Columnists > Voices

Finding IWD

In India, women of all ages need a way out of poverty and abuse

Issue: "Remaking the family," March 6, 2004

WMDS ARE IN THE NEWS BUT IN MUCH OF THE world on Monday, March 8, IWD-International Women's Day-will be on top. The Brits are planning a bash at which "FEMALE DJS WILL ROCK FOR WOMEN" (Bristol Post). The Australia Sugar Industry Museum is hosting "a magnificent tropical breakfast" and "motivational displays from local innovative women." Russians will celebrate IWD as the culmination of a new invention, the three-day weekend.

Probably the country that needs a women's day the most is India, where a female in the past might be burned upon her husband's death, and right now is likely to be aborted at a rate far higher than that of a male (WORLD, Jan. 17). But many Indian women aren't giving in anymore: They are declaring their independence from traditional subservience both through new twists in Hinduism and new Christian initiatives.

IWD could be especially celebrated at three impressive sites within the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. One, Pandi Koil in Madurai (the great pilgrimage city of southeastern India), used to be merely a small shack in a sacred grove owned by five families. Over the past three decades, though, it has gained a reputation as a temple where women, usually in their 40s, could come to twist and shriek, in the assumption that they are temporarily possessed by a male god named Pandi. Some women shave their heads and apply sandalwood paste. Others assert that they have been seized by Pandi and must come to the temple every Tuesday and Friday for the next 10 weeks.

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The temple has become so popular that five years ago it installed railings like those at theme park rides to keep the crowds in check. Many women troubled by stomach pains or a colicky child vow to Pandi, "If you cure me of this I will come to your temple." If the pains or the crying go away, the women come to a place where they don't have to respond to the entreaties of husbands or fathers but can wail and flail all they want. They don't seem so possessed, though, that they are unaware of their immediate environment: While I visited, one shrieker walking backwards stopped an inch short of bumping into me.

Branches of Pandi Koil have now sprung up all over the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as have more than 100 congregations of women called Adhiparashakti. In traditional Hinduism women are not permitted to make offerings in a temple's Holy of Holies-but in this new denomination women present the offerings before the temple's idols. Ironically, a man, Bangaru Adigalar, now 63, established the congregation. His devotees address him as "Mother," say he has merged with the goddess Shakti, and speak proudly of their new opportunity to offer temple worship themselves.

This concept has caught on so quickly that one group in Madurai, which until recently owned merely a memorial stone and several bells, now has a small building decorated with two calendars featuring Adigalar portraits and six other pictures of the guru that depict him with a halo and red marks on his hands and feet. The group next year plans to erect a new, elaborate temple at a cost of 5 million rupees, or about $109,000. That's a lot in an economy where 100 rupees per day-little more than $2-is a decent income.

Pandi Koil, Adhiparashakti ... but let's look at a Christian alternative, one set in the poor, Anakaputhur section of Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras. Many women in that area had been economically dependent on tannery work for 25 rupees a day plus the likelihood that their hands would be ruined by acid and their hearts sickened by a daily dose of managerial abuse. But six years ago an Indian couple, Samuel and Prema Sundar Raj, started a needlework enterprise where young women receive $2 a day making exquisite tablecloths and napkins. Sometimes the women talk as they cross-stitch, or receive teaching about hygiene or nutrition. At other times someone reads the Bible out loud as fingers ply the needles.

One woman, Sugila, said this about her new situation: "Before coming here I was not able to pay school fees for my children. Now my two children study at school. In days to come God will work out better things for all of us." Another young woman, Abya, said she had no father and her mother is a housemaid, so she is happy to be able to help her whole family. Other women-Jaya, Stella, Mymuna, Rajkumarai, Selvi, and Radha-said similar things.


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