Monday, March 7, 2011

Celebration of Womanhood

During the recent uprising in Egypt against the 30-year old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, what particularly captured global attention was the sight of Egyptian women protesting at Tahrir square. This shattered the stereotypic image that the western world and their media were busy projecting about the women from the conservative Arab world. Without fear, they took to the streets braving bullets, ready to sacrifice their lives for the nationalist cause. These women, who, with their male counterparts chose to fight against decades of oppression, truly represent the spirit of womanhood. The regime was thwarted, but only time will tell whether these women will be able to win over the orthodoxies of the Arab society as women are usually the oppressed among the oppressed. These events stresses on the universality of the problems faced by women all over the world cutting across the ethnic, cultural, geographical or linguistic differences that separates them.
Women’s movements gathered momentum globally at the turn of the 20th century. This was mainly attributed to the industrialization that preceded as it was the working women who first joined hands to protest demanding better working conditions, shorter hours and better pay as compared to their male co-workers. Years down the lane, the movement broadened its objectives and has now come to include emancipation of women and improvement in their living conditions to enhance their overall well being. The continuous activities of various groups have definitely resulted in significant improvements in the overall working conditions of women. Still, the problems facing them are numerous and there is a long way to go.
Even in 21st century, women face discrimination at home and workplace-unequal educational and employment opportunities, lack of dignified working conditions and unfair comparisons with men, especially when they work in previously established male domains are some of the problems. Apart from the discrimination, they are also the major victims of verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Women, particularly uneducated women from rural areas often find themselves at the receiving end of severe domestic violence. Poverty is also a major factor which aggravates the suffering of women as they are unable to have access to proper health facilities and this result in higher infant and maternal mortality rates. Lack of nutritious food cause deficiency diseases, anaemia and overall weakening resulting in decreased productivity. In the case of uprisings, wars and conflicts the conditions of women are the worst. In addition to the agony of being separated from their loved ones and families, they are left behind to nurture their surviving family members and may have to toil for food, water and fuel in inhuman conditions.
Societal support is primal in the upliftment and enhancement of the lives of women. Patriarchy is so complexly ingrained in our social fabric that women lacks say in decision making, not for the society and not even for herself. After marriage, more often than not, it is the girl who relocates with her husband and foregoes her career. The support systems in our society for working women, especially working mothers are also highly inadequate. Women find themselves torn between their responsibility towards the job and towards the family. Financial obligations and career aspirations may prompt them to continue in their job but they usually feel guilty about insufficient time that they spend with their kids.
Society is also not too kind to women courageous enough to raise voice against atrocities and injustice. The so called moral police in our society, ever ready to rise in arms against any perceived injustice are inflamed even more when the ‘perpetrators’ of such injustice are women. In recent history, we have seen several women like Aung Saan Suu Kyi and Taslima Nasreen, mainly from the not so powerful states, who the world conveniently choose to ignore, suffering torture from governments and dictatorships for raising their voices to question the establishments and institutions. Irrespective of the part of the world to which they belong to, right to free expression in the true sense is likely to remain an unrealized dream for women.
Today, the United Nations and various national governments realize that the active participation, equality and development of women is imperative to the development of the society, nation and the world. This is because when a woman is successful in her life, she usually carries her family and in general her community along. The first step should be to properly assess the status and condition of women before deciding on ways to help them. The right indicators should be chosen for the correct assessment and what need to be studied is how these markers actually translates to overall human development and well-being with gender sensitivity. Merely relying on economic indicators such as income per person may be misleading. Factors such as longevity and education should also be included just as in the calculation of Human Development Index.
Many programmes are undertaken by various governments and U.N for the emancipation of women. But, there is a wide chasm between policy and practice. Most often these programmes are impeded by lack of resources and budget crunches. To overcome this, the governments should invest in infrastructure beneficial to women. Ensuring primary and secondary education, equality in employment opportunities will definitely help in improving the quality of life of women. Economic independence is a major factor in enhancing the involvement of women in decision making. Laws ensuring equality in property ownership and inheritance rights should be the steps in this direction. Microfinancing has improved the lives of many rural women. Governments can introduce tax benefit systems, pension and savings schemes for the welfare of women, particularly women working in unorganized sectors such as housemaids.
Severe punishment should be meted out to criminals violating the sexual and emotional integrity of women. Legislation against domestic violence and granting of divorce on the premise of irretrievable breakdown of marriage is a welcome step. But how these laws could be properly utilized by women in need also depends on their awareness in legal matters. Basic training should be imparted in legal and health related matters. Inexpensive and fast legal help should be made available to women.
Steps should be taken to ensure increased participation of women in professional, administrative, business, managerial spheres and in the fields of science and technology. They should be encouraged to actively involve in the political processes. Reservation of women in parliament will definitely help in including more number of women in policy making. Institutions such as National Commission for Women are important in protecting and promoting the interests of women. Media should play a proactive role in educating the general public.
How its women are treated is the benchmark on which a society is judged. As the International Women’s day is round the corner, let us celebrate and recognize the life, spirit, contributions and aspirations of womanhood.

Attukal Pongala

Every year on Pournami day, during the Malayalam month of Kumbham, lakhs of women devotees, young and old, rich and poor, Indian and foreign, gather at large on the sanctified premises of the temple at Attukal, a quiet town in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city, for the 10 day festival. On the penultimate day the famous “Pongala”, an offering by the women devotees to their “Amma”, takes place. Year after year it has been attracting more and more women, those who have already savoured the divine atmosphere and those who have heard or read about it. No wonder “Attukal Pongala” has found its place amongst the “Guinness Book of World Records” for being the largest congregation of women anywhere in the world (Thanks to the Californian lady who revealed this fact to the world as part of her thesis work).
Attukaalamma is the divine form of the powerful lady Kannaki (Kannaki herself is considered as incarnation of Parvathi, the wife of Lord Shiva), who by her sheer “paathivrithya” burnt the kingdom of Madurai to ashes, a bane they had to endure for having hanged her husband to death for no crime of his. It is this mental strength of the Lady that gets imbibed into the minds of her devotees to withstand the miseries of life. Attukaalamma is the Goddess of power and prosperity; the embodiment of strength with the tenderness of womanhood who gave Moksha to Mahishasura by killing him. Little wonder that She attracts devotees from all walks of life. The preparation for the festival begins well in advance. The City Corporation, State Transport, Railway Department, NGOs, Temple authorities all work towards ensuring the convenience of women devotees. There are mud pots galore in the streets and shops, Pongala kits, Pongala sarees are all in the offing,luring women on a buying spree. If you plan for Amma’s darsan, beware; unless you have enough time and patience, you cannot even think of entering the temple inner yard. Any time of the day, Amma is busy listening to her devotees who jostle with each other to have her glimpse.
The temple festival starts with the Temple singers, known as “Thottam pattukar”, singing the glory of Kannaki in a small make-shift thatched hut built in front of the “Garbha Gruha”. Near to this the Goddess’ “Kappu kettu” is done wherein the power and divinity of Goddess is brought out of the “Garbha Gruha” for the benefit of the devotees.
The tales of Kannaki, her husband Kovalan, their disturbed married life, their escape from arduous life in Madurai, sale of Kannaki’s anklet, Kovalan’s capture by the Kings guards on suspicion that the anklet is one of the Queen’s lost ones, Kovalan’s unjustified killing, Kannaki’s woes and anger, Kannaki’s curse to Madurai and her exile to Attukal where a temple was later built in her honour; all events are musically rendered.
Day by day the number of women thronging the temple is swelling. For offering their pongala, women from far off places in Kerala and Tamilnadu come well in advance and book their bit of place in the temple premises for setting up their hearth. On the eve of Pongala all roads lead to Attukal, and the whole city hustles and bustles with women folks. You can see women carrying the required items - mud pot, coconut ladle, dried coconut palms on their heads and making their way to the temple. They move around streets as though it is their home. Vehicles honk only to be hushed by the women folk as it is women… women…all the way.
Late into the night too, you see something incredible, ladies finding shelter on the pavements and shop verandahs. Fearless, unrelenting, they sleep on the streets; for they strongly believe that their mother is there to guard them against any danger lurking in the night. They sleep peacefully on the pavements waiting for the dawn.
Early in the morning the women get ready after their morning bath. Clad in their new traditional Kerala attire, the subtle fragrance of Tulsi and Jasmine emanates from the locks of their hair plaited in the typical Kerala style.
They then rush to the temple to get Mother’s permission for the day. Getting her blessings entrances them, for she is a patient listener. Vows taken for the well being and prosperity of children, husband and parents reach the Amma through humble Pongala offering.
The women set the ingredients ready and wait with Sahasra Naama Japa or chanting of Her 1000 names, for the auspicious time. They fast on the day till the Goddess accepts their offering.
After the last episode of Kannaki is sung, the temple priest lights the Pandaara Aduppu, the divine hearth set up near the make-shift hut for the Thottam pattukar. The little hearths get lighted using the fire from the divine hearth. In no time the whole area is filled with fire and smoke. The scorching heat of the sun above, the rage of the fire below and the pain of the fire within the heart fills the women with hundred emotions. They cry, pray, praise the Mother. To leave their worries to her, prayers for mercy, prayers of gratitude, the devotees’ minds are filled with a mix of emotions as the Pongala bubbles out of the pot. Different varieties on the offering list include white rice, jaggery rice, steamed gram flour cake, steamed leaf cake etc.
After the preparation they wait for the priest to consecrate it by sprinkling holy water. Only after this the offering is considered accepted by the Goddess. The conclusion is the return journey, where again an ocean of women carrying the pongala pots on their heads tread through the streets to the waiting buses . Tired and weary eyes but determined and satiated looks says it all ; they know their prayers would never be unanswered. There is but, only one prayer on their lips, ‘Mother, set the conditions right next year too for we want to come back to you again’.
Pongala- truly a symbol of the strength of women, their unity, their love for their near and dear ones, their devotion and total surrender at the lotus feet of their Mother- Parashakthi. After all the hullaballoo, by dusk on the pongala day, as you walk along the city you find the employees of the city Corporation, including ladies cleaning up the city in full zest. As they sweep and collect the bricks, ashes, the tanker lorry follows behind with a splash of water to settle the dust and dirt. In no time city is spotlessly clean and back to normal.
Things are not over yet. You go back to the temple to find a medley of events coming up. Young boys aged upto 12 years are offered by their parents for 10 days at the service of the Goddess. Clad in simple towel, they eat, pray, sleep in the temple and their penance ends after doing 1008 namaskaras at the feet of Goddess. On the pongala eve the boys are decorated for the “Kuthiyottam” ritual. In memory of the Goddess’s soldiers who were wounded in the fight with Mahishasura, a Purohit pierces either end of the boys’ torso with steel strings. These boys are taken out of the temple in procession to the nearby Ayyappa temple. They are accompanied by different dance artists and fancy dress artists dancing to the rhythm of the percussionists. The procession continues till early next morning. The festival comes to an end with the “Kappu azhikkal”, when the idol of theGoddess is taken back from the external premises and positioned back at the “Garbha Gruha”.
A festival for every Keralite, the festivities and zealousness are reminiscent of the State Festival
Onam. One Attukal Pongala has just passed by and the wait for the next is on………..


Exodus by American novelist Leon Uris is about the founding of the State of Israel. Published in 1958, it is based on the name of the 1947 immigration ship Exodus. In 1956, Uris covered the Arab-Israeli fighting as a war correspondent. Two years later, Exodus was published by Doubleday. Exodus became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since ‘Gone with the Wind’. Exodus is the towering novel of the twentieth century’s most dramatic geopolitical event.
In his note of thanks, Leon Uris mentions about the two years he spent on collecting material, the nearly fifty thousand miles he travelled, the tons of research books and the number of interviews he conducted, all leading to the book Exodus. Which is why, the book comes across as solid reading material - The intriguing and inspiring story behind the birth of a nation.
The sheer grit and determination of the Jews to re-build their lost country, their stuggle to flock to the fledgling country which was in wilderness and then toiling day and night to make it their home, the tales of resistance they showed to the pressure and the random attacks by their enemies increases your sense of wonderment at what drove these people to surmount all the odds and build the new nation of Israel.
The story unfolds with the protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan, hatching a plot to transport Jewish refugees from a British detention camp in Cyprus to Palestine. The operation is carried out under the auspices of the Mossad Le’aliyah Bet. The book then goes on to trace the histories of the various main characters and the ties of their personal lives to the birth of the new Jewish state.
The book is an earnest exposition of the birth of a new nation underlining metculously their struggle and emergence in a new form. The main strength of the book is its vivid description of different characters and the conflicts in their lives. As in several of Uris’s novels, some of the fictional characters are partially based upon one or more historical personages, or act as metaphors for the various people who helped to build modern Israel

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day, the 8th of March is a day celebrated worldwide to recognize the achievements and accomplishments of the fairer gender.
Was there really a necessity for such a day? Well, I wasn’t born during the humble makings of history but am sure anything historical is always chronicled.
History had witnessed the woes of women: women who fought for their rights; women who fought the unwarranted discrimination of gender; women who asked for a berth and esteem of their own and women who wanted to be economically independent.
What made the woman step out of the threshold of her home? She might have evolved to take the share of responsibilities of a home and that’s how she ventured out. It could have been out of dire necessity or a deep desire to prove her mettle.
A woman symbolizes Prakriti (nature) and nature cannot be suppressed; it only can be tamed, but, how long? Decades of tolerance and getting tamed seemingly bore heavy on the woman and she decided to call it a day.
But who helped her? Obviously without a second thought, “a man” .Yes, it was men who oppressed the woman and it was men who helped her step out , see the world, know herself, her strengths ,take a breath of fresh air and carve a new life. In fact, this day is an ode to all the men who supported the fairer gender, loved her, understood her, allowed her to dream and respected her existence. And so the spirit of the woman soared high and said, ‘I exist, therefore I am..’ .

The Genesis of International Women’s Day (IWD)

Year 1908 saw the ’Bread and Roses‘ rally by thousands of women garment workers in NYC protesting against inhumane working conditions and low wages. They demanded shorter working hours, better wages and voting rights. It was on the 28th of Feb(last Sunday of the month),1909 that the first National Women’s’ day was granted to be celebrated in honour of the women workers who protested in 1908 by the Socialist Party of America.
At a meeting held at Copenhagen in 1910, attended by representatives of 17 countries, a lady German Official named Clara Zetkin came out with the proposal of a day in the calendar which every country would celebrate as Women’s’ Day . In 1911, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland honored IWD on 19th March. More than five lacs of men and women attended IWD rallies and campaigned for women’s’ rights to vote and hold public office. But a tragic fire event which claimed the lives of 140 women garment workers in NYC because of lack of safety measures shifted the focus back to working conditions of women at later IWD events.
Years 1913-1914 saw peaceful protests against World War-I by Russian women, as part of their first IWD celebration on the last Sunday of February. In 1917, Russian women began a strike ‘Bread and Peace’ in light of the death of thousands of Russian soldiers in World War-I. The women remained unfazed in spite of opposition from political leaders and all attempts to disburse the women went in vain. Finally after four days of relentless strike, the Czar was forced to give up and women were granted promise of a better economic condition and the right to vote. This was a historical achievement. The day the strike commenced was Sunday, the 23rd of February as per Julian Calendar but this day elsewhere as per Gregorian Calendar was the 8th of March and thus 8th of March became the day of women.
The United Nations officially declared 8th of March as International Women’s Day in 1975. Interestingly, 2011 marks the centenaryof IWD celebrations since 1911.The UN theme for this year is “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women”.
Hope the small good that comes out of such celebrations will make great changes in the future where a girl can feel secured about her future and a woman will feel empowered and emancipated to take her life in control and say, ’I exist , therefore , I am..’. And so the world and mankind will enjoy the fruits of an educated - mother, sister, friend, girlfriend and wife…
Happy Women’s Day !!