By Shefali Mehta
One thing most taken for granted is gender, another is religion. Little children show an acute sense of what is ‘girlish’ and what is ‘manly’; the deviant ones are thoroughly ridiculed. Religion is similarly a given, religious identity is seldom seen as contingent. And this identity, based on accident of birth, is held with near fanatic love.
But religion is more than a belief in God. Belonging to one religion and not the others determines a lot many aspects of our lives. Culture as an active value system is largely constituted by religion. Culture gives a concrete manifestation to ideologies, and therefore it is the site where the dominant and marginal sections struggle to determine who controls meaning.
To make an essentializing claim: religion controls the meaning of morality, and morality is that which sanctifies patriarchy. Family, sacral duties, virtues are all determined by religious value system. So in such a case, how does a female feminist relate to her religion? There are questions that stare right in the face. Ram’s raj dharma could not ensure justice to a woman, whose chastity becomes talk of the town and the talk of the town reason enough for her second exile. Perhaps there is much to learn and appropriate from Draupadi’s strong questioning of Yudhishthira’s right to put her at stake. But this lesser known speech aside, the well-known part is that Yudhishthira was the only one out of the Pandavas and Draupadi who reached heaven. He was unblemished, sinless – so it was, though it might sound strange because the current legal system would have got him to jail. (So has God also changed his criteria of eligibility for heaven with time? Hopefully he has, though that would leave us fumbling over the historicity of eternal God and hence, morality.)
It is not merely random incidents from religious mythologies that can throw up disconcerting notions of morality. The seven marriage vows in a Hindu marriage take for an assumption the ‘indisputable’ division of labour – the domestic and the worldly. So what do those vows mean, now, when we seek a world where responsibilities are fluid and shared rather than divided according to gender? The general reality is that the woman ends up doing both outside and household work: if the woman wants liberation, she can go out to work, but the man is too much of a man to clean the kitchen. Take the ritual of ‘Kanyadaan’, while there is much appeal against objectification of women in mass culture, we know how it comes dressed in ‘naturalized’ familiarity since woman is seen as a transferrable commodity, passed from one man to another, since ancient days. If we strip the halo of sanctity created around kumkum and mangalsutra, at the very basic level, these items are revealed to be nothing more than an assertion that the woman is ‘taken’ (reminds of a dog’s collar?). The halo is not intrinsic to them, and we need to ask why the halo exists. A man wears no identifiable mark of being married, his identity stands by itself, but the woman has to take on herself her husband’s identity.
In a previous article ‘The Trojan Gifts of Patriarchy’ I had written how the figure of Durga seen as an aspect of womanhood is insufficient to actually empower a woman. This is very much like the inability of the Shabri episode to outweigh the heavy casteist wisdom in scriptures. Overall religion has been anti-feminist and anti-Marxist; it has aligned itself and has been found at the disposal of the powerful to sustain their dominance. If politicians manipulate religion to create communal tension, or some factions resist abortion citing it as against religion, the power dynamics are certainly tilted towards favouring a certain status quoist power equation.
The peculiarity of religion in the lives of feminists remains. Drawing value systems out of religious scriptures is a dangerous task. If one cites a passage from Ramayana or Bhagavad-Gita, counter-groups can cite others to contradict. The various versions of the same story can also be a point of contention. For example, Ahalya in some versions is seen as committing adultery by choice as she does not resist even after seeing through the disguise of Indra who is impersonating her husband. This reaffirms the stereotype of woman as treacherous and unfaithful. Other versions show her as a victim and therefore, wrongly persecuted by her husband. Feminists can appropriate the latter version but that gives no vantage point because of the sheer multiplicity of versions. With radical questioning of the idea of justice by God, and the ubiquity of the unexplainable innocent suffering (important in the context of oppressed groups which have large numbers of its members suffering for generations without respite), disillusioned with metaphysical explanations, some turn to atheism, taking the reins of justice in human hands.
Whether seeking the impossible reconciliation of religion and feminism, or appropriation of religion, or a rejection of it along with the concept of divinity, a feminist is bound to engage with religion at some point. Gender and religion, the two notions intricately wrought with self, necessarily become a ground for critical negotiation for a feminist.
Shefali is a sceptic by nature, with a critical eye on culture, ideologies and evolving trends of societies. A student of English Literature at Delhi University, she is particularly interested in the lives and history of people living in the Indian subcontinent and contemporary issues like terrorism, exile, human rights and global capitalism. Mostly interested in theory, she also likes to explore regional cinema. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius