There is a saying in Malayalam that goes “it doesn’t matter whether the thorn falls on the leaf or the leaf falls on the thorn– the leaf is the one that’s damaged.” The leaf here is a metaphor for all women and thorn stands for all men. Culture-conscious log kya kahenge aunties and uncles use this saying to warn young girls: do not cross the socially prescribed sexual limits, for if you do, it is you who has to suffer. It does not matter if it’s the thorn that falls on the leaf, because the thorn shall escape unharmed and the leaf, damaged beyond repair. (I’m sure there must be versions of such sayings in other languages too. If not, please lend a ear to the arguments in an average Indian household, of a girl’s parents telling her to come home before 6 PM.) Symbols and metaphors do the same job subtly, that words do overtly. Hence, the need to see how symbols are shaped, just like how words are. Using such metaphors is one of the ways how we normalize victimizing females. This proverb, juxtaposed with the idea of Bharat-Mata shows how patriarchy creates type-casted ideas of women and subtly exposes our sexist mindsets. (I will not comment on the validity or necessity of the slogan concerning the said figure here; I shall only examine the symbolism of the same.) You see, depictions of Indian women (similar to female depictions elsewhere) go somewhat like this: she is either the fragile leaf condemned to be the victim or an abstraction of a nation, seemingly powerful, but obviously unreal. She’s either the angelic face on your TV serial with inhuman mental strength or the sex-siren in your favorite Bollywood “item” song. She is never rid of extremes, never free of the Virgin/Magdalene duality, never depicted as anything remotely moderate. She is either tremendously weak or tremendously strong. No middle path. Nada.
The leaf-thorn proverb is notable for its metaphors. Notice how man is the obvious phallic symbol, apparently undeterred by contact with the leaf. See how the idea of manhood is subtly hinted at, normalized in our mind every time we use the metaphor. Woman is the “leaf”, passive and apathetic, causing no positive or negative change to the “thorn.” In a very convoluted sense, one could argue that the metaphor simply states a social reality. After all, women apparently have more to lose by engaging in sexual liaisons with men— the dreaded “P” scare and slut-shaming, for starters. So couldn’t the proverb simply be commenting on how society perceives women? But how could we continue to talk about female empowerment in a society that does not even recognize the danger of using such a metaphor? It typecasts men and women, and every instance when it’s used, you basically say “it doesn’t matter whether you have given your consent or not, it is you who have to lose everything while men will remain men!” How can we teach our women to be independent and be their own selves, when we subtly tell them that their worth is dependent on their sexual life?
On one hand, women are portrayed as fragile and on the other hand, they are exalted to larger-than-life levels. Maybe Bharat-Mata, a well-meaning unifying symbol, was conceived as a personification of land, that provides us, nourishes us. What could be wrong with that? Isn’t it an honor for all Indian women that the nation is symbolized as a female? It’s just a slogan, like how leaf-thorn metaphor is just a proverb… JUST words, symbols, metaphors…That is what I thought too, initially when I spotted these recent squabbles over the Bharat-Mata slogan.
But then I realized… all of it has meaning, have history and ideologies behind it. The nation symbolized as a mother is similar to Earth symbolized as a mother. We forget that this symbol arises from the patriarchal (and frankly tribal) tendency to exalt reproduction and motherhood. Ancient Greeks (a highly patriarchal society) recognized Earth as a mother-figure, fertilized by Father Sky when he pours down his seeds from Heaven. Vivid image, isn’t it? Over time such symbolism became a poetic way of saying that anyone who nourishes, provides and cares for is female. Quite a lot of good it did us to exalt motherhood… Truth is, while giving birth is a biological reality for women, caring and nurturing are not traits that have to be associated with women alone. Yet, women are repeatedly fit into those socially accepted roles of nurture, care and motherhood, making it difficult to even introduce the idea of man as nurturer and primary carer. Therefore when we use the Mother symbol we are implying all these nuances of birth, nurture and care and more importantly, assigning a gender role to ALL of these nuances.Do you see how we are subtly buying into gender norms of men and women by using such symbols? Do you see how it harms both men and women? The biological meaning and realities of motherhood are downplayed (think maternity leave, challenge of re-entering workforce for females, double-shift and lack of paternity leave) while the social symbolism of motherhood is exaggerated! These are strange paradoxes. While exalting the idea of motherhood and ignoring the very real consequences of it, we are relegating women into glorified roles and forgetting to recognize individuals. How can we teach our women to be independent and be their own selves, when we unwittingly hint that their worth is dependent on their motherhood and how much they value it?
My only request is this – before you dismiss these ramblings as me reading too much into a proverb and a slogan, imagine explaining all this to a child. Think of how you shall justify the symbolism in both these cases without the danger of prescribing gender roles to frailty and nurturing, or without exalting motherhood to be the overarching definition of womanhood. Tough, isn’t it?