The Rite-Woman deconstructed: The Sita-problematic and the Story of Manushi

Abstract: This article covers the aim and target functions of the women’s publishing in English in India, named Manushi. In conversation with the founder of the publishing house, Kishwar discussed the various multi-faceted attributes of women that need to have a constant platform for deliberating and propagating the women’s status in a patriarchally dominated society. The need for women’s movements or organisations, which pave a way to women’s empowerment is laid emphasis on. Daily struggles of women as the marginalised and oppressed category of society are also addressed.

Keywords: contemporary Indian society, informed activism, domestic violence, human rights, women’s movements , women’s empowerment

In a conversation with Rina Tripathi, Madhu Purnima Kishwar, the founder-editor of Manushi, refers to a story her mother used to tell her whenever she got into a retaliatory mode. The story goes: While a Mahatma was bathing in the river, a scorpion bit him. Like any normal human being, his reflex action to the painful sting was to pluck the biting scorpion and cast it away. As he saw the scorpion drowning in the fast-flowing water, the Mahatma extended his hand to pull the scorpion out of water. The scorpion bit him again. He again cast the creature in the water, and later saved it. This went on and on. Someone who was witnessing this ‘inter-action asked the Mahatma why he was saving the scorpion knowing fully well that it could kill him. The Mahatma replied that it was the dharma of the scorpion to bite, and it was his dharma as a human being to be compassionate.

In the same conversation, Madhu Kishwar uses the notion of ‘swadharma’ apparent in the above story to interpret the figure of Sita:

It is a gross misrepresentation to describe servile and oppressed women as being Sita-like. My mother was Sita-like, but she was far from being submissive or slavish. It is good to remember that Sita was also Gandhi’s favourite heroine. His Sita was the incarnate of a true satyagrahi, whose moral power intimidated even a mighty warrior like Ravana. ,.. The essence of satyagraha is that one does not fight back with the same weapons as those of the oppressor. It takes much greater strength to offer dignified non-violent resistance to oppression and injustice than to retaliate with violence. It requires supreme self-discipline and self-confidence to stay firm in one’s own convictions and one’s own chosen dharma as did my mother or the Mahatma of the scorpion story (Lal & Gokhale 108).

Madhu Kishwar’s analysis of ‘Sita’ as one whose swadharma is to merge into her resistance the ideal of non-violence, would serve us well in understanding the predominant ethos of women’s publishing in English in India, which Kishwar herself initiated with the founding of Manushi in 1978 along with a committed group of women colleagues that included Ruth Vanitha, Kishwar’s best comrade during the early years.

Kishwar studies the standard feminist response to ‘Sita’ and identifies it as a double-edged sword, a by-product of Western-model training to think in binaries. Apparent in such feminist critiques of Sita is a (mis)representation of Sita as a victim and a figure of servile and masochistic behaviour. The other side of this projection is the feminist outburst against the alleged victimisation/submissiveness. While one cannot deny that the background of this response is the contemporary Indian society that definitely practises unacceptable forms of discrimination against women, Kishwar warns us against taking its oversimplified premise for granted.

In an attempt to whet the Sita-problematic posed by the contemporary feminist enterprises, Kishwar recovers a live response to Sita` from the matrix of popular Indic culture, particularly from its tradition of goddess worship. This strong counterbalance to the woman-hating aspect is a belief that “the feminine represents the shakti that energises the entire universe.” (Lal & Gokhale 105)

Our goddesses believe in peaceful co-existence, in graceful acceptance of each other’s worth rather than claiming or establishing superiority over one another. For example, a martial goddess like Durga does not consider herself superior to a patient sufferer like Sita. Nor is Radha treated with disdain for being lost in Krishna’s love despite his polygamous dalliances. It is accepted that they represent diverse aspects ‘of the feminine shakti, and diverse responses to similar and varied situations. Therefore, devotees are not expected to disparage other manifestations of shakti (Lal & Gokhale 105).

Kishwar’s recovery of the multi-dimensional shakti principle, one of the aspects of which is represented in Sita’s dignified suffering, as a natural resident of the Indian psyche is seminal in understanding her work as a pioneer in women’s publishing in India. Inherent in Kishwar’s study of the Indian womanlity is a demonstration of the deconstructive principle of ‘deferance’, as there is always a different meaning available to ‘woman’ as Kishwar sees her, and hence a final definition of the term is eternally deferred.

This deconstruction of ‘woman’ that privileges tentativeness on the one hand and continuity on the other has been significant in the context of Indian English publishing in two respects. First, historically, it did serve as a keynote in setting an organic humanistic philosophy for early women publishers in India, a vision of life that bound them in a special sisterhood of understanding. Secondly, it remains, till today, the most vital cultural feature of Indian women’s publishing that distinguishes it from the feminist publishing models in the West on the one hand and the simplistic copy-cat feminism prevalent in the Indian academy on the other. In order to trace this paradigm shift that lent Indian women’s publishing a spectacular turn of cultural realism, one has to necessarily go back to the circumstances that led to the birth of Manushi, some of the early writings in it, the incidents which provoked them, and the circumstances under which Manushi functions today, and the curious ideological turns it has taken.

Manushi was created with the aim of finding effective solutions for the economic, political and social problems confronting India, through patient study, a non-partisan approach, live interaction with the people concerned, and culturally sensitive, informed activism. Its stated inspiration is from the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi, and it claims to believe in the need for creative application of the essentials of his philosophy to the contemporary society to meet the challenges of the times. This way, Manushi hopes to contribute to the creation of an atmosphere conducive for the peaceful resolution of social conflicts.

The many-layered name ‘Manushi‘ is proof of the multi-dimensional intent of the journal. Madhu Kishwar coined it from the Sanskrit word ‘manush’ or ‘manushya’, which means ‘human being’ as distinct from ‘purush’, which in common parlance denotes ‘man’. The human race is referred to as ‘manushya jati’ in most Indian languages. The word Manushi would thus mean the humane as well as the feminine principle, which must write a different story of humanity that transcends the violence, warfare, aggression and domination readily available in his-stories. Through its closeness to the word ‘manasi’, it also refers to the new mind/intellect that must bring forth the above change. At its best, the Bengali spelling ‘Manoshi’ makes it ‘dear to heart’, too!

Manushi holds that it approaches issues with an open mind and gives space for patient study of every issue that it takes up through close interaction with the people concerned so that its interventions represent culturally sensitive, informed activism. The articles commissioned by Manushi and the books and booklets published by them, tend to go beyond offering critiques and suggestions for reform, to actually testing strategies that provide viable solutions to the various problems confronting India.

That Manushi‘s birth indeed gained impetus from the nationwide reactions to the imposition of the National Emergency, followed by the crackdown including press censorship and suspension of citizenship rights, by Indira Gandhi, one of the most powerful women ever in Indian politics, strikes one as ironical. But this paradox seems yet another pointer towards the multi-dimensional mode of actualization of womanpower in our country, which the figure of shakti evokes. It will also explain how, when all cultural and political movements in the country faced a set back during the Emergency, women’s movements could sustain themselves, gather strength and finally blossom into expression through publications post Emergency.

It is interesting to study how the Women’s Studies perspective of the academic world joined hands with women’s activism during the 70’s. As the academic activities regarding gender were so far considered ineffectual and cut off from any political activism, the platforms where writings by and on women appeared were largely thought of as addressing rather non-political issues such as domestic violence, divorce, education etc. The Women’s Studies’ agenda was presumed to be upliftment, not critique. Not only was it looked at as politically non-threatening during the Emergency, but it also had the State support because of its close affiliation with grassroots level women’s reform/empowerment movements.

This double advantage was the result of a (mis)appraisal by the State and its cultural apparatuses of the operational world of the women’s movements: that it was single-mindedly oriented towards women’s empowerment in non-political sites. This lack-vigil of the State was perhaps the moment when the politics of gender was truly conceived in India, with the women’s rights activists and the academics with a women’s studies perspective quietly joining hands against the background of the plague of Emergency that seized the country. And, from the strength of that bond rose the vision that inspired Kishwar and her team to launch Manushi. A fine instance of Sita gaining strength in the darkness of the forest and coming out into light at an opportune time!

Manushi Trust was instituted in 1980 to provide the legal organizational base for the Journal and its publishing programme. In addition, it undertook a whole range of activities primarily through the modest resources generated by the Journal’s readers. Manushi Sangathan was registered under the Societies Registration Act in 1994 as an offshoot of Manushi Trust to carry on its research, education, and advocacy work for reforms ensuring social justice and human rights for all, especially for women. Today Manushi‘s work includes publication of books and booklets as well as the web edition of the journal Manushi. Its work is in the direction of campaigning for the rights of the self-employed poor through different activities: Laws Liberty and Livelihoods Project, gender justice work, Clean Rivers Campaign in collaboration with Tarun Bharat Sangh, Manushi Sanskrtik Manch, the cultural forum, Minority Rights/ Human Rights work, Legal Aid and Public Interest work, and the running of an Audio Visual Media Unit.

The print edition of Manushi survived 28 years as an independent voice without any external sources of funding. It took no grants, no advertisements and relied solely on subscriptions and individual donations for survival. It was among the few reader-supported magazines in the world. The Journal not only supported itself through subscriptions, but also managed to raise resources for several other activities of Manushi Trust and Manushi Sangathan. The enduring quality of the writings featured in Manushi is evident from fact that many of its articles have been compiled by international publishers in the form of anthologies.

Manushi is still widely acknowledged for its contributions towards the reformation of contemporary Indian society. The investigative reports in Manushi were the first ones to draw public attention towards the increasing cases of bride burning in India, which were being routinely passed off as suicides or kitchen accidents. Supplementary to its publications, Manushi organized the first ever protests in India against bride burning and catalyzed the process of neighbourhood action with its call for social boycott of families found guilty of torturing or killing the daughters-in-law. Its research and Investigations revealed that most cases of domestic violence were not due to dowry demands but a whole complex of factors that went into making a daughter-in-law a vulnerable subject in a household. Following this, Manushi began to mobilise lawyers to provide free legal advice and aid to victims of domestic violence. As early as 1979 this magazine began to campaign for a more realistic and effective legislation to enhance women’s participation in legislatures. For instance, Manushi led the campaign for strengthening the inheritance rights of women in their natal family through field studies which looked at the customary laws of various communities. It challenged in the Supreme Court many anti-women inheritance practices and governmental regulations among tribal communities in Central India. Manushi provided inputs to the Law Commission on the changes required in the Hindu Succession Act to give daughters equal inheritance rights. It also made documentary films to sensitize opinion for strengthening women’s inheritance laws, and developed a street play, Roshni, which was enacted in various colleges and neighborhoods to sensitize people against discrimination against the girl child. Manushi also began working with the farmers’ ,movement, Shetkarai Sangathana, to mobilize farmers of Maharashtra to voluntarily transfer a portion of their land to the women of the family and to campaign for all-women panchayats in Maharashtra.

Manushi articles offered realistic ways to handle the stalemate over Muslim Personal laws, which were re-published in the Urdu press. Its scholars also undertook a study of the Hindu Code Bill to demonstrate the discriminatory provisions and flaws in that legislation. They provided honest and well-grounded critiques of ill-conceived laws that demonstrated how many pro-women laws in India lend themselves to abuse while failing to provide protection to genuine victims of violence.

Despite these contributions that range from investigative reporting to profound cultural study, in 2007, Kishwar and her team were compelled to temporarily suspend the print version of the Journal due to an unprecedented financial crisis followed by Manushi‘s policy reform work for street vendors. Many Manushi activists faced violent attacks in 2006 on account of their participation in this campaign. Kishwar’s own account of the developments that led to the suspension of Manushi is given later in this section.

Today, Manushi continues to exist in its web version, and the team is trying to bring back the print journal. The rewriting of the Indian rite-woman apparent in Manushi‘s birth, growth and sustenance against all odds, gains significance when one listens to Madhu Kishwar who declares that Sita of the epic is not her role model, even as she accepts Sita as an important figure. In order to reclaim the ‘life’ the old Sita had lost, Kishwar exhorts the transformational woman shakti in the country to do the politically incorrect in unexpected ways.

In the current context of Kishwar’s political interventions, and her new publications in Manushi, which seem markedly different in their ideological orientation from her earlier work, this proclaimed strategy that combines independent thought, social action and basic survival, gains great significance. The question that one is forced to ask at this juncture is about the nature of Manushi‘s newfound Sita. Though Manushi‘s political stance today is still an evolving phenomenon, this study undertakes to pose this question in an effort to understand the real legacy the first women’s publication in India has left for its successors.


Lai. Malashri and Namita Gokhale. In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology. New Delhi: Penguin, 2009.

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