Sex, Death and the Gods (Part II) by Vibha Shetiya


IMG_20160112_101035This continues my reflections on the Devidasis in Part 1.

The overall picture that emerged from the documentary “Sex, Death and the Gods” was that, in its current form, there were many layers to the Devadasi system. For one, the most heartbreaking of all, there were the helpless, underage girls protesting such an existence, pleading that they would rather be in school, instead of being trapped in what was essentially a form of sexual slavery. But then we also see the older Devadasis, women who had been dedicated as children themselves.

Within this latter bracket, there were two groups.Those that viewed the practice as evil, and those that saw it as empowering – they earned their own income and they didn’t have a man or mother-in-law to lord over them; in short, they were in-charge of their own households. To them, married life was akin to a life of servitude, sex was something they enjoyed, and they may have shared a more or less equal relationship with the men who were their customers, men who enjoyed their company and preferred being with a Devadasi rather than with spouses they never chose or couldn’t get along with. In the words of one Devadasi – “I am the boss.”

On the other side, you had the social workers – those that wanted to eradicate the system, and understandably so as they looked at it from the point of view of the young girls. Shobha, an activist and former Devadasi, recalled with tears how once she began menstruating, she was forced to have sex with her brother-in-law, who paid a large sum of money to the family for her. Whenever she protested, she would be beaten up by family members who feared losing their golden goose. It is not difficult to see why Shobha later decided to dedicate her life to eradicating the system, often involving coercive methods.

In a particularly poignant scene, she along with other activists, descend upon an old woman with matted hair, a sign that she was invested with the power of Yellama, the patron goddess of the Devadasis. This woman acted as a medium between the goddess and the girls’ families, advising the latter on whether they should dedicate their daughters or not. Hence her dreadlocks, the source of her power, were forcibly shaved off. Her protests – Why are you doing this to an old woman? – were drowned in the cacophony of activists and surrounding festivities, for it was the day of dedication to Yellama in Saundatti, southern Karnataka.

William Willoughby Hooper. Hindoo Dancing Girls, India, 1870, from the collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck

William Willoughby Hooper. Hindoo Dancing Girls, India, 1870, from the collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck

The other kind of social worker was one who believed the answer lay in working from within the system. Meena emphasized that she did not agree with the dedication of minors to the goddess, in effect transforming them into prostitutes, but that the solution could not lie in outsiders dictating to Devadasis just how to run their lives, when they had “figured out for themselves” how to make the most of a deeply flawed socio-economic system.

The solution for Meena lay in empowering the women themselves, especially through education and self-awareness, so they, or more often, their families, could find other ways of supporting themselves. Moreover, she pointed out, being a Devadasi gave these women a certain standing in society. They may be prostitutes in the conventional sense but the religious association gave them a sense of self respect, even though in its modern form it had very little or no resemblance to the traditional Devadasi system in which temples, the arts, inheritance and ownership rights (denied to most women throughout the ages) played a prominent role.

So the bottom line is, what do we, as academics or law enforcers – in effect, outsiders – do to put an end to this corrupt system? I use the word “corrupt” because there can be little disagreement that the forcible prostituting of minors is not just illegal but also immoral and unethical.  Or do we see it from the point of view of some of the older women, who see themselves as extensions of the divine, which helps them navigate their way about the world as women who are entrenched within a patriarchal structure?

There are several questions to be raised, one of the most important being legislation relating to the outlawing of the practice: just how much of an understanding do the lawmakers have of the difference between sex work and sex-trafficking? The problem is compounded when the Devadasi system involves both; sex work, or sex in exchange for money, as in the case of some of the older women, and sex trafficking when it comes to young girls who may have no option but to turn to the overt sex trade when the forcible “rescuing” of the these girls by the government or social agencies compels them to turn to city brothels to earn a livelihood, thus, as Kidron points out, “[condemning] them to do the very thing they were being saved from.”

The age of the young girls is an important factor, but does the outlawing of the practice have anything to do with concerns for the safety and well being of these girls, or does it have more to do with moral policing and the self-righteousness of the lawmakers who often consider themselves above “uncivilized” practices? After all, when the British outlawed the Devadasi system it was not out of a concern for the lack of choice on part of the girls who were essentially children, but because of the lofty role they had given themselves as moral arbiters of a “debased and uncivilized” society. Do we see the same sentiment at play in modern times, when the issue becomes one of sexuality rather than public safety and concern?

To sum up, I am going to narrow this discussion to two main concerns. The first one as you may have guessed is on the question of women’s agency. As feminists, educators or law-makers, we must ask ourselves if we let our biases creep into what that agency must look like. What makes us decide that sex work is more exploitative than say working a minimum wage job with no benefits? Moreover, there may be instances in which women choose to be sex workers not only because of the few options available to them, as some feminists have argued, but who have even chosen sex work over equally-lucrative jobs. Is it fair to slut shame women who have chosen the latter? In the case of the Devadasis, then, the stigma may be attached to the sex work aspect of it, rather than the lack of agency on part of the young girls. Perhaps we ought to acknowledge the fact that for many of us, “choice” is pertinent only when we decide that a certain act complies with our ideas of morality.

Second, when it comes to the question of “third world” issues, is it fair to impose our academic ideas, which are mostly Western ideas and concepts, onto a system which has its own history and structure? Despite being deeply familiar with India and Indian culture, I found myself using Western terminology to get a sense of the practice.  Today, the system may be a shadow of its predecessor, and indeed prostitution may be the easiest way to describe it; after all, it does involve “the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.” But the Devadasi system in the past was certainly not prostitution. Most importantly, many Devadasis today identify specifically as Devadasis, and not as veshya, randi or naikin, all synonyms for “prostitute.” It is fair to say “devadasi is merely a justification for them? It thus becomes imperative to understand what identifying as a Devadasi does for the women themselves – does it empower them?

I don’t know what the right thing to do is – it is indeed a dilemma given that girls as young as ten are forced into becoming Devadasis. I do know though that forcibly stopping the system, however noble one’s intentions, is not going to improve these girls’ lives, let alone eradicate the practice.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Hinduism, Women and Work, Women's Power, Women's Rights, Women's Voices

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3 replies

  1. Ah patriarchy. How different is it to sell your daughter into prostitution vs to arrange a forced marriage. None of these women are what I would call free, but the Devidashis might (in some cases) be freer than patriarchal wives. You are right that the colonial mind is more concerned about the Devidashis than it has been until recently about the ordinary rape of women and girls in marriages.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that it is more important for us to clean up our own sexual slavery/sex trade in the United States before passing judgement on the practices of another culture. We must also ask ourselves: what constitutes freedom in a particular society? To answer that question we need to become part of the culture in question. Carol’s right the Devidashis might be freer than we think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for a really thought-provoking essay. I wasn’t aware of this system at all. The various view points you take show the complexity of the problem. I will be pondering it.

    Liked by 1 person

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