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article imageThe women of Varanasi who are breaking away from stereotypes

By Sravanth Verma     Aug 18, 2014 in Travel
Varanasi - Varanasi is an ancient seat of tradition in India. However, a few women in this diverse city are breaking stereotypes, and entering professions once dominated by men, from cremation duties to priestly ones.
“The people of Varanasi are very supportive of women’s empowerment,” says professor Ravi Prakash Pandey, head of the department of sociology at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith University. But Pandey does qualify the statement by noting that the number of women in traditionally male-dominated professions, such as priesthood, are low. But the times are changing. The all-women Bharatiya Awam Party, formed in January 2013, now has 40,000 members. Only 10 percent of its seats are reserved for men.
“This election, we mobilised Varanasi’s women to cast their vote for a candidate of their choice and not one supported by the male members of their families,” says Najma Parveen Bharatvanshi, the party’s 27-year-old national president, referring to the recently concluded Indian parliamentary elections that saw India's current Prime Minister Narendra Modi stand from Varanasi, and win by an overwhelming margin.
Jamuna Devi is another woman in an atypical profession. She cremates bodies at the Manikarnika Ghat on the banks of the Ganga river. Varanasi, also known as Kashi, is considered one of the most sacred cities in India, and it is believed in the Hindu way of life that dying in Varanasi brings moksha or liberation from the recurring cycle of birth and death. “I was the first woman on the Manikarnika Ghat to do this work. But I don’t actually cremate the bodies — women in our community don’t. The families of the deceased come to me to conduct cremations. My workers do the actual work,” explains Jamuna, who has been doing this for over 30 years. She is a dom raja, a member of the caste that traditionally handles cremation. “After my husband, who was also a dom raja, died, my brother-in-law said I had no claims in the family business. I had no way of supporting myself. I filed a court case to claim my right,” she says.
The Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Varanasi’s Tulsipur is a school that is also allowing a few women to break out of their traditional roles. The students and teachers communicate in Sanskrit, and the schools hundred or so students are taught various complex Sanskrit treatises in addition to modern academic subjects. “Nowhere in our scriptures is it mentioned that women can’t study the Vedas or utter the mantras written there. There are instances of women becoming rishis [sages] in Vedic times. This tradition of keeping women away from the study of the Vedas was a later social tradition, one that Maharshi Dayanand [Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj] raised his voice against,” says Nandita Shastri Chaturvedi, the school’s principal.
Faculty and senior students are often invited to preside at auspicious functions. “We have also conducted a wedding in Delhi,” says Chaturvedi. Nineteen-year-old Vidya is one of those who has officiated as priest on various occasions for two years. “But I don’t want to take this up professionally. As long as we are connected to this institute people view us with a certain degree of respect. They invite us to conduct ceremonies for them. But once we are out of this school, it is very difficult for a woman to make a living as a priest,” she says. One of three siblings, Vidya is studying philosophy and psychology along with her training in the Sanskrit grammatical tradition of vyakaran, and wants to join the civil services.
“We need numbers to bring about a social change. As of now, we only have a handful of girls who are learning the Vedic mantras. Once there are enough women trained in this, people will also learn to accept them as part of the mainstream,” Chaturvedi says.
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