Not Just Keepers of Tradition Anymore!
Tradition is a strange thing, much like freedom. At acceptable levels they are both very comforting and liberating but a tad bit more … they become stifling, addictive and imprisoning.
World over communities and cultures seem to have evolved and thrived due to the adherence to a collection of traditions. Traditions have acted as tools to bring and keep people together over time. It is safe to say that traditions have been created as a response to social, natural, spiritual, material and political needs of individuals and groups of people. They give people a sense of belonging, security and familiarity. While our needs are changing rapidly in this post modern world, our traditions are not evolving at the same pace. So, it is not surprising that most traditions have enthusiastic adherents and passionate opponents at the same time.
Early in the first century we see Jesus challenging the traditionalists! He says to them… “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” Taking advantage of widows’ ignorance and their unprotected state, the (traditional) scribes either extorted large sums for their counsel, or perverted property to their own use. So much so, that Jesus strongly condemns them as having undermined the more important values of justice, mercy and faithfulness in the name of tradition. Evidently, traditions are made sacrosanct with the help of religious sanction since time immemorial.
At this juncture, it is interesting to note that even today the role of women in keeping traditions is given abundant importance as against the role of men. Is that a good thing? Do women want to be hailed as the keepers of tradition? There are countless number of documentaries and research articles that portray the role women play in perpetuating a unique way of life and culture in their respective regions through agriculture, craft, weaving, rituals, cooking etc. Women safeguard everything from seeds, human rights, religious rites, children, family values, environment, indigenous knowledge systems and what not. They seem indispensable and an important link to a glorious past.
Women have been portrayed with powerful imagery in the past and present. The myriad mother goddesses that adorn museums; emerge from archaeological digs; grace places of worship are proof enough of the tradition of women being worshipped. Even as America proudly unveiled the 151 feet tall Statue of Liberty in 1886 featuring goddess Libertas symbolising freedom and progress, a small group of women suffragists went as close as they could to Liberty Island advocating the right to vote for women. Despite Libertas, the right to vote was given to them only in 1906. At the southernmost tip of India, in the confluence of the three seas stands the powerful Goddess Shakti Devi or Devi Kanya Kumari whose origin is traced to pre-historic times. This deity has been in worship since ancient times and even finds mention in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea of the mid first century. Again, to our surprise in this very same land, women had to protest and fight for their right to cover their breasts in the 19th century. Are women traditionally put in pedestals as a form of tokenism?
Ubiquitous in South India is the worship of the mother goddess in the form of Amman and is found wherever South Indians have settled for long. A mere earthen pot or an upright stone is enough to depict her. When she is given human form it is an alluring mix of destructive power and beauty. Standing alone with no consort, this deity with multiple arms is enough to protect and preserve her devotees both men and women. But the Amman spaces in our land and the Mother Mary grottos in our landscapes are silently witnessing growing violence against women even by their worshippers. This tradition of ascribing divinity to women while denying humane treatment to real life ones is perplexing. Our Bharat Mata is another example of this phenomenon and she quietly watches the rape-graph rise under her eyes.
So when women are provoked to protest, the vulnerable power they exude is admirable and effective. Chipko Andolan in India, Amazonian Women in Brazil, the naked Manipur mothers in India , the 2017 Women’s March in America, #MeToo are all hair-raising. In the back of my mind however there is a lurking question — what were the men doing at these times?
Here is a deceptively simple illustration on the perpetuation of tradition — consider wedding reception attires in India since the 20th century. The bride and women are bedecked and resplendent in traditional attire however impractical. The groom and men on the contrary are dressed in typical western outfits or whatever is comfortable for them. It is the woman who carries the symbol of matrimony traditionally by means of the thāli or mangalsūtra. And now in year 2021 jewellery ads promote brides who have a modern outlook but are traditional at heart!
Who benefits by traditions is a question that we women need to start asking ourselves and the society. Do we follow traditions that are self-centered and ensure the preservation of our own selves and families? Are they inclusive of the oppressed and neglected? How do we treat those who are unable to partake of the traditions? Can we trace the source of the tradition and how it has evolved over the years — has it stopped evolving? Is it relevant now? Is this tradition harming someone — can we take steps to alleviate it? Are the traditions we follow contributing towards the sharing of resources both material and intellectual to a wider group of people? As we tediously speculate and ponder through our privilege of education, experience and access about these important questions, fresh unexpected winds of change have been blowing.
Fanned by technology and the worldwide internet, we now can catch glimpses of traditions followed across the world not via edited and voice-overed documentaries but by people themselves. Reels, Tik-Toks, Insta, YouTube and many other platforms carry short videos of everything under the sun creating bridges of communication and understanding between strangers who are able to latch on to a common appeal and learn from each other. Hootsuite, a social media management website states that women lead in the consumption of social media — in 2020 –71% of women used social media as against 63% of men. Women thrive as content creators and they seem to be good at starting trends… are trends the new traditions? Will we women abuse the power of creating traditions? Or will our nurturing spirits be more inclusive and expansive?
In February 2021, a young Pakistani girl on social media started a trend unknowingly termed #pawrihorahihai. Positive vibes and memes flooded across Pakistan and India in response which is rather unusual but reflective of the power of social media and women. Social media also offers a valid space for womens issues and activism which was never done by traditional media. A headline caught my attention — Women are driving the social media revolution! Are we being put on a pedestal again? Should we be careful as some studies suggest that traditional gender roles are also being cemented in social media and women objectified still.
I am excited though! We now live in a time with means to create traditions that are beyond barriers of geography, language, race, caste, gender, politics, age, culture etc., Maybe humanity will understand itself better as it opens up. Maybe we will start respecting our differences and diversity. We will then get the courage to hold on to those traditions that edify our humaneness and let go of those that are destructive.
About the Author:
Ms. Rhoda Alex is a communication artist engaged in freelance book design work. Also a Sunday School teacher exploring and learning along with the youngsters — lessons on faith and life. Enjoys working on anthropological projects that study the expressions of Christianity in the Tamil landscape, interaction between people groups, parallel cultures and artistic expressions. Loves observation, language and literature, photography and adventure.