Women dancers wait to perform at Sikander, near Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India. Despite cultural biases Hindu women are increasingly appearing in public life.
Photo: Grant Rooney
WOMEN, RELIGION AND THE QUEST FOR EQUALITY
Religiously ordained patriarchy is alive and kicking in India. Hundreds of millions of women are facing its brunt on a day-to-day basis. The ancient Indian lawgiver Manu stated that women were the property of the husband. The husband could be “destitute by virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, yet a husband must be constantly worshipped as God by the faithful wife.” The notions of Manu are far from dead in the reality of today’s India.
Religious patriarchy still holds sway and women are still considered second class citizens despite the Constitution of India which clearly states that justice, equality and liberty are ordained for every citizen and that every citizen is equal before the law. Article 15 of he Constitution also prohibits discrimination based on sex. There is an on going dialectic between the traditional patriarchal religious values and the new values enshrined in the Constitution of India. Thus at one end of the spectrum women are sometimes treated as slaves and undergo violence and rape, while at the other end women may also become the president of India, chief ministers, business leaders and senior bureaucrats.
Mata Amritanandamayi, the well known Hindu woman religious figure, states her dream as follows: “A vision of a world in which women and men progress together, a world in which all men respect the fact, like the two wings of a bird, women and men are of equal value.” The Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo states, “I have made a wow to attain enlightenment in the female form- no matter how many lifetimes it takes.” Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman believe that contemporary Muslim women are “creating knowledge from their perspectives and their own lived realities which are largely experiences of injustice and inequality. In other words there is a move towards ‘democratization of the production of religious knowledge’. Women are no longer dependent on men to know what God wants from them.” Sr. Shalini Mulackal states that “In a world where inequalities abound between men and women, the Church is called to become a convincing sign and a sacrament of equality for the rest of humanity and the entire creation.” Harminder Kaur is clear that “Sikhism guides that the girl child has equal right to good education and choice of vocation.”
So while patriarchy in the Indian context may still be strong the new religious leaders and women’s movements are undermining it on a daily basis. The death-knell of patriarchy has been sounded and let us hope for a quick demise.