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Home > Women’s Rights > Fundamentalists and Their Mythical Notions of Womanhood

Fundamentalists and Their Mythical Notions of Womanhood

by Ammu Joseph, 13 February 2009

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Our freedom is at stake

Mutalik and Co have made celebrating Valentine’s Day a cause worth fighting for

I never thought I would find myself sticking up for Valentine’s Day, which I (along with many others) have long dismissed as yet another trivial occasion for celebratory consumption, promoted by greeting card companies and related commercial establishments. That assumption is not totally unfounded. According to a widely quoted estimate by the US-based Greeting Card Association, one billion Valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, after Christmas. And that figure may not include e-cards.

However, it turns out that the mid-February festival which has of late gained global, secular popularity has a long, if unclear, history with roots in both Roman and Christian (Catholic) traditions. It is believed to have originated in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated on Feb 15 for nearly 800 years before Pope Gelasius declared Feb 14 St Valentine’s Day in 498 AD. It is not clear which of several religious figures named Valentine who were subject to persecution (including beheading) the occasion was meant to commemorate. Partly because of this confusion, the Catholic Church dropped St Valentine’s Day from its calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts in 1969.

It appears that the custom of exchanging cards and other tokens of love on Valentine’s Day began to develop in England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries and became especially popular in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. V-Day entered the urban Indian landscape much more recently, attracting opposition from self-appointed custodians of Indian culture in different parts of the country early on in the process.

The recent threats by the Sri Rama Sene and its founder, Pramod Mutalik, to disrupt Valentine’s Day celebrations in Karnataka and to force dating couples to either get married or become rakhi siblings have made many of us who generally go about our normal business on Feb 14 determined to ensure that whoever wants to celebrate the day is free to do so.

That’s because all citizens of a democracy are entitled to the right to be who they are and do what they wish within the constraints of the laws of the land as well as their own conscience and good sense.

Mutalik and company, who achieved nationwide notoriety through violent assaults on young women in Mangalore last month (thanks to the video documentation the publicity seekers themselves arranged for), have since been associated with the intimidation and violence to which two teenaged residents of the city were subjected for the crime of talking to a member of the opposite sex belonging to another religion.

Mutalik, who reportedly believes that Valentine’s Day is an international, even Christian, conspiracy against Indian (read Hindu) culture, may not know that he has an ally in Anjem Choudary, the controversial UK-based Muslim cleric who in a recent article slammed it as a futile and evil festival, used to justify sinful actions such as free-mixing, promiscuity, vain sexual talk and even fornication, all acts clearly influenced by the Devil and in conflict with the teachings of Islam.

If Mutalik et al were really concerned about Indian women, they wouldn’t be wasting their time trying to browbeat urban, educated women into conforming to some mythical notion of Indian womanhood. Instead, they would be paying attention to some of the real, major, life-threatening problems faced by large numbers of women in this country, such as domestic violence and maternal mortality.

I would much rather spend my time and energy on a more worthwhile cause than Valentine’s Day. But the current commotion is really about much more than a single day. It is about the attempted imposition of a particular, narrow worldview which denies women their fundamental rights as human beings, robs Indian culture of its essential, inherent diversity, flouts the rule of law, makes a mockery of civil liberties, and negates the very concept of democracy.

(Ammu Joseph is a journalist, author, media analyst and a feminist based in Bangalore)