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Goddesses or not, women deserve respect

Saraswati_Buzzfeed

‘Another in the series of our Faith Coalition blogs. This one is by the Director of Partnerships at Solutions Journalism and World Economic Forum Global ShaperSarika Bansal, and talks about how the central tenets of hinduism support the need for peace.’

Two weeks ago, my Facebook newsfeed blew up with a disturbing image: that of the Hindu goddess Saraswati with a black eye and a teardrop running down her face. The caption reads, “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

Saraswati symbolizes intelligence, education, and power. While growing up in suburban New York, I prayed to her at the beginning of every school year. Education is highly valued in my family, so Saraswati quickly became the divine embodiment of an empowered women. She is the antithesis of a victim.

I had a visceral and conflicted reaction to the “abused goddesses” campaign, which advertising agency Taproot created in 2010 for the non-profit organization Save Our Sisters. Buzzfeed shared the photos earlier this month, causing them to go ‘viral.’

On one hand, the images are visually stunning. In addition to Saraswati playing her veena, the campaign depicts an abused Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Durga, who is worshipped for her strength. The campaign draws attention to an insidious and intimate form of violence that otherwise remains behind closed doors (though I have yet to find evidence confirming the 68% figure). And the photos force the viewer to confront a tremendous hypocrisy. How can a man worship a goddess in the morning and violate his wife in the evening?

Despite its good intentions, though, the campaign glosses over an important distinction. Real women aren’t goddesses. Deities are – by definition – invincible. Women are human beings, with flaws and opinions and free will. Women can also, sadly, be beaten and bruised.

During the recent spate of sexual crimes in India, I was dismayed by how often the public inquired about the victim’s behavior. I was in Delhi two weeks after December’s gang-rape, and many of my friends and family members were talking about what she was wearing (jeans), the time she was out (10pm), what she was doing (watching a movie with a male friend), and whether she was drinking (no). In other words, how far had she strayed from the idealized version of a woman?

I worry that the “abused goddesses” campaign feeds into the idea that women deserve to be worshipped because they are goddess-like. If a woman does not act in the same pious manner as a revered Hindu deity, is she still deserving of respect? If the Delhi gang-rape victim had been dressed differently or out at a different time, would people still see her as a victim?

On this World Peace Day, I hope Hindus invoke another of the religion’s core tenets: ahimsa, or the act of doing no harm to other living beings. According to this philosophy, which has existed from the time of the ancient Vedic texts, every living thing has a spark of divine spiritual energy and is inherently deserving of respect. Women should be respected simply because women are alive.