Edited by: Nidhi Munot
The belief that women and nature are inherently connected and the consequent pedestalization of “Mother Nature” is a routinely familiar trope that is featured in our everyday speech and practice. In our cultural discourse, nature is engendered by attributing the feminine pronoun to it. Nature is seen as this powerful entity that is the provider of life, is self-sacrificing and pure, and takes care of the collective. This engendering seems to present women and nature in a good light. Does this lead to the empowering and societal reverence of women or is there a problematic hidden layer behind this practice?
To answer this we need to analyse the implications of engendering terms. The pedestalization of “Nature” as feminine serves as a rationale for any acts which degrade and defile women because it takes the everyday agency from common women and places constraints on their behaviours and personalities. It imposes a set of qualities that are universally considered to be the determinants of the female identity; women must be self-sacrificing, pure, free of personal desires, and obedient in order to be recognised as women. Nature is considerate of all the organisms and takes care of them all. In this context, equating nature with women renders an individual woman the repository of the collective; she is responsible for the collective good but has no real power of her own.
It is when this fixed identity is challenged when the problem arises. The moment a woman does not conform to the social expectations and traditional gender norms, we are justified in defiling her. For example, when male dominance becomes overbearing and denies women of their bare minimum human rights of respect and agency, some women are forced to raise their voices. However, this assertion of their agency is severely repressed as a social aberration because women are expected to maintain the structure of patriarchy by adopting their societal role of silence and subjugation. Inflicting violence becomes the punishment to correct such deviance.
Similarly, the maternalization of the Indian nation as “Bhaarat Maata” (Mother India) in the Hindutva discourse is problematic. Bhaarat Mata is a passive, “pure”, protective, and self-sacrificing mother who is glorified. This glorification ultimately leads to the isolation of women from the world of humans; they are outside of the confines of humanity, and thus cannot actively participate in matters of society. They are commodified as symbols of culture and religion and need protection from others. Every aspect of their lives becomes subject to scrutiny as they are expected to live up to the ideal of “Bhartiya naari”. Similarly, the idea that the Earth is a maternal figure takes on the guise of empowerment. It reinforces gender stereotypes, hierarchies relations, and also makes it easier to subordinate women as they do not have a voice of their own. We exploit nature and use it for personal profit much like how we exploit women and use them for personal gain. As long as they embody the ideal image they serve our purposes of motherhood, domesticity, and wifehood—the three oppressive stages of life on the basis of which each woman’s worth is determined—they can be tolerated. However, if they deviate from this ideal it becomes problematic.
The consequences of this insincere glorification are evident when considering several festivals dedicated to women. During the Hindu festival of Navratri, women are respected and worshipped because the festival is a dedication to Goddess Durga, the Mother Goddess. Similarly, women are celebrated and appreciated on International Women’s Day. However, they are abused, raped, and killed during the rest of the year because they are deemed inferior and the property of men, much like how nature today is considered to be the property of men. The idolisation of women as goddesses is actually demeaning owing to its momentary and hypocritical nature. It is rather clever of the patriarchy to disguise oppression in seemingly empowering gendered terms. It rationalises the structural violence against women as it echoes the following sentiment: “I respect you but I will rape you.”
In this way, attributing gender to inanimate objects and pedestalizing women are practices that uphold the dictum of patriarchal violence. Labels such as “Mother India” and “Mother Nature” can be problematic, especially when a woman adopts an identity that opposes and mocks the homogenous, prescriptive gender roles that such terms connote. Dressed in the guise of empowerment, this pedestalization renders women unreachable, meaning that we cannot interact with them on a daily basis as normal humans. They become mere symbols of our culture and are stripped off of their humanity. Only if we remove the purdah of deception will we realise that idolising the female form is a misogynist justification for any actions which result in the exploitation of women. Societal violence against women is rationalised in this way and the woman is always believed to be the one who is at fault. The only way out of this is to rethink our stance on gendered terms and their social implications. The only way forward is to retire terms like “Mother India” and “Mother Nature”.