In a society that is run on patriarchy, by patriarchy, how much autonomy do women get in religious spaces? Are religious spaces even made to accommodate women?
As someone who identifies as a woman, you will know what I mean when I say “male gaze”— something that doesn’t leave your side in public, something that still occupies your mind in private. This isn’t something that is found only in one aspect or one dimension of society, but rather it forms the foundational structure of the world we live in.
Women are making their choices from a menu of options that has been structured by men for men.” -Adam Swift
Ideals and practices of patriarchy or misogyny can be found in every nook and corner of the world, as easily as the potholes that are found on every single street in India. Thus, this sexism is not just a regional problem, but rather a global one.
But humans being humans are still sitting with their hopes in one hand and their miseries in the other. We are still trying to find places where we might not be treated differently, where we might not be unequal. One such place, where anyone would rationally expect equality in its truest sense to exist, is the “house of God”.
Religion occupies a huge proportion of importance and value in the lives of a majority of individuals living in the world— be it in the form of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, among numerous others (the list of religions that exist in the world currently is virtually endless).
But reality exists in stark contrast to this theoretical view and belief of gender equality. Most of the world’s religions consider women to be part of the second tier of devotees, the first tier being obviously occupied by men. They are usually seen as a sort of support system to the existence of man in the religious world, existing only to augment the male purpose and ego. Historically entrenched, women have been denied rights to property, wealth, and even things as basic as the right to freedom or opinion, while all of these claims have been held up by crutches that we call religion.
This is not a novel phenomenon. In early Indian history, the Vedas (which are considered as one of the earliest religious texts in India) were conceived and popularised to establish the dominance of the Brahmans and their worldview. They reflected the realities of society but also tried to shape the perceptions of those living in this society. Based upon similar ideals, modern religion has taken assistance from age-old traditions, interpreting even the handful of non-sexist ideals through a misogynistic eyehole.
Under Hinduism (a religion followed by a huge majority of the Indian population), women are not considered independent individuals but are only seen as attached to the authority of a man.
According to the Hindu code of Manu,
In childhood a woman must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, [and] after the husband’s death to her sons; a woman must never be free of subjugation.”
Under Christianity, the scripture in Genesis says,
The Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet (fit or suitable) for him,”
again, suggesting that women are to play a supportive role to men. This is further found in passages in Colossians and Peter, which call for women to submit to their husbands and to stay silent in their shadow.
Islam might be seen as holding a better position in some respects— such as the existence of alimony (nafaqah) and the provision of a right to divorce for not just men, but also women under Islamic law (khul). But in other respects, Islam also holds a similar notion where women are seen as inferior and subject to subjugation by men. It also gave men the unequal and unfair right to instantly divorce their wives by saying “talaq” thrice. This led to a massive judicial case, bringing to light the question of religious boundaries and state intervention. Ultimately, the Indian government ended up criminalising the practice of “triple talaq”, but that does not point towards a very significant betterment of the status of women in Islamic society.
One branch of Jainism, that is, the Digambars, does not even consider women eligible for enlightenment as they believe that enlightenment is only possible by giving up all possessions, including one’s clothing. As the female body goes through the biological process of menstruation, it becomes inherently impossible for women to give up clothing, thus, leaving them excluded from even the choice of being part of this process.
How much sense does it make— that owing to an inequality based not on one’s choice but rather on the autonomy of nature and biology— women are subjected to such rules and restrictions, not even free from this bias in a place where people turn to for finding intrinsic peace?
A similar incident gained a lot of media coverage in the past years, that is, the Sabarimala case. A 2018 Supreme Court verdict lifted the ban that had prevented women of menstruating age to enter the Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala. Not surprisingly, this was met by a lot of outcries from religious groups as well as the inhabitants of Sabarimala itself. The breaking and violation of an age-old tradition, that had been followed by ancestors through centuries, was enough blasphemy for the people. But does faith in a religion or God or divinity give an individual or society the right to deny women (who, ideally, should also be as important in the “eyes of god” as men) their freedom of faith and practice?
The feminist movement has constantly argued about the problems that exist in the religious sphere and stem from the religious sphere— the practice of Sati, the Pardah system, unequal property rights (and the ensuing social and political inequality and dependence). But this also does not mean that religion as a whole only exists as a tool for the subjugation of women (even if a majority of it does).
Case in point would be the constant discussion over the wearing of the Hijab by Muslim women, a practice that people jumped upon as being “oppressive”, “unfair”, or “going against modern feminist ideals”. This is not what feminism truly means. Feminism gives women the right to freedom— to make choices for themselves, be it in alignment with traditional practices or with the modern. Such a blatant and blind viewpoint does not achieve anything for women and their rights. Rather it builds upon the same precept that has been put forward by the proponents of patriarchy for decades, taking away from women the freedom to make an independent choice for themselves.
But coming back to the norm and not the exception, most independent-thinking women do not think that the co-existence of religion and feminism is possible. Every step that is taken differently from what your religion or its scriptures or religious leaders prescribe and preach, is also seen and considered as a step away from your faith.
If a religion simply becomes a tool of subjugation, and not of freedom, then such a faith has nothing to contribute to human society,”said an article from dailyo.com
So, does that mean that in this modern world women still need to exist in parts, hiding away something to be a part of something else? Does it mean that women cannot exist as a whole, as human, but only as an anomaly of pieces stitched together as per convenience?
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Feature Image Credits: ‘Women and Religion’ by Carole A. Barnsley