“The Impact of Religion and Culture on Women’s Empowerment – An Indian Perspective.”

by Virginia Saldanha – National Consultation, 23-26 September 2016, Hyderabad.

Virginia Saldanha
Virginia Saldanha
Men have been dominant as recipients, interpreters and transmitters of divine messages, while women have largely remained passive receivers of religious teachings and ardent practitioners of religious rituals. Cultural practice and social attitudes developed around patriarchal interpretations of religious belief have defined and shaped the social and cultural contexts of Indian women resulting in their disempowerment and second class status. In India where politics uses religion as a tool to manipulate the masses, women bear the brunt of the consequences of the cultural attitudes and the impact of religion and politics in their particular milieu. Recognizing the influence of religion and culture on Indian women’s lives, Streevani , run by the Holy Spirit Sisters, took the initiative to organize a National Consultation on the theme “Impact of Religion and Culture on Women’s Empowerment – An Indian Perspective” from 23rd to 26th September, 2016 at Hyderabad. Fifty people, religious women and men, lay women and one diocesan priest were present.
“Religion is not a given, it is a negotiated reality” said Dr. Kalpana Kannabiran a Hindu woman who presented the keynote address. She pointed out that religion is one space in our social reality that can be a divider, a medium of connection, of violence, peace, or exclusion. It defines law and guarantees impunity to lawlessness. According to Kannabiran, the undefineablity of religion for each of the above elements limits our attempt to fix it in a space for all time, but we could make the required changes as we go along. The question of women’s empowerment in religion is locked in women’s bodies inscribed by taboos, dictates on what they wear, whom they speak to, and their marital status. Even though all these are extraneous to the fact of belief they form part of cultural practice in all religions. The exercise of power by women is at the pleasure of the men in control whether in the family or in the religious sphere.
All religions started as movements presenting a way of life. Many have their origin in protest against established exclusionary and oppressive religious structures. Once religion takes root as an institution with rigid dogmas there develops a fissure between the episteme and the practice. The challenge is to recover the sparks of the original flame to effect change. Kannibaran reminded us, “Women contribute a lot to the voice of dissent, across the world and religions. The propagation of dogma holds women as captives in their various spaces. Across religions women are prohibited from religious spaces. Therefore women have the biggest stake in religion as dissenters.” We need to preserve these voices of prophetic dissent.
“Women have internalized patriarchal Christianity. They are comfortable with just a little space that is given to them. A lot of awareness is needed for both men and women to come together with a feminist consciousness that is essential to clarify the essence of Christianity, dissect tradition and find the living tradition in accordance with gospel values” asserted Dr. Shalini Mulakal pvbm.
Women feel alienated by language, symbols and practice. Language can liberate or oppress people to give power to a few. Biblical language is patriarchal. Though God is beyond gender, traditional male symbols and language is used for God. Sadly, language and symbols have been used as if they are true expressions of God and applied to deny women leadership in Church, affirmed Jacob Parapally MSFS.
Dr. Lubna Sarwath pointed out that Islam has moved away from God and the teachings of the Quran. Chapter 7, vs 31 invites all the children of Adam to enter the Masjid and prostrate before God, yet today women are barred from Masjids in India and Pakistan. Surah 30 Rum: Verse 21 refers to mutuality in the marriage relationship, “Women are a garment to men, men are a garment to the wife”, “He put love and mercy between you”. She said that the triple talak as it is practiced today, (where the man says ‘talak’ three times to divorce his wife) is not even mentioned in the Quran. There have to be 3 cycles, or periods wherein arbitration and reconciliation is attempted, after which the last talak is effective. The Quran allows polygamy only in certain circumstances and caps the number of wives at four. Polygamy comes with tough critical riders. Only one to two percent of Muslim men are polygamous, the figure being higher for men in other religious traditions including Christianity.
Dr. Raminder Kaur a Sikh preacher, declared “All are Sikhs here”, as the Sacred book of the Sikhs is a universal scripture incorporating saints from other religious traditions. Guru Nanak endeavoured to write for the understanding of all people. The Holy book was not meant to be an article of worship as it is today, but a book of learning. Men are instructed to be like females to realize God. She claimed that there is no gender discrimination in Sikhism. There are no priests only teachers called Jatedars. Women can also be Jatedars.
Usha Rani Vongur a Marxist feminist, asked, “How much freedom do we have to live our lives the way we want to live it?” Religion controls our thoughts. It distorts reality and obstructs us from questioning. Often violence is used, especially on women. Women’s lives are inscribed by their sexuality and controlled by patriarchy which dictates how women should live their lives. Manusmriti, the divine code of conduct for Hindus depicts women in very poor light and is full of derogatory statements about them. It advocates total control of women by the men in her life. Usha asserted that religious fundamentalism preaches violence and should not be tolerated. It stands in opposition to rational thinking.
Speaking on Power in Religious Structures and its Impact on Women, Dr. Kochurani Abraham pointed out that in all mainstream religions and cultures, the politics of representation is at work mainly by casting humans in a gendered mould. The definition of masculinity places men at an advantage while women, defined as weak, sensitive and dependent are highly disadvantaged. LGBTIQ persons are not even recognized. Ironically Pope Francis too is stuck in the complimentary gendered mindset even though he talks about expanding the roles of women. His otherwise progressive encyclicals refer to gendered roles for women neglecting qualities like intellectual agency, theological expertise, organizational abilities and leadership skills in women, stated Kochurani.
In India violence to women, the marginalized sections of society and minorities is a disturbing issue. Violence is prevalent in the family, and expands to a woman’s circle of known persons, even those she is taught to revere and confide in such as religious leaders, and in public spaces.
Cyrilla Chakalakal FSMA, narrated experiences of pain in the lives of nuns arising from patriarchal attitudes, and Virginia Saldanha explained the impact of religious structures on victims of sexual abuse. The painful sharing by Shyamla a Dalit woman who spoke of political and religious violence, and Sandhya, a victim of domestic violence, amply demonstrated the roots of violence in culture and religion.
The move of the Indian Government to create a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is embroiled in political controversy. It indicates how gender justice is manipulated for political gain. Women from religious minorities are in favour of retaining their personal laws with necessary amendments to ensure gender justice and view the creation of a UCC as a move to undermine their rights. “As societies across nations evolve and become more plural, we realize that we need equality of rights and not equality of the law” emphasized Adv. Flavia Agnes.
For Catholic women governed by the Code of Canon Law the major discrimination based on gender is their exclusion from ordination and all the offices contained therein. Even within the category of the non-ordained, women and men do not enjoy equal rights. Only men, including married men, can be ordained deacons and be installed as lectors pointed out Dr. Shaji George CMI. Church leadership remains silent on the issues of domestic violence and dowry but stresses morality that condemns abortion and contraceptives, and glorifies fidelity in marriage and motherhood no matter the circumstances, he added.
Though women and men are created equal (Gen 1:27), the ontologically different character attained by men at ordination becomes a source of sacramental and hierarchal power that creates unequal people. This is an impediment to the realization of human rights in the Church, stated Varghese Theknath SG.
Without a change in mindsets very little will change, hence an action plan was drawn up for creating a pressure group with male theologians to evolve a campaign for awareness building and gender sensitivity programs; for building a solidarity group to strengthen the outreach to women victims of sex abuse in the Church; and finally for strengthening the Indian Christian Women’s Movement .