The Power of Religion over Women in India

By Virginia Saldanha
National Catholic Reporter
November 10, 2016

Men have been dominant as recipients, interpreters and transmitters of divine messages, while women have largely remained passive receivers of teachings and ardent practitioners of religious rituals. 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 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 (which means "voice of women") took the initiative to organize a national consultation on the theme "Impact of Religion and Culture on Women's Empowerment An Indian Perspective." About 50 people women and men religious, theologians, professionals and a diocesan priest attended the September 23-26 meeting in Hyderabad, India.

Within the overarching framework of patriarchy in the religious and social sphere, the core issues that emerged were: one, violence against women and, two, sexuality and the politics of gender.

Speakers from different religious traditions alluded to the fact that all religions started as movements presenting a way of life. Many have their origin in protest against established exclusionary and oppressive religious structures. However, within the existing patriarchal structures, once religion took root as an institution with rigid dogmas, there developed a fissure between the episteme and practice. The challenge is to recover the sparks of the original flame to effect change.

"Women have internalized patriarchal Christianity. They are comfortable with just a little space that is given to them," said Presentation Sr. and theologian Shalini Mulackal. The language, symbols and culturally conditioned interpretation of religious scriptures have evolved a practice that alienates women and even influences exploitation and violence towards them.

Lubna Sarwath, a social activist and scholar in Islamic economics, declared that Islam has moved away from God and the teachings of the Quran. Usha Rani Vongur, a Marxist feminist, said, "Religion controls our thoughts. It distorts reality and obstructs us from questioning." Manusmriti, the divine code of conduct for Hindus, depicts women in a very poor light and is full of derogatory statements about them. It advocates total control of women by the men in their lives. It also divided Indian society into castes, granting privilege to the higher castes and penalties to the lower ones.

"Religion is not a given, it is a negotiated reality," Kalpana Kannabiran, a Hindu woman and director of the Council for Social Development in Hyderabad, said in her keynote address.

Violence against women

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, like religious leaders, and in public spaces.

Cyrilla Chakkalakal, a Franciscan Sister of St. Mary of the Holy Angels, narrated experiences of pain in the lives of nuns arising from patriarchal attitudes. Referring to the murder of two sisters from her congregation in 1990, she narrated how the character assassination of the sisters in the media turned public attention to the sexuality of the sisters and detracted from the who or why of the murders. The leaders of the Catholic community failed to take a stand. Their apathy and silence was painful. Were they being held back by other powers? The suffering that the congregation went through has only abated with time.

Religious structures have a negative impact on victims of sexual abuse, too. Women internalize scriptural interpretation that describes woman as sinner, manipulator and temptress. This contributes to their silence on abuse. Seeing the priest in the place of God compounds the confusion and guilt. As a result, the psychosocial and spiritual impact of abuse committed by the clergy is immense on women victims.

The bodies of women from the Dalit or outcast community are seen as "available," the women portrayed as characterless, so they are exploited for sex. Atrocities to Dalit women are very visible and committed with utter impunity. The internalization of their social status renders them voiceless. The mindset of caste underpins culture in all religious groups, including Christians. However, Dalits have become aware of their status and value in recent times. They comprise 17 percent of the Indian population, so politicians endeavor to reach out to them with various political gimmicks often resulting in splitting the community. Shyamla, a Dalit woman, proposed the articulation of feminism from a Dalit perspective.

Violence to women in the family cuts across all religious and caste groups in India and has its roots in cultural attitudes of male superiority. Narrations of stories of violence to women in the family can only be described as horrendous. One is left wondering how women continue to survive and take care of their children and home. The stories are similar beating, smothering, choking (even during pregnancy), sexual violence, emotional violence, violence done to the girl children. But with the existence of a strong women's movement that helped bring changes in the law, women have access to legal help to file cases against domestic violence.

Sexuality and the politics of gender

Kochurani Abraham, a feminist theologian, pointed out that, in all mainstream religions and cultures, the politics of representation is at work mainly by casting humans in a gendered mold. The definition of masculinity places men at an advantage while women, defined as weak, sensitive and dependent, are highly disadvantaged. Ironically Pope Francis too is stuck in the complementary 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, Abraham observed.

There is a need to break gender binaries as power is hegemonic and prescribes violence to control, dominate and enforce a system of rule. The gendering of body and sexuality does great violence to women and LGBTIQ persons. The male is considered the norm, and scriptures are used to define women as defective, sinful, needing to be controlled, even by using violence. LGBTIQ persons and their subjectivities are by and large excluded by authorized canons of religions. The issue of LGBTIQ persons is still nascent in India. The person scheduled to talk to us about this topic did not show up but they are included in the program for change.

Church teaching, while professing the equality of women, promotes the notion of complementarily assigning fixed roles to women and men, with women usually in passive and subservient positions, as Fr. Shaji George Kochuthara of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate pointed out. With regard to sexuality, he said, procreation is the center of the marriage relationship, the leader in theological ethics. Love, equality, respect and mutuality that contribute toward strengthening the marriage relationship are ignored. This, he said, has led to the active/passive paradigm that legitimates violence, such as marital rape, but also emotional, psychological and financial violence that covertly controls women's sexuality. Church leadership remains silent on the issues of domestic violence and dowry but stresses a morality that condemns abortion and contraceptives and glorifies fidelity in marriage and motherhood no matter the circumstances, Kochuthara concluded.

In India, gender justice is manipulated for political gain. The government has created a controversy over a Uniform Civil Code to divide people on religion and gender. In the name of gender justice, it is fueling Muslim women to stand up against polygamy and the triple talaq as it is practiced in India (where the man says "talaq" three times to divorce his wife). But women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes, who has taken up several cases of Muslim women's divorce in court, finds that Muslim law can indeed give justice to women, especially to obtain alimony for them, while women in other traditions continue to struggle for those rights. Second wives in the Muslim tradition have full rights, while in other traditions they have no rights. Polygamy is more prevalent in other religious traditions than in Islam. She emphasizes, "We need equality of rights and not equality of the law."

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. The maleness of Christ rather than his humanity is emphasized, putting women on a plane lower than men. 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. As Montfort Br. Varghese Thecknath offered, "The ontologically different character attained by men at ordination becomes a source of power that is sacramental and hierarchal and creates unequal people. This becomes an impediment to the realization of human rights in the church."

Without altering mindsets, very little can change. Hence at this September meeting, an action plan was drawn up for collaborating with male theologians to construct a campaign to boost awareness and create gender sensitivity programs; to form a solidarity group to strengthen the outreach to women victims of sex abuse in the church; and to fortify the Indian Christian Women's Movement. While a more concrete strategy was worked out for the second and third phases of the action plan, the first part needs to become reality. The participants departed with a lot of enthusiasm to go back to their respective ministries and work towards a church that reflects Jesus' call to be a community that believes and lives the "Kin-dom" values of love, justice, equality, peace, reconciliation and communion.

[Virginia Saldanha is a theologian based in Mumbai. She is secretary of the Indian Christian Women's Movement and the Indian Women Theologians Forum. She also has represented laity, family and women's issues in organizations of Asian and Indian bishops.]








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