By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Hi everyone! Hope you’re all ready for some Friendly Advice meets Feminism this fine day.A asked:
Does being religious stop me from being a feminist?
I’m third generation agnostic. You should know that at the outset. While my paternal grandmother was into astrology and birth charts and what not, my maternal grandmother didn’t—still doesn’t—hold much faith in those things. Growing up, spending holidays in Hyderabad where she lived, I remember exactly one religious idol, and that was a rather pretty bronze Nataraj statue, and one luridly painted Lakshmi who sat in the store room. I didn’t even know who they were for the longest time, I just thought they were random art objects, more for her collection of knick-knacks (she has a ton). I learnt all my Indian myths through Amar Chitra Kathas, or sometimes from my mum or dad, but this Wise Old Grandmother Telling Stories thing? Not mine. She wasn’t anti-religious, per se, I just don’t think she cared enough. My parents didn’t care either, so there I was, brought up with zero thoughts on God, gods, festivals, special fasting days and so on and so forth. When I was about six, I remember one of my classmates saying he didn’t believe in God, and I was so jealous, because neither did I, I was just too chicken to admit it.
That being said, despite, or perhaps because of this astounding lack of religious education, I was always drawn to spiritual texts. When I was about eight, I was enrolled in a Catholic school which took my impressionable mind and moulded it: I composed poems to Baby Jesus, while at the same time telling my parents we were going to go to hell if we didn’t go to church. I’ve read the Bible, I’ve thumbed through the Quran, I’m up-to-date on several versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and pretty much any novel that has religion as a base. (“Acts Of Faith” by Eric Segal is particularly good, if you’re searching.) But, in all my reading, and thinking, and deciding about it, there’s one thing that can’t be denied: most religion is pretty sexist.
I’m just going to quote from a few major religions here:
From the Morning Service in Judaism: Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.
From the Bible: When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.
Speaking of being unclean, we know that Hinduism follows similar practises vis a vis menstruation, although since there isn’t a standard book for the Hindus, it’s hard to find a source for it. Some say it’s about killing an ancient demon, others say it’s Ayurvedic, either way, women aren’t fit to interact with society.
And Buddhism is rife with sexism, just an example here, from an article by Devdutt Pattanaik: In the tale of Sudinna, a young monk breaks his vows of celibacy after his old parents beg him to give his wife, whom he had abandoned, a child so that his family lineage may continue. When this is revealed, the Buddha admonishes him thus: “It is better for you to have put your manhood in the mouth of a venomous snake or a pit of burning charcoal than a woman.”
My point here is not to make you disavow religion forever, but to become a thinking person about the god/gods/rituals you follow. Many of them have sexist roots—but that’s also because these books have never been updated. And women have always been low on the totem pole of enlightenment and whatnot that our ancient fathers were so concerned with. If you’re going to be a 21st century religious person, dear A, then you need to begin by questioning everything you believe in. Hold it up to the light and see if still rings true within you. It will be an uncomfortable exercise, but one that is necessary.
Who knows? You might even find your relationship with the universe improves upon questioning. You might find yourself that much closer to enlightenment. And isn’t that all we’re hoping for as a human race?