Friday, May 19, 2017

The Role of Patriarchy in Hinduism

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
In a feminist’s life, religion will always have an omnipresent (and sometimes nagging) role, especially if one identifies with a religion or grows up in a religious community. It is very tricky to reconcile gender roles and religion because many religions rely on patriarchal structures and the near-blind acceptance of them. In fact, feminism and religion are connected in that many of our views on feminism can be framed by religious practices and doctrines. They are also allied in the sense that the end goal is the same: inclusion and connection through a common belief in the community. However, it is important to internalize the fact that being a feminist does not mean being anti-religion. The entire purport of feminism is to empower women, most often by providing them with the ability to choose. If a woman is not given a choice to reconcile feminist values and religion, we risk alienating the very women we wish to uplift. Being a Hindu myself, I have experienced the ways in which the patriarchal structures of Hinduism have influenced my feminist thought. Examining gender roles and orthodox traditions in Hinduism, can give us insight into how certain stereotypes and gender roles came to be.
In Hinduism, there are a countless number of gods and goddesses. To my surprise, the ancient scriptures and texts seem to provide evidence that gender of these deities was not seen as binary but more like a spectrum. The creator, Brahma (the creator), is perceived by many Hindus to be genderless. Many gods, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’ are also seen as androgynous. There are several words in Sanskrit and Tamil, such as ‘pedi’, ‘kliba’ and ‘sanda’ that suggest that civilization has long been familiar with queer thought and behavior. Today, however, sexuality is a rarely discussed openly in society. Homosexuality has been illegal for many years until a brief period in 2009. Soon after, the Supreme Court of India reinstated the legal ban on homosexuality. In fact, homosexuality, sex education, safe sex etc are all considered to be taboo topics and are rarely spoken of in the public without criticism or backlash.
In a society where sexuality is such a taboo topic, it is very fascinating and ironic that many religious customs that married women adhere to are for the purpose of improving a woman’s libido and sex drive (thereby increasing the woman’s fertility). The bindi is a small dot (often red) that is worn by women on the forehead, between the eyes. Though the actual purpose behind the bindi is widely debated, many Hindus believe that it is to enhance beauty, signify that the woman is married and improve concentration and focus. The placement of the bindi is such that it places pressure on a nerve on the forehead that connects to the uterus. A married woman may also apply sindhoor/kumkum (a vermillion powder made using turmeric) on her hair line to signify that she is married. Sindhoor is known to produce a cooling effect on the body, but the popular use for this powder suggests that the deep red colour signifies the fertile blood and the redness of the womb. Articles of clothing and other accessories such as toe-rings and the Mangal sutra (which literally translates to ‘auspicious string’) worn after marriage serve similar purposes.
The Mangal Sutra is both the creator and destroyer of a married life. When tied to a woman’s neck by her husband, it promotes her to wifehood. When it is removed, it demotes her to widowhood. A widow is also usually stripped of any jewelry - bangles, toe-rings, anklets, rings, sindhoor and even colour clothes. In older times, widows were considered extremely inauspicious. Anyone who encounters a widow before an auspicious or happy occasion believed they would have bad luck and considered seeing a widow was a bad omen. Centuries ago, there existed a practice known as ‘sati’, wherein the widow throws herself into her husband’s pyre or commits suicide in any other fashion, immediately after her husband’s death. This practice was not completely eradicated or made illegal until the 20th century. In 1987, the government of India passed a ‘Commission of Sati (prevention) Act’ that made it illegal to support, attempt or even glorify sati. Even though scholars suggest that sati was a voluntary action, many cases seem to suggest it is forced. Not only does this suggest the patriarchy’s role in making the man seem to ‘own’ the woman but also induce the toxic notion that a woman has no worth if she is not married/ is widowed.  
In Hindu temples, the majority of priests are male and it is rare that one ever sees a female priest. If you walk into a Hindu temple, more often than not, you will find the priest to be topless – wearing only a long sarong (saffron, yellow, white, red or black) draped around the lower-half of the body. According to the ‘Agama Shastras’, many temples in Kerala do not allow male devotees to wear shirts. The reasons behind this strange custom stem from the fact that back in those days, men did not traditionally have an upper body garment. Another popular belief is that going bare-chested and removed of all materialistic and accessory garment shows god that you have nothing to hide while also driving a more personal connection with the deity. In polar contrast, many temples have a stipulated dress code stating women must only be dressed in Indian wear/dressed ‘modestly’ – i.e. sleeveless tops and tight jeans are not allowed. Theorized reasons for this dress code is to ensure comfort and no distraction (to other devotees and to oneself) or embellishments around God. The double standards are still apparent in the case of men. Whatever the reasons used by our Hindu ancestors to justify these age-old customs, I strongly believe that most of these temple traditions have little relevance to today’s world. If a woman feels comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the temple, she should be allowed to do so. Similarly, a man who wants to keep his shirt on while offering prayers to the deity should have the right to do so. What matters at the end of the day, is the devotion, spiritual connection to god and the prayers offered/blessings sought in the temple.
Unfortunately, in India, periods and the menstrual cycle are very taboo and hush-hush topics of discussion. For most Hindus, the unspoken rule is that women who are menstruating are not allowed to enter temples, religious shrines or even prayer rooms. There are even certain temples in India, such as the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, wherein women who are within the age of menstruating are forbidden from entering. Girls who have not matured yet and women who have reached menopause are allowed entry into the temple. In some households, a woman on her period is not allowed to sleep on the bed, eat from daily kitchenware and must wash her clothes separately. In most rural households, they are not even allowed to enter the house. The reasons behind these rules seem sensible. Staying separately and using different kitchen ware pertain to the reason of hygiene and cleanliness, to avoid the spread of bacteria and therefore infections. A woman is also not expected to strain herself and therefore take a lot of rest because she may experience pains and cramps. In the 21st century, these practices are not really followed as customs primarily due to advancement in healthcare and availability of tampons and sanitary pads, which minimize the risk of bacteria and other harmful microbes even if a woman is on her period.
With the rampant proliferation in globalization, the roles of women in Hinduism are changing. Hindu women experience more freedom and have more choices today, than ever before. With ongoing efforts to abolish outdated and irrelevant traditions like child-marriage, Hindu-practicing individuals are on the road to more religious freedom and open-minded thinking. It is important to remember, that there is still a long way to go in creating a gender-equal community for Hindus and the way to do this exists not only through legislative changes but also through changes at the local level. Raising awareness about unjust practices and archaic customs can go a long way in changing the lives of women and men in their community. We must continue to question preconceived gender-roles and outlandish traditions (but not just for the sake of them) and work to improve the lives of the minority women and men.  
*The author of this article does not intend to offend anyone or even the Hindu religion with her opinions of the same.