A campaign called “Abused Goddesses” is drawing massive engagement and attention around the world. Initiated by a women’s empowerment organisation in India, called Save our Sisters, which helps prevent the trafficking of women and children, it makes use of a series of images of Hindu goddesses, Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Durga with bruises and cuts in an effort to create awareness around domestic violence.
Debates around the use of deities in such a campaign are being raised from feminists, religious scholars and activists/academics finding renewed ways of dealing with gender-based violence, mostly there seem to be mixed reactions to the depictions. What does a campaign of this nature hope to accomplish? Some will cite blasphemy, some will applaud the power of the sentiment, and yet others might dismiss the works as inciting a kind of sectarian comment on the domain of domestic abuse as a religious entity when in fact it is not limited to a particular religion, belief, social class or ethnicity.
The designers of the campaign may be appealing to a mass consciousness of people of the Hindu faith who revere their respective goddesses, and so images that show obvious signs of abuse could be seen as offensive and hurtful, yes, but perhaps they hope to ignite their conscience on the harms of abuse. They seem to be saying: to hurt a woman is to hurt a goddess. Using the stereotype of female goddess in a campaign against gender-based violence makes a polarised suggestion that women should be worshipped rather than abused. The reality is that they are not, and gender-based violence is a very real issue around the world, not only with women of a particular faith. And also the use of deities in this campaign appeal to a particular audience and to some degree assumes that domestic abuse in India is a problem that exists primarily among people of the Hindu faith.
Both the perpetrators of abuse and victims are shown to be of various caste, denominations, religious or non-religious and so the campaign may be making a statement but it remains to be seen whether it will evoke a sense of remorse where it matters most, perhaps only inspiring some horror for abuse itself in its target audience. Abusers actually think that they’re being good husbands rectifying their spouse’s bad behaviour, so to think that religious symbolism will bring remorse is far-fetched. So, mixed responses will be had from people viewing it, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the Hindu faith, and to some degree this may divide the potential merits intended by the organising designers of this advocacy work. If anything, the discussions generated from the use of these images will be the merit of the campaign, in that discussants will be partaking in an ongoing conversation about abuse in society and its relation to a belief system that many Indians understand intimately, perhaps regardless of whether or not they subscribe to it.
Art and representations have long sought ways in which to access the collective conscious and using religious symbolism as a way of doing this is certainly not new to humanity, but it is still contested as going beyond the realm of rational debate and instead manipulating emotions to make a point. We could say that corporate advertising does that as well. Religion and sport are spaces of collective worship and so they’re relied on to mobilise mass appeal. Both methods are successful and often problematic if not given due consideration to the impact and influence they might have on the audience. When it comes to social issues, it to some degree diminishes collective social responsibility to attribute a social ill to one part of society, and it gives rise to new forms of discursive violence when this responsibility is divided. The denialism in society suggests that people think domestic violence happens “to other people”.
The campaign has the potential to feed into this rhetoric and divide social responsibility. In a society of various faiths and ethnic groups, the danger is that it may fuel already prevalent denialism around significant statistics of violence by splitting social responsibility and pegging gender-based violence as the domain of a particular faith (and hence targeted that way). It also assumes a piety-based, self-righteous stance. Are all women like goddesses? Should pious women not be abused? What about the spate of incidences of rape and violence in the thriving industry of prostitution in India and elsewhere? Are they excluded, or do they also count as in the image of goddess? Are we endorsing that a man who is pious is incapable of abusing his partner? Or is it that he should not abuse his righteous wife, but that prostitutes may be subject to the violation if they do not fall into the realm of purity?
The metaphor is not easily lost, regarding the abuse of goddesses in our midst, but rather relegated to the realm of divided social imagination. A case of your reality, my fiction?