Religion and Patriarchy


Attendees: Raakhee Suryaprakash, Aditi Kumar, Yamna Sathak, Hafsa Badsha, Tanya Jaison and Kirthi Jayakumar

Point of discussion: Religion and Identity
Date: February 25, 2017


One of the key themes we discussed at our session today was that religion is a verb that has two implications. One, being the part where we focus on the internal, and the other, being that there is a constant unlearning and learning process involved. The core pursuit of religion and religious interpretation involves the process of decolonizing one's mind and reconstructing ideas and beliefs around religion following an inquiry of one's own.

Tanya started the discussion with a personal example. Her grandparents observe religion in its orthodoxy, while she and her sister chose to observe a personal version of worship and praying in one's own way. While a temporary attempt to coexist within that frame came to place, it fizzled out. To her grandparents, her sister's and her choice was perceived as sacrilegious - and her mother was blamed for bringing the girls up in that way. The irony, as she explained, was that her father wasn't often seen praying in public, and was never questioned or blamed on any account. This opened up a dialogue around how patriarchy operates in the way religion is inculcated in children, and how there seems to be an inherent tendency to blame the mother of a child for the child's religious choices. 

Hafsa articulated her journey around religion. When she was eight, she asked someone why men and women were segregated in a mosque. The person asked her, "If a piece of chocolate were kept open before you, wouldn't you want to eat it?"  Hafsa reported having answered yes, and the person proceeded to relate her response to why women are kept away from the line of sight of men, lest they tempt men. In her growing years, although she came to know what was offered as a rationale for it, she hasn't entirely come to accept it as the basis for sex-segregation. In 2014, Hafsa's religious journey took on a different trend when her ideas centered around focusing on the internal aspect of religion and culture. She explained that patriarchy has often been commonplace in cultural strongholds, and there is a strong tendency to constantly understand religion and culture interchangeably, while they are very different in reality. She explained how Islam has been threatened by a western influence - something that stems out of a post-colonial mindset that is traumatised by colonial history. She explained how fear translates into resistance, for terming something extrinsic as an invasion has often been the recourse of some. She also explained how "Islam versus the West" is telling - in that Islam is not a culture, and the West is not a religion, and that one can find both in each other. She explained how religion is an evolving factor, and that its teachings and beliefs need to be viewed with due regard and value for the context. Ijtihad, or the concept of critical thinking, is vital. Hafsa rounded her opening thoughts up with an allusion to how slavery, concubinage and polygamy have found mention in the Bible and the Torah as much as they do in the Koran, except that in the former two, in observance, religious texts have been more allegorical, while in the latter, there is a larger reliance on literal interpretation. 

Yamna talked about how she personally respects open and non-segregated religious spaces, but at the same time, tended to feel safer in a segregated worship space. She also explained that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and that in the larger scheme of things, worship is personal. She also referenced examples of Mecca - where men and women worship in the same spaces without segregation, simply because there isn't any space. She also said that in the original mosque models, there were no barriers, although now, there are plenty of barriers and separate worship spaces. Yamna explained that she believes that there is enough to accept both points of view so long as there is no imposition of any as the norm or the only way through. 

Raakhee explained that her relationship with religion has largely been set in an open-minded upbringing. She shared that it has struck her that casteism and caste-based discrimination have tended to be greater challenges as opposed to religion - and explained how priesthood is not accorded to women. She also referenced instances where women were prevented from accessing places of worship - such as the Shani temple in Mumbai and Shabarimala. In her opinion, since religion is one's choice and one's way of looking at their relationship with God, if one simply wanted to have that relationship with God, they simply could just go ahead with it. Raakhee also talked about the story behind Sabarimala, where the lord worshipped at the temple was born out of two male gods, Shiva and Vishnu (in his female form), and was brought up by a king. Legend goes, as Raakhee explained, that the Queen was jealous of the lord for the attention he got, and feigned illness, requesting him to fetch her tiger's milk - with the intent of having him killed. He rides into town on a tiger, and laid a curse that no woman within the span of menarche and menopause should be allowed to visit his temple. 

Kirthi talked about how Hinduism at its very fount looked at equality among the binaries of gender and recognized gender fluidity, too. To start with, although history accords Creation-Sustenance-Destruction to the Hindu (male) Trinity, true religious discourse in Hinduism centers around the equal role of women in the process of running the world alongside the trinity. Brahma was the creator, but creation can be nothing without knowledge, ergo, his wife, Saraswati, had a significant role to play. Vishnu, the sustainer, couldn't sustain without wealth, ergo, his wife, Lakshmi, had a significant role to play. Shiva, the destroyer, couldn't destroy without power, and so his wife, Parvati or Shakti, had a a major role to play. She then looked at how once-well-conceived and observed rules had become tools of patriarchal pressure against women. Take for example the case of menstruation and women being forbidden to enter a temple while menstruating. Kirthi explained what she had learned from her grandmother around this. Menstruation synchronizes with the moon cycles, wherein the waxing and waning of the moon exerts a gravitational impact on the earth - and quite in a similar fashion, women have very strong energy levels while menstruating. Since temples were originally energy centers in their own right, the presence of a menstruating woman in the temple would result in a bit of an energy impact of sorts - such as giddiness or nausea or such else - simply because of the strength of the vibrations. She also referenced how this phenomenon may not be as strong in many modern day temples given how the original temples of yesteryear have remained staunch energy centers. 

Aditi explained how fear plays a massive role in religion and in the role of women. She referenced the examples of Peter the Great who's half-sister had a system of listening in on the affairs of the state and manipulating her half-brother's ruling ways. She also referenced the example of Razia Sultan, whose right to rule was taken away from her by her step brother. Aditi also explained that when it comes to religion, orthodoxy can be very confining and its manifestation keeps patriarchal beliefs and ideas alive. 

Some ideas to take home:
- Religion and the relevance of its teachings needs to be constantly evaluated against the context in which its teachings were made applicable originally. 
- Religion is a personal belief system and one's motivations to take to it, to observe it and to follow it are personal, too. And therefore, this begs an important question as to whether we can be compassionate about recognizing each other's motivations. This was an interesting thought to ponder over, and we were left with something to delve deeper before we could respond to. 
- Religion is very different from culture and the interchangeability accorded to the two can make things very difficult in their observance. 
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