What do Indian women have to say about religion?
Why are all religions, the most powerful institutions in the world, led primarily by men?
Are religions inherently patriarchal, or have men’s disproportionate power and authority in interpreting them skewed religious texts and ideology against women and girls? How have those interpretations affected women’s basic rights?
These are some of the questions I have struggled with growing up as a woman in India. Religion is the thread that runs through the heart of this diverse nation, but these questions have hardly been explored in public. Indian women’s ideas about religion have particularly been ignored by these institutions. So I decided to ask them about it.
In January of 2016, I began to try to find answers to these questions by making a documentary called Women and Religion in India. For 10 months, I traveled from the snow-covered peaks of Jammu-Kashmir to the backwaters of Kerala, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the rainy land of Meghalaya, and everywhere in between. I met and interviewed around 200 women who are activists, researchers, professors, students, nuns, and homemakers; who are affiliated with Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism.
The most common theme I witnessed in my conversations with women across faiths, regions, and classes was their inability to access power in their religious institutions. For example, a Christian nun shared with me how even senior nuns in her church are required to stand in front of bishops; they are considered servants and have no authority in front of their male counterparts. Similarly, a Jain woman told me how irrespective of the seniority or age of a Jain nun, she will always be seated below a monk.
But I also met many women who are challenging the status quo in their religious communities and are attempting to make space for women in those communities. For example, one 17-year-old student of Buddhist studies told me she was appalled when she learned she wasn’t allowed to enter a Buddhist temple in Nubra on account of her menstrual “impurity.” This concept of “purity” in which menstruating women are considered impure is not at all a part of Buddhism, she told me. People (men) have wrongly brought this taboo into the religion over time.
A Hindu activist told me about how she was breaking a tradition that had been followed in her community for several decades: She decided to fight against the ban that prevented women from entering the Shani Shingnapur temple. In response to her decision to fight the ban, she received threats of violence and rape from various religious leaders. “If women can talk about everything else, then why can’t they interpret religion?” she asked me.
A national group of Muslim women called Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan has started training Muslim women to become “Qazis,” which are magistrates of Islamic court. These magistrates have been historically responsible for administration of religious endowments, the execution of wills, the accreditation of witnesses, guardianship over orphans and others in need of protection, and supervision of the enforcement of public morals. Female Qazis are unheard of in India. By training Muslim women to take on these positions, this group not only challenges the general status quo, but makes the trainees aware of a more gender-equal interpretation of the Quran as well as their rights as outlined in the holy book.
A young Hindu girl whom I met on the train to Varanasi shared with me how she broke with the age-old Hindu tradition by doing the last rites of her grandmother. As per Hindu scriptures, it is believed that a woman should not do the last rites of any member of the family. But this girl did so even though her entire village was against it.
I visited a mosque that was established in 1997 in Uttar Pradesh (northern India) where both women and men can pray. An activist set up this mosque in defiance of what she saw as a patriarchal Muslim community; women had not previously been allowed to pray in mosques. This mosque now serves not only as a religious place, but as a place for community building among the women who go there.
A Hindu homemaker from Maharashtra succinctly captured the difficult relationship between women and religion I had witnessed all across the country: “Religion and women are like a game of seesaw. One goes up, the other goes down. When religion wins, women lose.”
After completing this documentary earlier this year, I premiered the film in India and the U.S. It has been received quite well in both countries, indicating that people may generally be beginning to acknowledge how religion is so often used as a tool for patriarchy. Going forward, I want to use this film as a tool to begin a comprehensive discussion about women’s rights in the realm of religion. Religion has an enormous impact on defining the norms, rules, and laws of our land, and social change makers and activists cannot ignore the dynamics imposed by structures like caste and religion while trying to promote women's rights.
As Katherine Zoepf, an American journalist, put it in her book Excellent Daughters, “The world changes because of wars and terrorist attacks but it also changes because a daughter makes slightly different decisions from the ones her mother made.”
Check out the documentary here.
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