An Iranian woman cuts her hair outside the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran at a rally to defend women’s rights, September 2022, Seoul (Photo: Getty Images)
SOCIAL GROUPS AND SYSTEMS, BE they families or clans or communities, have always had an ambivalent view of anger—while they recognise its power which they can harness, they institute persuasive and coercive mechanisms to control it. In the modern world, the last decades have classified anger as an emotion that needs to be ‘channelled,’ or ‘managed.’ Typically, those of us who live conventional comfortable lives, protected from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” are often persuaded away from anger. What could we be angry about, we who have so much? We have food and shelter, financial and emotional security, political representation and all the rights that accrue to those who firmly occupy the mainstream. To us, anger is presented as a corrosive emotion, one that harms us more than it affects those that we are angry with. If we are sanctioned anger at all, it is to help us get past something, like grief.
Some years ago, my beloved died and the ground beneath my feet shifted. The shift was tectonic, exposing cracks and creating chasms where there had only been smooth, level ground. The rumbling and crumbling continued long after the moment of upheaval itself had passed and slowly my bewilderment at the change in so many things around me became, simply, anger. I was told that anger is a necessary stage in the “management of grief”—words that I find as absurd and useless now as I did then—that anger was one of the ways we coped with the loss of a loved one. But I wasn’t feeling a cosmic anger, a rage against the universe or god or Time or fate, I was feeling an anger that was very specific and directed at people and objects. And I was ashamed of turning more complex emotions that I could not deal with into a relatively familiar one that I could at least express, if not fully understand.
So, one grim, grey afternoon laden with pathetic fallacy—the sky hung low and the air was heavy—I decided to relinquish the anger I was feeling towards things that had broken in my life. I stepped outside the house and exhaled mightily, ridding myself of the rancour that had begun to take up more and more space in my head and heart. I immediately felt lighter and better, it was magic, albeit sympathetic. And then, I went on with my life thinking that I had resolved all my bad feelings. For a long time, I walked around in a fug of self-righteousness, believing that giving up anger was simply an act of will and that anyone could do it, if they really wanted.
Many spiritual traditions, especially those that place a high value on equanimity, also denigrate anger, as do several contemporary psychotherapies and self-development programmes. Our own cultures, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism see anger as detrimental to the goal of individual liberation. Anger, along with such other ‘defilements’ as greed, ignorance and hatred, causes us to be attached to the world and impedes our movement on the path to enlightenment. At the same time, though, our classical stories place a high value on the anger of women—not only for its consequences but also for what it represents.
We need to go no further than the Mahabharata for stories about women’s anger. Even before we get to Draupadi and her husbands, we encounter Shakuntala, a woman very different from the gentle forest maiden of Kalidasa’s play. The Mahabharata’s Shakuntala agrees to sleep with the king on condition that he make her son his heir. But the king returns to the city and forgets about his liaison in the woods. Shakuntala appears in his court and accuses him of betraying her and their son and denounces him for being a man who does not know dharma. The king mocks her but her righteous anger calls forth a disembodied voice from the skies. Shakuntala and her son are vindicated by the akashvani and the king is shamed. He grovels before Shakuntala and accepts her as his wife and declares that their son will be king after him.
Draupadi’s story is as familiar to us as the lines on our palms. Gambled away by her husband and disrobed in the presence of the elders in her family, Draupadi does not ask for mercy, she asks for justice. When she sees how passive the men around her are, she swears her own vengeance against those who have humiliated and assaulted her. She promises that there will be a war like no other before, a war that will upturn everything that has been known and believed until then. She swears that she will wear her hair unbound until she can wash it in the blood of the man who dragged her into the assembly hall.
After the war that Draupadi has called up by her anger, Gandhari, mother of one hundred dead sons, curses Krishna in her grief and her rage. She says he could have stopped the war but now, his family members will kill each other as hers have done and that he, Krishna, will die alone, like a hunted animal. Krishna accepts the curse—he knows Gandhari’s anger is righteous. He also knows that it is powerful enough to cause the massacre of his people and his own death, the death of the man who is, in fact, god. It is Krishna’s death, as much as the end of the war that signals the arrival of Kali Yuga, the last and the most difficult of the four Ages. In a sense then, it is Gandhari who acts as the agent of cosmic Time.
And then, there’s Kannaki from the Tamil epic, the Silappatikaram. Arriving as penniless strangers in a city they plan to make their home, Kannaki gives her husband her priceless anklet, filled with gems, to sell. But he is arrested as a thief and executed without a trial or any investigation into his crime. Enraged at the killing of her innocent husband, Kannaki tears off her breast and throws it into the city. It bursts into flames and burns down the city and all its inhabitants, including the repentant king who realises that he is guilty of bad governance and that he has failed in his duties as a protector of truth and justice.
Women’s anger, in these stories, has the sanction and the capacity to restore what is right. It is different from the anger of men, different even from that of notoriously angry but powerful sages like Durvasas and Vishwamitra—their tantrums seem petulant in comparison to the towering rage that women embody and unleash, toppling monarchs and kingdoms, shaking the foundations of a status quo and demanding answers to an entirely new set of questions.
It’s been a few years since I performed the do-it-yourself ritual of exhaling my anger and the magic I felt at that moment has long since worn off. Older and wiser now and more accustomed to the unpredictable but constant companionship of loss, I know that I exhaled very little other than hot air that afternoon. I realise that I am still angry but thankfully, I am not angry about the same things. I have learned that anger will not help me see the complicated ways in which I have to reimagine my life, but I have also learned that anger is the appropriate emotion for the ways in which I want to act and think and write in order to change the world—to make it one of equity and justice and inclusion. I have learned that there is a difference between righteous anger and self-righteous temper.
It is worth mentioning that movements for change led by women, even if they are motivated by anger at injustice, are largely peaceful. Silent gatherings, sit-in demonstrations—these are the hallmarks of women’s solidarity when we step out for and with each other
Share this on
I thought that the value of all anger was the same—that if you renounced the essentially petty angers of your daily life you would also need to abjure the larger angers against the system. That’s what many spiritual traditions tell us—that all anger must be renounced. I don’t believe that all angers are the same, I feel that we must not give up anger against injustice and cruelty and oppression, which must remain the focus of our concern. Any and all oppressions, even if they are not ours, must continually disturb us and cause us discomfort. In that regard, I find these stories from our epics very important—those who have been pushed to the margins, who have been rendered invisible and without voice, they have the right to be angry. In fact, they have the obligation to be angry so that order is restored, so that dignity is reclaimed, so that moral decency prevails as a norm and does not appear as an aberration. And we have the obligation to be angry along with those who have been excluded from the magic circle of rights and privileges.
Even from within the patriarchy, stories like the ones above speak directly to us as women and tell us how necessary and powerful our anger is. As you read this, we are watching a revolution in Iran being led by women who are demanding the right to be free of a claustrophobic ‘morality’ that dictates their public clothing and demeanour. Propelled by the custodial death of a young woman arrested for incorrectly wearing her hijab, the protest has gone far beyond that. Support and solidarity from men, who are not similarly restricted, have widened the protest from one about women’s rights to one against other more widespread oppressions nurtured and perpetrated by the conservative theocratic State. Protests become movements when they are joined by those who are not directly affected by what is being criticised, when more people see that a just and equitable society will actually benefit us all, that a better world belongs to everyone.
CLOSER TO HOME, in 2012, it was women who first took to the streets to draw attention to the ghastly gang rape of Jyoti Singh. The young woman, who died as the result of the brutality of the assault upon her, was christened Nirbhaya and became the “nation’s daughter,” but it was women’s anger that provided the impetus to change rape laws in our country. More recently and more widely, women’s anger at systemic sexual harassment spawned the MeToo movement. That resulted in changed norms for workplaces and new grounds for criminal prosecutions all over the world.
It is also worth mentioning that movements for change led by women, even if they are motivated by anger at injustice, are largely peaceful. Silent gatherings, sit-in demonstrations, protesting within the law—these are the hallmarks of women’s solidarity when we step out for and with each other. Think of Shaheen Bagh and all the other anti-CAA protest sites across the country—they were about sharing food and stories and songs, even as our sisters stood (or rather, sat) so resolutely against an Act that would disenfranchise not necessarily them, but millions of others across the country.
And as the world turns, we are back at our aspirational moment again, the last night of the year when we make resolutions to be better to ourselves and to those around us. Here is mine: I will keep my anger against injustice alive in 2023. I will happily renounce the possibility of liberation and enlightenment in my afterlife. I will remain attached to the world by holding on to anger against patriarchies, hierarchies and exclusions because I want this life to be better. I will remain engaged, thinking, acting, writing, marching, sitting, singing in solidarity with those who fight for dignity, their own and that of others. I will do all of these things with the righteous anger of a woman and I will keep the faith that women can change the world. With a little help from our friends.