Human Rights, United Kingdom

“Devadasi”, a devastated profession

The “devadasi” are a social group of girls who are “married” in childhood to the goddess, and then sold for sex when they hit puberty. On first look, any outsider would immediately feel that this system is wrong and an objectification of women.

Indeed, devadasi literally means “slave of god”… but there is more than one side to this story, a story layered with history, moulded by social climate and analyzed by sceptical foreigners. A story that is explored in British director Beeban Kidron’s new documentary, “Sex, Death and the Gods”, which will be shown 20th March at 4 p.m., hosted by the Front Line Club.

The documentary depicts the complicated life of the devadasi: once the elite lovers of princes and priests, the women allowed social mobility and the dancers of the temple and court, the devadasi were made illegal in 1947 as the British left India. Now, the devadasi are formed when mothers marry their daughters to the goddess, and then sell them for sex when they hit puberty.

After they are ordained, the girls are usually pulled out of school, because they are more likely to rebel if they have an education. However, the children born to these girls will be more likely to get an education than their peers, because their mothers understand that an education means a possible way out.

Not all women are looking for a way out, though, and many feel that being a devadasi gives them more freedom than being married would. At least with this life, they are able to make their own wages and feed themselves, and not have to listen to a husband tell them how much they can eat or what they can buy.

The documentary shows the women in all their various guises, and lends a historical understanding to the devadasi, as well as shows the difference between the public perception of the girls and what life is really like for them.

As Kidron points out, the devadasi are often scrutinized by foreigners, who say that it is wrong for these girls to become prostitutes and that they would sooner become prostitutes themselves than force their daughters to, but those on the outside do not really understand the culture and have never had to make a decision like that. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the director.

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