An ad campaign is causing a furor in India: the great Indian goddesses Durga (all-powerful), Lakshmi (wealth), and Sarasvati (wisdom, prayed to by students before exams) are being portrayed in the style of the classic Hindu calendars — with a black eye. Those goddesses are venerated, are reasons to fast, each with their special days and festivals. They are all-powerful and compassionate. Imagine a similar campaign in the West with Virgin Mary shown in this way.

El Pais article explains that in India 68% of women are victims of domestic violence. The poster was created for the NGO Save the Children India for one of its programs, ” Save our sisters”,  against the trafficking of women, three years ago. In a way, it has now been taken out of context to be used in response to the wave of recent gang rapes.

Some feminist organizations are against the campaign as it implies that women should be respected and be placed on an equal footing with the goddesses: women must be respected for who they are, period. Feminists see this vision precisely as a basic error of the patriarchal system; only respecting the mother or the goddess implies that anyone who does not enter these parameters may be a victim of abuse, they say. 

In the four plus years we lived in India, I remember being surprised at Indians venerating very powerful goddesses and simultaneously treating women like dirt. I saw this as an aberration and looked at the whole scene rather sarcastically. It is so much easier to notice anomalies in another culture or religion than in one’s own.

Yesterday, when I saw Durga’s face black and blue, crying tears of blood, I felt an electric shock. Somehow I connected the dots and could imagine Virgin Mary’s face right next to Durga’s. A friend immediately thought that Joseph would be blamed for it, which to me was not the point (I’ll be frank, the thought had not crossed my mind). Both Durga and Saraswati are ‘single goddesses’; they are not the consort of any god (they are more powerful than the married goddesses). On the other hand, Lakshmi is Vishnu’s wife, — and it is as difficult to imagine Vishnu beating her up as Joseph assaulting Mary.

For years now, I have felt a disconnect between the way Mary is venerated by the Catholic Church and the fact that no condemnation has ever come out of the Vatican against domestic and sexual violence. Violence against women just does not appear on the Vatican radar screen. Women’s sexuality is being blamed again and again, but men’s sexuality can go unchecked.

This is why seeing a photo or poster of our Blessed Virgin Mary with a black eye would somehow feel healing to my heart. Any domestic or sexual abuse done to a woman would be just like if it had been done to Mary. An old hangup of mine, of course. As you can see, my feminism falls short: women should indeed be respected for who they are.

What’s your reaction?

Art: Goddess Durga, el Pais