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Freeing Devi: A Pragmatist Argument For Gender Equality In The Freethought Movement In India

Editor’s Note: A translation of this article in Polish is available at the Racjonalista blog.

In countries like India where goddess worship is prevalent, the argument is often made that such superstition actually helps the cause of women’s rights. To feed the flames, more than a few Western feminists (such as Kathleen Erndl, Sarah Caldwell) have suggested that women in India should embrace these superstitious notions and derive strength from the myths, in order to counter the real prejudice that they face everyday. I disagree with this notion on two levels. Firstly, I don’t think that it is, in practice, possible to separate ‘good’ superstitious beliefs from the ones that are responsible for increasing suffering in society, since these are inter-dependent irrational sets of beliefs that defy logic. Secondly, these superstitious beliefs about goddesses and fairies prevent us from gaining a better understanding of the problem and finding stable long-term solutions based on reason. Furthermore, other feminists like Cynthia Humes have shown that there is a difference between the view of women as goddesses and the experiences of the majority of ordinary women in these cultures. Studying the reasons for this difference is, in my opinion, key to understanding gender inequality in such cultures.

I submit that the goals of the Freethought movement are aligned with those of the women’s rights movements in these countries, and that therefore there is a practical reason for Freethought groups to actively promote the feminist cause.

The Essence of the Argument:

Superstitions such as goddess worship are cultural impediments to realizing true gender equality. True gender equality will help make such superstitions socially redundant. The Freethought movement must actively pursue gender equality, even as it confronts the superstitions that justify injustice.

Before I defend the above argument, two points must be clearly stated.

  1. The idea that women deserve equal treatment in society is accepted as a moral good steeped in the humanistic tradition of compassion, guided by reason.
  2. Any social good that a belief in the supernatural could possibly bring to women’s rights can be fully addressed and achieved through compassion and reason.

“The worship of the Goddess, of the divine as female, has a long history in India and continues to become even more popular today. By virtue of their common feminine nature, women are in some contexts regarded as special manifestations of the Goddess, sharing in her powers.”

Is the goddess a feminist?: the politics of South Asian goddesses, by Alf Hiltebeitel, Kathleen M. Erndl

(Note: The word ‘Devi’ is a generic Sanskrit term for ‘goddess’, used colloquially to also refer to a particular woman, or more accurately, one narrative of an idealized woman out of many possible ones. All religions have, in some form or the other, the idea that women must be set apart from men, assigning them many contradictory narratives. In this sense, Devi can be taken as a metaphor for all sets of supernatural beliefs that project contradictory notions of the nature of a woman.)

The Devi Paradox:

A curious phenomenon becomes apparent when one compares women’s rights across cultures. The more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. Thsitamae deification of women could take many forms, including worshiping them as goddesses (living or as myth), and assigning supernatural status to women, referring to some mysterious ephemeral quality that makes them special. One manifestation of the Devi Paradox is seen when women are elected to positions of power in parts of the world where the women’s rights record is the worst. How is it that misogynistic men can abuse women in regular society as part of customary practice, and yet elect one into office?

For example, from wikipedia:

Muslim majority countries have produced several female heads of stateBenazir Bhutto of PakistanMame Madior Boye of SenegalTansu Çillerof TurkeyKaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of IndonesiaBangladesh was the first country in the world to have one female head of state follow another, those two being Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina

Yet no one can deny that these Muslim countries are relatively worse off than most of the West when it comes to their treatment of women in society at large. While particular women are put on a pedestal and respected for their ability to lead, women in general have much lesser rights than men. Often such paradoxes are possible only because contradictory behaviors are justifiable by selectively adopting superstitious beliefs from within the culture. Could this explain why women are simultaneously worshiped and abused in such cultures?

Explaining the Paradox:

In any culture where the individual rights of women are valued less than superstitious edicts from primitive times, it is possible to see the Devi Paradox in action. Superstitious rules may have evolved as a means for society to organize itself into relatively well-defined social units. In modern times these beliefs are responsible for creating contradictory supernatural narratives about women, allowing any one particular narrative to be chosen when it becomes convenient. Thus a man can then use one narrative to justify abusing women, and another narrative to defend the culture that allows abuse. Let’s study this in the Indian context.


Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of TN, Worshiped as a Living Goddess.

The contradictions in how women are perceived in India, by both men and women, are staggering. India is a country that had a woman for it’s 4th Prime Minister, well-respected for most of her tenure as a strong and determined leader. It is also the country where women in some rural parts are frequently tortured and killed on accusations of witchcraft. It is the land where certain women alive today are built temples and offered prayers, while a thriving trade in sex-slaves continues to take place underground. Women graduating from the prestigious management and science schools are taking up high level positions in board rooms and research labs. Meanwhile, thousands of female infants are brutally killed every year to escape perceived difficulties in raising girls in a predominantly male-dominated society. The list goes on.

Such contradictions are kept alive in society by sets of contradictory cultural beliefs. These contradictory beliefs are necessary to perpetuate the notion that women are to be protected at the cost of their own freedom. The patronization inherent in such dubious notions needs to be justified for the cognitive dissonance that the ideas induce to be resolved. This is where superstition comes in. The deification of women as goddesses, feared and worshiped, pure and powerful, gentle and bloodthirsty, emotional and stoic, strong and delicate, angry and loving, and any other stereotype one wishes to project onto the female sex, has contributed to the persistence of these contradictory ideas about women in popular culture. To put it simply, the notion of woman as goddess is a set of popular cultural memes that serve to justify anything one believes about women.

Superstition Justifies Injustice

When superstition has such influence on people, it becomes a social weapon, subtle yet devastating. In the case of gender inequality it works by soothing the conscience of the perpetrators of injustice. The superstitious beliefs about gender are many and dangerous. But the vast extent of the damage that these beliefs inflict is covered up by religious folk trumpeting the fact that superstition actually solves a small section of the problems that it causes! The goddess is the ultimate defense of the misogynist. When there are thousands of women to worship in myth, how can women be lesser than men? The facts and the numbers about daily abuse of women’s rights can seem acceptable and even normal to someone who exists within this reality where women are glorified in myth and kept down in society. It’s OK for a husband to beat his wife, because that is the established standard of equality.

Similar contradictory supernatural beliefs are perpetuated in Islam and Christianity. In fact, there are Islamic Feminists! Women in Islamic societies have been fighting for a version of feminism that wouldn’t seem like feminism at all to most women elsewhere. This is only possible because the meaning of ‘equality’ has been altered, redefined in a superstitious context. When the rules of Islam become the reality within which one operates, the role of a woman is restricted to one of the many goddess forms that Islam projects on her.

Victims in Favor of Victimization:

Superstition works on the victims as much as on the perpetrators of injustice. In India, the number of women who believe that men have the right to beat women is higher (54%) than the nmuslim-womenumber of men who believe so (51%)!

Religions often impose strict conditions on women, and balance these demands by allowing women certain roles within the culture. These roles are often patronizingly referred to as “virtues”. In the most repressed of societies, this quality called “virtue” that women supposedly have is primarily associated with sexual “purity”. Within these cultures, these “virtues”, although far from true equality, are the epitome of an average woman’s range of achievement. Consequently, many are afflicted by a form of Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition when a kidnapping victim begins to empathize with his/her kidnappers. In this analogy, we’re all hostages to religion.

The fact that women in the Muslim world are amongst the staunchest supporters of mandatory restrictive clothing for all women should come as no surprise. Women in the Muslim world are believed to have mysterious and dangerous powers that can “tempt” men. Imagine the average Muslim woman in the Middle East, conditioned her entire life to act in submission to men, staying out of sight and unnoticed, out of fear that even the thought of exposing an inch of skin could damn her to burn forever in hell. As far as she is concerned, the layers of black cloth add strength to her constitution. In the context within which she lives, the darkness gives her rights. Such victims of religion are the ones with whom it will hurt the most to reason.

Pragmatic Reasons for Pragmatic Reasons:

My argument for gender equality in the Freethought movement assumes as intersubjective moral truth the axiom that women and men are equally free. This is not to say that the two sexes are the same in every regard, but that men and women deserve the same rights in society. This idea of something as morally true, the basis for the argument from morality, is a popular motivator for action when it comes to creating awareness about equal justice. But the argument from morality is only one part of the larger argument for gender equality.

There is another layer to the argument that we have been ignoring- the argument from pragmatism. I think most of us would agree that teaching our daughters to be strong for themselves and to respect their ability to achieve whatever they desire is a much more effective way of dealing with gender inequality than teaching them to derive strength from a supernatural entity. The implication here is that the women’s rights movement is inextricably linked to the Freethought movement. A strong motivator for action in achieving equality for women is the fact that the struggle for social, cultural, economic and political equality of women in countries like India is aligned with the goals of the Freethought movement as a whole. I submit that this completes the universal argument for equal rights.

The Role of Reason and Compassion:

When the day comes when women are considered equals to men in every applicable social index, reason and compassion will have played the starring role in getting there.kali Perhaps these two qualities will not always be draped in the colors of Freethought, publicly renouncing ideological enemies such as superstition and bigotry, but real and permanent progress can come only through reason and compassion.

The social rules restricting people to strict gender roles were the result of linear thinking in primitive times. As cultures evolved, these social rules were written into the religions. In modern use these rules are barriers to the quest for a successful and content society. It is in the interests of building a strong Freethought movement to actively pursue equal opportunities for both genders in the organizing and development of the movement.

The Freethought community is already without doubt highly motivated about progressive social issues such as campaigning for gender equality. What’s needed is a stated commitment to make gender equality a core goal of the movement. What’s needed is action.

Freeing Devi

My proposal is that any organization or group that takes on the job of challenging superstition and religion in India must make a conscious effort to break established patterns of gender inequality.

Kumari Devi, the Nepalese living goddess.

Kumari Devi, the Nepalese living goddess.

Most readers here must be familiar with Freethought groups on social media sites like Facebook and other forums, and can no doubt vouch for the fact that almost every one of those groups is dominated by men. This is not limited to India, by any means, but in general the ratio of women to men is worse in the Freethought movement in India than it is in the West. This must be directly addressed with the explicitly stated goal of creating an equal future for Freethought. This is just the first step, but one that needs to be taken.

Women who are Freethinkers have been real champions for change when it comes to challenging the hatred and misogyny that passes for tradition in many cultures. This sort of activism must be formalized and advanced, especially in countries like India. All Freethinkers must endorse and support gender equality in the Freethought movements around the world. We must particularly focus on movements in countries where women are oppressed. For example, there are Atheist and Humanist movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore. There are also some Freethought groups in the Middle East. Just as in the case of India, women atheists in these parts of the world need the support of feminists from the “free world”. On this point it should be mentioned that thousands of people on Facebook and other social networking sites, both men and women, reach out everyday across borders and strive to create a more equal world. These folk are the real heroes of the Freethought movement.

When it comes down to it, the most important thing that the movement needs are strong feminist representatives. In the West, numerous websites and groups for freethinkers who are women have sprung up. One of the most popular of these is Skepchick, a blog run by Rebecca Watson and her gang. Embedded below is the first part of a video of Rebecca giving a talk on the subject ‘Why Chicks Matter’. The rest of the parts can be found here: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

YouTube Preview Image

I’ll conclude with the observation that India needs its own feminist Freethinkers, people like Rebecca Watson, to stand beside Sunitha Krishnan (TED video below) and fight the root of the problem– the superstitious beliefs that serve to justify injustice.

About the author

Ajita Kamal


  • Very rightly said Ajita. In fact for our movement we have gone out of the way to co-opt women into the movement not because they have lesser merit but that they should be encouraged to join in. The message is carried better to women when it comes from one of their own gender!
    In the last executive committee meeting of FIRA we took the unique step of co-opting Leena, Kranti and others. The very fact of calling a lady as Mrs. so and so itself is very humiliating practice robbing her of all identity while showing the marital status by a black tali around the neck is another one.

    • Prof. Nayak, thank you for your comment! I’m glad to know about the efforts FIRA is taking to create a more women-friendly environment. You are right about the practical benefits in having women talk to other women. I was mainly occupied with debunking the myth that these devi role models are good in general, since many people seem to think they are.

      I also agree about these symbols that are used to define women. It is a fine line to walk, between tradition that is harmless and that which is not. I say if it is belief or tradition based on superstition, no matter how benign, it must be replaced with a naturalistic alternative.

      This is the biggest challenge. If we can demonstrate that there CAN be naturalistic alternatives, perhaps we can make the movement more gender equal. This is why I really think that the local groups that are being formed in Bangalore and other cities must from the beginning try to create meaningful cultural alternatives to religious/superstitious traditions.

  • Superb article Ajita. Congratulation. Just to add to what you have written, the problem of abuse of women in the U. S. is not any less at all as compared to Islamic countries or even in India. Just about every woman I see in my practice is there due to some type of past or present abuse in the hands of men. The problem is global, rooted in the inherent nature of men. Culture, religion and education have made little impact on man’s base instinct to dominate women. Christians who point fingers at people of other religions have no clue as to the seriousness of this problem in the U. S. or other “Christian” countries. There are now thousands of safe-houses to give thousands upon thousands of women and children temporary protection from their brutish husbands or boyfriends. This problem is so huge that most feminists and social scientists have no clue whatsoever, just as those standing near a mountain cannot grasp its height. I rarely see a woman who has not been abused by one or more men in their lives. As a result, six times as many women suffer from stress disorders as men.

    • Contrasted to the ‘hostile sexism’ that Dr Kamath talks about, I guess this Devi thing is ‘benevelent sexism’ on steroids. I have seen first hand how damaged a young woman can be, when subjected to ‘benevolent sexism’ all her youth.
      This much education is enough for a woman. Chastity and Virginity is your greatest virtue. blah blah.
      Its so difficult to bounce back in life after that.
      PZ had blogged about similar disgusting ideas in Christianity.

      Unfortunately, we arent going in the right direction polictically or law and order wise. It is frustrating enough to get some women take to vigilateism. cant fault them.

      Wear a Pink Sari and Carry a Big Stick

      Even the female politicians like Mayawati, Renuka Chowdhary dont do the right thing. I quote..

      To begin with, the gangs offer more immediate benefits than politics does. Another reason is that female politicians rising to power from the lower castes have been dismal role models. These politicians have the potential to inspire poor women more than dynastic leaders like Sonia Gandhi, but they have disappointed the women they claim to represent by being as corrupt and criminal as the male politicians they despise.

  • Ajita, this is a brilliant article!
    I have been thinking, since decades, of this Goddess/Devi syndrome in Asia. It exists regardless of borders and religions. For example, men of Rajasthan vote for a woman Chief Minister because she is from a “royal” family. They bow to women with political power, justify “Sati”, treat other women as sub-humans all at the same time.

    We do need women freethinkers from India.
    I remember reading Germaine Greer’s “Sex and Destiny” in which she writes about imposition of Western attitudes towards sexuality, fertility and family in the developing world. Her writing about how motherhood is celebrated and mothers are revered in India was too superficial. I thought she seems enamoured by visiting a few families. There was no mention of the premium placed on a male child or how families react to birth of children out of wedlock, or inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.
    Right now, we have some copycat feminism which is ineffective.

    • Thanks, Swati. The type of attitude that you describe with Greer’s work is typical of a breed of subconscious racism that is common among Western liberals. Mistaking pity for compassion, they mask their contempt of the “natives” by appealing to a caricature of childlike innocence as symbolized by the act of believing in fantastical myths. This article was posted on a couple of other sites where women from the West had a chance to comment on it. The comments by these Western feminists posted in response to the above article on these other sites, made me sick. Ask any one of these liberal Western women if they would like a U.S. (or other Western) court to decide whether abortion should be legal based on biblical scripture, and you’ll see a bloodbath. Yet somehow, Indian women are not deserving of the same benefits of reason and compassion that some Western feminists reserve for themselves.

      Of course, I’m pissed off at these Western feminists because of the underlying racism, but the greater atrocities are perpetuated on us by the society that we live in.

  • I’d like to point out, however, that Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Khaleda Zia, and Sheikh Hasina are all daughters or wives of male heads of state; therefore, it can be argued that they are the products of dynastic politics, rather than the Devi Paradox.

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