me, is the generally-discredited theory that it reflects historical conquest and was promulgated as a means of subjugating the conquered peoples of south India), there are multiple “texts.” And in some of them, Sita is not treated well. Honestly, my personal belief is that she isn’t treated well in any of them, but there are issues with viewing ancient stories through the lens of modern feminism.
Like, okay, here’s a passage from Sheldon Pollock’s translation of the Ayodhya Kanda (book 2 of the Ramayana), and I don’t think anyone from any culture would still agree that this inequality is something to celebrate:
“[Anasuya], too, felt delight when she saw how illustrious Sita was following the way of righteousness, and she cheered her, exclaiming, “How fortunate you have such high regard for righteousness! How fortunate you should abandon your kinfolk, your pride and wealth, proud Sita, to follow Rama when he was banished to the forest. A woman who holds her husband dear–whether he is in the city or the forest, whether he is good or evil–gains worlds that bring great blessings. To a woman of noble nature her husband is the supreme deity, however bad his character, however licentious or indigent he might be.”
Okay. Well. That was a pretty long preamble. But I think I might finally be ready to start writing this essay.
The basic gist of the Ramayana is that Sita was stolen away and Rama ventured forth to take her back, employing the aid of an army of monkeys. But unlike The Iliad, in which Menelaus was roughly innocent when Helen was stolen away (unless you count being a crumby husband as a valid transgression; in the text, that is not. But it’s probably fair to quote Churchill’s “History is written by the victors,” and point out that Menelaus was on the winning side. So Homer could stuff lines like “Brother-in-law of mine — of the bitch that I am, / a cause of evil, a curse and abomination — / it would have been better that when my mother first bore me / some evil storm wind had suddenly whirled me off / to the mountains or into the swell of the load-roaring sea / where the waves would have swept me away before all this happened.” into Helen’s mouth (this was taken from Stephen Mitchell’s translation — I wasn’t super keen on his rendition of The Odyssey, but his Iliad is fantastic. I think a lot of why I liked his Iliad much better than his Odyssey is that he writes action so well; the Iliad obviously gives him a lot more of that to work with), which does not seem like something she would have said. Equivalently, Rama is the victor in the Ramayana, which I think allows us to view Ravana’s dialogue, and even Sita’s attitude toward Ravana in the myth, with a skeptical eye), Rama and his brother clearly provoked the abduction of Sita.
Rama, his wife, and his favorite brother were living in a forest. Ravana’s sister, a sexually-empowered woman, happened by and thought the brothers were cute. Most variants of The Ramayana feature this woman, Surpanakha, propositioning the brothers in turn. Which obviously had to be punished: it’s unacceptable for women to be so wanton! (I should emphasize that I’ve referred to Supranakha as a woman, and generally refer to Ravana as a person also, even though they are often termed “ogres.” My word usage reflects that same oft-discredited theory that Ravana’s people are stand-ins for the Dravidians of south India, who were conquered by Caucasians from the north at about the same time as The Ramayana was written) Here’s a quote from Bhatti’s poem “The Death of Ravana,” translated by Oliver Fallon:
“He is without a wife; I am married. He will be a more fulfilling husband for you,” said Rama. “Go to him and do not leave him.” She lusted after Lakshmana and came at him again like a cow to a large bull, her mind unbalanced by the flight of Love’s arrows. As she sat splaying herself, Rama drew his sheathed sword ready to slash and rendered her face noseless.
To me, that passage brings to mind Susan Brownmiller’s thesis from her work “Against Our Will.” The idea that violence against women, particularly rape, is used as a tool to keep them from exceeding certain sphere’s of life that’s it’s deemed acceptable for them to participate in. Brownmiller has a lot of astute analysis in her book, along with a number of citations from literature to provide examples for her case; for instance, here’s a quote from “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathaniel West’s bleak novel about a newspaper advice columnist in New York, that Brownmiller brought my attention to:
One of them was complaining about the number of female writers.
“And they’ve all got three names,” he said. “Mary Roberts Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Catheter, Ford Mary Rinehart…”
Then someone started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape.
“I knew a gal who was regular until she fell in with a group and went literary. She began writing for the little magazines about how much Beauty hurt her and ditched the boy friend who set up pins in a bowling alley. The guys on the block got sore and took her into the lots one night. About eight of them. They ganged her proper…”
“That’s like the one they tell about another female writer. When this hard-boiled stuff first came in, she dropped the trick English accent and went in for scram and lam. She got to hanging around with a lot of mugs in a speak, gathering material for a novel. Well, the mugs didn’t know they were picturesque and thought she was regular until the barkeep put them wise. They got her into the back room to teach her a new word and put the boots to her. They didn’t let her out for three days. On the last day they sold tickets to n—–s…”
Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves.
Obviously this is an extreme example. But Brownmiller’s general point is that whenever men feel like the perquisites of their gender are threatened, sexual assault has generally increased. And the strategy often succeeds: a response to the well-publicized cases of sexual assault in India was to curtail the freedoms of women, ostensibly for their own protection. And even more often, women curtail their own freedoms out of fear. In that article, women discuss feeling compelled to dress more conservatively than they’d like. They stay in at night. They curtail other behaviors: Koss & Dinero studied predictors of sexual aggression in college males and found , unsurprisingly, that most sexual assaults were preceded by consensual kissing. As I think most people expect, the biggest dangers for sexual assault against women aren’t from strangers, but from people they know. Which is awful: for instance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has tips on reducing your risk of being assaulted, but a major piece of advice is “avoid isolated areas.” That can be tricky on dates. It can be tricky if you’re not safe at home: here’s a passage from the end of dream hampton‘s beautiful, harrowing essay in the volume “Black Cool“.
“Marvel and two other tall boys were yelling through our heavy wooden locked door, through the thunder and rain, for my brother to open up. I told my brother he better not even think of it. My brother looked at me, on the stairs, and then again through the window, where Marvel was threatening his life should he not open the door, and he did something that still makes my heart sink: He opened the door and let the outside in. The three boys, who were all older than sixteen (I’d learn this later, from Friend of the Court documents) pushed my brother aside the moment he cracked the door and chased me upstairs, where I was hoping to lock myself in my room and use the fire escape ladder my dad had bought me to run to my neighbor Ms. Erma’s, across the street. I remember having that plan in my head. But they ran faster than I did. And were stronger. And they threw me on the bed in the playroom, where Bo sat frozen, and pulled off my panties. There was an attempt, many attempts, to pin me down, to keep my legs from kicking, but I would not stop kicking. I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed. …. …. I’ve told this story three times. To my two best friends and to a lover I trust. In my sister circle where I sit, or the many friendships where my girlfriends have asked me to witness the telling of their own rape stories, I’ve stayed silent. I always feared my not being raped because I refused to stop fighting would seem an indictment of their stories. But I don’t feel that way. I don’t believe they weren’t strong enough or should have fought if they didn’t or that their rapes were in any way their fault. But I never tell my own story, because of a kind of survivor’s guilt. That, and the deep contempt I hold for Bo and my brother.”
Then, of course, there is the fallout; will a victim of sexual assault have even the minor consolation of seeing her assailant brought to justice? Which obviously has important implications for the safety of others: those who commit sexual assault tend to be very likely to do it again. But reporting sexual assault has been very difficult throughout history, has often resulted in further harm done to the original victim, and rarely results in justice. Here’s a single example to start off with: submitting a rape kit is an arduous process, but some victims go through with it hoping to keep others safe. DNA testing is relatively inexpensive and could identify patterns of repeat assault and in some cases directly identify criminals. Unfortunately, ending sexual assault has not been a high priority for police departments in the United States, judging by their behavior. After women went through the ordeal of submitting a kit, many many kits have gone untested in this country. That is, police put the bagged samples onto a shelf in the back of their evidence room and simply forgot about it.
Or there are the trials themselves, if a sexual assault case even makes it to trial. Which, right, because women have often been considered property and not people in U.S. law, has its own set of peculiarities. Like, if you’re a victim, you don’t get a lawyer. You are simply a witness on behalf of the state: the government charges the perpetrator on your behalf. And there are no rules regarding the sort of personal information that can be raised about witnesses in the courtroom. Witnesses have few protections, any and all personal details about them may be introduced in the courtroom, and in many sexual assault trials they can be sharply berated — while crying — on the witness stand. I discussed some of this for trials with child witnesses in an earlier essay about a similarly horrible topic; you should feel free to read that too if you’re not yet miserable enough. But, right, defendants, i.e. those who commit crimes and then go to trial, have many more protections. For instance, even if a defendant’s past shows behavior that might persuade the jury that this person might be inclined to commit sexual assault — such as past instances in which the person did commit sexual assault — that information is not allowed to be introduced into the courtroom. Despite all the data showing the prevalence of repeat offenders, a jury is not allowed to know whether the accused in fact is a repeat offender.
But the trials are less horrible for victims than they used to be: here is a passage from Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames“:
The most famous case of this kind unfolded in France in 1385-6 and is known to us from Froissart as well as numerous other sources. The story started when Marguerite, the young and beautiful wife of a Norman nobleman, Jean de Carrouges, told her husband that during his absence from their chateau she had been raped. The perpetrator was one Jacques Le Gris, another nobleman well known to the couple. Though inferior in rank, he was wealthier and well-connected. Carrouges’ first step was to ask for justice at the hands of the local count. Having failed to get it, he went to Paris, consulted a lawyer, and begged the youthful King Charles VI to allow him to confront his enemy in battle. The matter was ferred to Parliament which launched a formal inquest, and after several months’ deliberations granted the request: clearly it was felt that, in the absence of witnesses, combat was the only way to find out the truth. Preparations were made to hold the event at Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a well-known Paris monastery. Its extensive grounds included a large field long used for the purpose and capable of holding as many as 10,000 spectators.
On December 29, 1386 a huge crowd gathered. In attendance were the king, his uncles, members of the high nobility, senior prelates and magistrates, and thousands of others. The most important spectator was Marguerite herself. Dressed in black and seated in a black carriage, she would face immediate execution (by burning) for bringing false accusations if her husband lost his fight.
Right. Let that sink in a moment.
And, here. As a tiny treat — because, look, I realize this essay is unpleasant, but I’m actually showing a good deal of restraint in terms of not citing numerous other unpleasantries — here are a few details about how the above contest would transpire, also from Van Creveld’s work:
“In all this, great care was taken to ensure equity and what today might be called transparency. Each protagonist had to swear a solemn oath that his case was just [which, right… minor note… you noticed, I assume, that it was the victim’s husband who was involved in the “trial” in the preceding passage, right? That’s because his property was damaged. It’d be senseless for the woman to testify on her own behalf because she was an object, owned by her father if unmarried and owned by her husband if married. Widows have often faired ill through history, and had a strong incentive to remarry]. In case he lost, that meant he would automatically be held guilty of perjury as well. Things were so arranged that neither combatant would have the sun in his eyes. The use of concealed weapons was prohibited. So was wearing magic prayers and charms on one’s body; if it is true that the combats were understood as the judgement of God, it is also true that supernatural interference was forbidden and, to the extent possible, prevented.”
Okay. The ancient judicial system strip-searching people for charms to make sure that no angels or demons would interfere with a fight… that’s something I can contentedly ponder. Much happier than thinking about Marguerite having to watch her husband fight her rapist to the death, knowing that if her husband lost people would declare her accusation to be slander and burn her alive.
Which, just in case you were wondering, her husband won. She lived.
But others didn’t.
Of course, in my own work I’ve permitted myself a little fantasy in making my world less bleak than our actual world has been and, in many ways, still is. Because it’s crushing, honestly: so far I’ve managed to type out only about a third of my planned essay on violence against women, and that feels like more than enough for today. So, yes, there’s this horrible stuff in my book, but it’s unrealistic in that it’s not awful enough. I hope that’s okay.