Women of Myths and Contemporary Reality
By Sharlene Gandhi
One thing that I never fail to question about the current position of women in society is the assumption that they have always been the inferior of the genders. Myths and legends are my preferred indicators of the past, and although their truthfulness is debatable, these myths have, in some way, aided the blossoming and manifesting of society into what it is today.
Goddesses in Hindu mythology are venerated with immense respect during the nine-day festival of Navratri, which I have had the privilege of attending. The goddesses, representative of qualities such as creativity, prosperity, knowledge, communal happiness and power, are feted through song and dance, and they become subtle sources of self-confidence for Hindu women. What is particularly fascinating is the figure of Ardhanarishvara, a divine being who possesses a half-male, half-female body. As well as being symbolic of gender equality, Ardhanarishvara reflects the inseparability of the genders. Translated to modern terms, this inseparability could be interpreted as reflection of the way in which equality cannot be achieved without the cooperation of both genders. However, in India, a country where more than 80% of the population are Hindus, it is with regret that one must bring to light the weakening relationship between men and women; the recent surplus in rape and sexual abuse cases has instilled a fear of men in the women of India.
Despite some women in Greek mythology being classed as warriors, it seems that even female deities were subject to the brutality of masculine power, as is demonstrated by tales narrating rape and kidnappings of the most beautiful women. I was particularly intrigued by the character of Hera, the sister-wife of Zeus, who even as the Queen of the Gods, suffered hugely at the hands of her own husband, who rendered her a second-class citizen in his divine, yet patriarchal, world. Hera’s consistent struggle to regain her respect was, however, undermined by those who passed down the myths and legends through generations. Hera’s mental strength and rigour were dampened as the tales were retold, apparently in order to minimise her threat to the male listeners. Here one sees the very beginnings of the establishment of a patriarchal Greece, which has remained so, well into modern civilisation.
It feels refreshing to know that according to historical artefacts, women in Ancient Egypt were equal to men in legal terms. Not only did they receive the same entitlements as men, but they were also equal in punishment. The respect for women in Ancient Egyptian society did not falter amongst the monarchy either, where the mythological goddess Isis was the allegorical mother of the pharaoh. Additionally, the goddess Hathor expressed an apocalyptic wrath towards humankind an Egyptian legend, which inspired a ritual whereby Egyptian pharaohs sought her blessing before they went to war. Needless to say, reputable female rulers of Ancient Egypt such as Cleopatra and Nefertiti were granted the same respect as these mythological deities. It comes as a shock then, that after years of equality in Ancient Egypt, 91% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 in modern day Egypt have undergone the extremely painful process of female genital mutilation.
The trend echoes throughout world mythology – Aztec women, both in mythology and in reality, enjoyed fairly liberal lifestyles until Spanish civilisations made them surrender their autonomy by removing their right to work, and additionally, women in Celtic mythology were thought to be the dominant of the sexes, until the arrival of Christian and patriarchal values. What these myths and realities tell us, however, is that women were not always inferior to men, and gender inequality is actually part of a culture that has been developed over time. More recently, the proliferation of sexualised and objectified women in the media has intensified this inferiority. It seems almost shameful that this level of social regression exists in contemporary society, especially when we look at ancient civilisations where respect for women was higher than it is today.