Religion vs. Gender Equality & Feminism

How do religions treat women? How do emancipated women treat religion? A sequence of events recently has made my mind unquiet over this subject. Nita asked if Hinduism was coming of age, with people performing the sacred ‘thread ceremony’ on their daughters. The BJP found itself trapped in the maze of confusion surrounding Hindutva. And Sarkozy said that women wearing burqas were not welcome in France, as it was more a sign of women’s subservience rather than religion. The Rational Fool hailed Sarkozy’s statement, while I and Etlamatey pondered about individual women’s rights in the comments.the_makeover

Like I always do, I responded to my unquiet mind by thinking, scouring the net, and thinking some more. Here is a sampling of what I found:

  • An American convert to Islam urges Muslims to fight against brutality of woman to preserve Islam’s image in the eyes of others
  • A Hindu woman converted to Islam says Islam is not oppressive, unlike Hinduism
  • A Hindu perspective explains how Abortion is Bad Karma
  • Genocide of Women in Hinduism by Sita Agarwal
  • Did the burqa bring about the ghunghat or the other way around? Read this.
  • Did women have ‘fewer’ rights than men or ‘different’ in the context of Hinduism’s history? A heated debate ensued after Hindus started a campaign to change the content of sixth-grade school history textbooks in California.
  • A Globe and Mail opinion piece discusses the reduction in church attendance among Canadian women and whether oppression of women by religious institutions is the main cause, while Tina disagrees in her blog post.
  • How does Canadian society achieve gender equality rights enshrined in their Charter, which also protects the right to freedom of religion? The Star looks at the conflict of interests.
  • Muslim-dominated Indonesia is a religious country where atheism is banned by law. Alarmed at the extent of oppression of women in their country, a group of Islamic and Christian leaders have released new manuscripts in an effort to use religion to achieve gender equality.
  • BBC had an open debate on air on whether religion is an obstacle to gender equality. The extensive comments represent myriad opinions and differing perspectives on this issue. One example of a response to this debate is by Sally, who says that faith is an integral part of her, and suggests women work within their faiths for change.

In the above list, I have not listed any pro-atheist source, and strived to include Hinduism related articles. Referencing articles on Hinduism and gender equality or feminism is difficult for three reasons. One, the global discussion has centered on Islam, and the English-speaking Internet population is largely Christian.hindus

Two, Hinduism is unique in its flexible and diverse interpretations. While all religions are intentionally scripted so as to offer multiple contradictory interpretations, Hinduism wins this ambiguity race by claiming to be ‘all-inclusive’. Devout religious folks from other religions do argue (as seen in the above examples) that the oppression of women is a misinterpretation and misuse of their ‘true’ religion. But Hindus can’t be surpassed in this respect: not only are there multiple contradictory interpretations of Hinduism, even these contradictions can be claimed to be embraced by it. I think it would be a safe bet to say that for every principle supposedly propounded by Hinduism, a contradictory principle can be found within Hinduism. People would not call me a mathematician if I did not follow mathematics, but they will call me a Hindu even if I did not follow it.

Third, for a religion that has existed for centuries, and is said to be flexible and evolving, it is impossible to differentiate religious practices from social customs and traditions. Do Hindu women wear the mangalsutra or bangles because of religion or tradition? Widow burning or sati is widely described in the world as a Hindu practice, but naturally, there are arguments and differing opinions about it.

For atheists like me, the issue is very simple. Religion has been used as an instrument of gender inequality, specifically, in the oppression of women. Removing religion from the picture removes religious and theological justifications for patriarchy, as Austin argues. Sally says that in the absence of religion, men will find other ways to oppress women, hence religion as such is not an obstacle. Indeed, many factors contribute to gender inequality, one of them being economic prosperity, as this chart shows.unholy_trinity3

However, there still exists a strong correlation between the extent of ‘organic atheism’ (as opposed to ‘coerced atheism’ like in communist countries) in a country and its overall gender equation. Both the 2004 and 2006 rankings of the Gender Empowerment Measure, which is part of the the UNDP’s Human Development Report, show that the top ten nations with the highest gender equality are all strongly organic atheistic nations, while the bottom ten are all highly religious countries with insignificant number of atheists. But, as Phil Zuckerman points out in the The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, the causal relationship is in reverse: overall societal health causes widespread atheism, not the other way around.

It is impossible to argue against faith and belief, so I do not venture much into such debates. I prefer not challenging other people’s beliefs as long as they do not interfere with my life. What I find perplexing is how even emancipated women prefer to remain within their religious faiths and struggle against oppression, rather than choosing to discard religion? If faith and belief are important, and hence atheism and agnosticism are rejected, why are other forms of theism not popular?

In the end, I think I differ from Sarkozy: if women choose to be subservient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not trample over that right, though they can trample over such women, if they wish.

Update 30th June: A few significant articles I found since writing this post:

(All cartoons are from


88 thoughts on “Religion vs. Gender Equality & Feminism

  1. Your last lines are pretty hard hitting! I think what I get from it is that nothing can happen by force. The women have to feel that something is oppressive before they try to change it. Force cannot work. For example one woman might think that eating after her husband is not oppressive but someone else might think it is. To persuade a woman to eat before her husband might seem sacrilege to such a person! The superiority of men is so well ingrained that thinking of oneself as an equal is impossible. For example there are many women who feels that it is her body which is sinful and needs to be hidden from men. The idea that men are responsible for their lack of control is something alien to them. Even men have no qualms is saying that they lack control! I mean, I would be rather ashamed to admit that I lack control on anything and in fact I am rather proud of my ability to control myself. I think I would be offended if someone said that women are so out of control that men need to be covered up from head to toe! 🙂

  2. great post.
    did you know the founders of RSS were atheists 🙂

    it’s funny, i was having this exact conversation with a friend the other day – and she was telling me that we (Hindu women) always had rights in history – till the coming in of the Moghuls .
    i reminded her of Sita – abducted, made to go through an agni pariksha and then banished and asked to go through the same again !! And of Draupadi who was gambled by her husband, and stripped by her brother-in-law in front of an assembly that stood mute 😦

    read the Arthashastra – tho’ it is definitely more progressive – it would tell you that a woman is not equal to a man 😦 it has juicy little snippets like how to hit your wife or how to discard/divorce her !!
    We shan’t even talk about Manusmriti.

    i can only talk about the tradition that I was brought up in – and you are right – women believe that men – in their lives – are to be deferred to, no matter what – because it is our ‘way’.

    on faith and religion – the one thing that the system that i have been brought up in- allows me is to separate the two. I have kept the former, and discarded the systems & procedures of the latter ! if Devi wanted me to be subservient – she would herself have been — but, she always kicked butt 🙂 .

    (i refer you here to the Devi Mahapuran. the first level of defence was Vishnu, when he failed they went o Shiva, and when he couldn’t handle the crisis he would pray to his spouse – the Devi – who would descend onto the battlefield and destroy evil 🙂 ) mind blowing iconography and mythology – do try and read it if you get a chance.

  3. I have been reading Octavio Paz’s ‘In Light of India’ and he says religions like Hinduism and Islam are petrified. We do have a renaissance coming. and when it does finally come, it won’t be a day sooner.

  4. Interesting post mahendra – a bit heavy for me to say anything cogent. Certainly, a lot of bad has come from religion – but then same could be said about science too 😉 ! In fact, perhaps anything man made (i include religion too), there is always bad and there is good – the extremes being more prominent when he gets passionate about it. Life is not black and white. I sometimes think religious people paint non-religious ideas in black and white (you dont follow this, you are morally corrupt, you go to hell etc.), and in the same vein atheists have a tendency to paint religion in black and white (religion has given us only bad). May be I am wrong.


    PS: Like the new look 🙂 !

  5. mahendra:
    I read your post, and here’s my response:

    In the end, I think I differ from Sarkozy: if women choose to be subservient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not trample over that right, though they can trample over such women, if they wish.

    Most of us choose to be subservient in one context or another. For a salary, I wear a suit to work in sweltering weather. I choose here to be subservient to the company. That’s free trade – I am trading my right to wear what I like to for a compensation. I don’t think that’s what happens when a woman finds herself subservient to a man (or men).

    Call it my affliction with the “knight-in-shining-armor” syndrome :), but I suspect the stockholm syndrome is active in most cases where you see a woman seemingly endorsing subservience to men. Not for a moment that I believe that coercion, years of child abuse, deprivation, and threats of being roasted in hell, have nothing to do with this “choice” – please read my post on Women in Hell and A Letter to My Sister.

    So, what can be done? To begin with, I expect the secular democratic states to legislate against forced marriage, marital rape, forced full-term pregnancy, forced female genital mutilation, forced female foeticide and infanticide, forced illiteracy, forced widowhood, forced whatever. And then, speak up against other social institutions that deny anyone the natural right to live their lives as they’d like. Let them know that we the people and the law are on their side.

    [duplicate comment in my post that you have graciously referred to above. thanks.]

  6. Hi Mahendra,
    Ah something different!

    I think its almost impossible to know from Hindu scriptures since most, if not all, of them have been passed orally. Remember the game कान गोष्टी ? A message is whispered from one person to the next and what the last person hears is nowhere close to the original or intended message.

    Also, in a progressive state, it is quite possible to go beyond religious beliefs in order to set things right. Gay rights (by legislation) in a Christian country, is a good example. So who cares what religion says, or what we think it says, we should be able to bring gender equality anyway.

    – – –
    I like the new theme. I am, however, biased in favor of 2 column layouts. The new header looks more ‘unquiet’ than before. The footer (which is absent here) is usually a good space for miscellaneous stuff esp if its overflowing the sidebars.


  7. I agree – force doesn’t and cannot work. The need for change has to come from within. Your example of meals is funny, because of an incident some time back at our home when we had invited an elderly couple for dinner. When I said that we always have our meals together, auntie shot a glance at her uncle. That glance was so pregnant and incisive, that uncle muttered “something for me to learn”. 🙂

    Regarding the superiority of men being so well-ingrained: this is where I think religion plays a part. Of course, it is social customs and practices that predominantly affect our upbringing, but I think religion also plays a part.

    I am not surprised about the women who are not emancipated at all, and think of their own bodies as sinful. They are the truly subservient ones. What I find perplexing is those women who otherwise are staunch feminists, but still cling to religion. The hard-hitting last lines are my desperate attempt similar to how we try to shake and slap a person to help him regain consciousness. 🙂

  8. Thanks. No, I didn’t know the founders of RSS were atheists! Another piece added to the Hinduism jigsaw puzzle.

    The burqa vs. ghunghat article I’ve linked to dispels some aspects of the ‘Hinduism was fine for women until the Moghuls came’ myth.

    You hit my point regarding separating faith and religion. That, for me, is at least a good starting point. Forget crossing it, why don’t most women even reach this threshold (Umbartha)?

    Do suggest a good place or book where I can enlighten myself about Devi Mahapuran.

  9. Does he talk about the renaissance or is it you? I don’t see a renaissance anywhere. Living in India, I find things worsening every passing year.

  10. Arun, thanks for sharing your ideas, however ‘uncogent’ you think they may be! 🙂

    Morality is outside the scope and realm of science. Science does not tell us what is bad and what is good. Religion does. Ethics is the backbone of religion, whereas it is outside the purview of science. Science can help you to light a funeral pyre, it doesn’t tell you to burn yourself in it. Science helps create weapons, but it doesn’t tell you who to kill. Religion does.

    When I say religion is an instrument for the oppression of women, this is a unique code of ethics that has been invented by man that offers justifications for evils perpetrated on women.

    Regarding black/white/extremes: I’m staunchly against the Cult of Moral Grayness.

  11. The Rational Fool: thank you (for your comment and allowing my second comment on your post).

    And thank you for giving the first insight to me regarding why emancipated women might be clinging to religion despite the obvious facts – Stockholm syndrome. Is it that living in an oppressed society (akin to a hostage situation), it is their defense mechanism that they believe their fathers and brothers and husbands will be the only ones who are in control and will be able to save them from this merciless world? An interesting insight that I will keep in mind and continue to explore.

    My post is an attempt to understand why no one realizes that Sarkozy’s statement of ‘burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience’ is inherently flawed. In a woman’s context, subservience is an inseparable part of religion. How can something be a sign of one and not of the other? I fail to understand how nobody seems to ‘get’ this.

    Your suggestions regarding what secular governments should do are of course very welcome and I have strongly fought for them on this blog myself. Thanks for reiterating them in your usual clear and inimitable style!

  12. Hi Priyank, yes it is impossible to know regarding Hinduism. For e.g. if you see the comments thread on Nita’s post, you’ll find references to ‘true Hinduism’, but I’m not sure anyone really knows what it means. Some will say it is what exists in the scriptures, others will say it is not restricted to that and is never meant to be defined and constrained but is rather a way of life that is continuously evolving and changing, and so on.

    Who cares what religion says? The most scientifically advanced nation on earth is unable to allow gay marriages, legalize abortion, within its own borders. I wish I shared your optimism. Religion has its hooks and tentacles spread everywhere, in each nook and cranny on earth, and will always strive to bring down any gender equality aspirations.

    Re: theme: thanks for the comments! I am constrained by themes. This one allows color and header customization. Footers are not supported in any theme (as far as I know). This theme does support 2 columns, but the single sidebar version takes up as much width as these two, so it makes sense to have two sidebars! Tough choice…:-(

  13. ramesh menon has a great set of books on the epics & the puranas in English. it is the kind of stuff that makes your eyes boggle. I wonder when the religion and the system itself became sanitized & prudish 🙂

    i think that the reason that it is difficult to separate the two – faith and religion – is superstition. i had an aunt who was widowed – she was told that unless she stopped wearing a tikka – her children will be cursed 😦 she told the ‘elders’ to take a collective leap into the nearest well – a lot of women don’t. my take is that if God/Goddess is the creator or Divine Parents – they will not wish us ill, no matter how bad our behavior is – that is the tradition i was brought up in.
    so it depends from family to family, relgious tradition to religious tradition.

    I also believe that unless people speak up and stand up against a minority hijacking their religion – then they are going to end up as Afghanistan 😦

  14. Thank you. I’ve been searching for good English translations of the epics for quite some time. My parents have the complete set in Marathi, but that’s too difficult for me to read! 🙂

    Separating faith and religion is a cloudy topic for me, even considering superstition. What constitutes superstition becomes debatable! I guess as you say, many people finds their own balance between reason and faith, and it depends on family and environment.

    Re: minority hijacking religions is widely understood, what I’m concerned about is whether women understand that religion has been hijacked (or rather invented) by men and is being used to oppress women!

  15. mahendra – Not sure but you are making it seem like there is always a group of power-hungry folks (mainly men) who are wielding religion as a weapon to oppress the masses, and all the masses need to realize and awaken. While the awakening part makes sense, I think it isnt that simple. IMO, basically, religion is used as a tool (morphing its shaped into whatever is appropriate for that person, for that time) by many many people – sometimes with an effort to do good, and many times with an effort to gain advantage. The bad comes out of an not uncommon tendency in humans using whatever means to gain advantage over others – this includes man AND woman, and this applies not just to religion. In religion, this can afflict persons from the top down to the bottom – at all levels you will see people use it to their advantage in their own way. And this is one reason why you find religions themselves being contradictory. Based on who has the upper hand on what era, the tenets of religion *as practiced* changes over time. But again, IMO, it would be a mistake to think this is some unique property of religion. But that said, it is hard to defend religion much 🙂


  16. I certainly agree with the Stockholm Syndrome although I wonder if it is wider than the implied context. I think this is essentially a reflection of us (as in most people) wanting “to hold on to what we know”. Thus tradition (not necessarily religious although mostly it is) is to be held on to – even when someone points out that it was perhaps inherently flawed. Religious tradition are held on tight not only because it is familiar, but it is also reinforced constantly that it is “too precious to be lost” (that people dont even question its validity). Perhaps this is survival instinct related? That even if initially uncomfortable, eventually we can get comfortable with a situation over time (comfortably numb 🙂 ?). After a while, ANY change from that state is considered bad – because “it is comfortable to remain within our boundaries”.


  17. a great useful commonsense post as usual. the resources are precious, would check them all out one by one, usu this feature of your blog is what I learned to value.
    I just started with reading about the other theisms, as that question is/seemed important to me, after reading I feel maybe all the other theisms are there too, esply the autotheism among emancipated women ( 🙂 )

    as for the new theme, facts are: it takes longer to load, the font size/type is comfortable to my old eyes, like the way the comment box looks, like the header which is almost wafer like, and warm, but dislike the sidebar: looks kind of unmatching with the blog column somehow and messy to me. love the Georgia font and the color a lot though.
    most importantly, a big hug, and thanks for this post.

  18. in the end religion is a human construct, created to keep stuff together, exercise control, repress questioning, preserve order by the powerful, prevent uprising.
    those that thought they knew it all in Jesus’ day, murdered him. what we create, why can’t we simply rewrite/edit/cleanse/delete/change for God’s sake?
    because the point of religion was never to aid the hoi poloi but to secure it for the chosen few 😉

  19. yes, I see that – I see what you mean and it made me think of my old mother. they need that comfort, the feeling of ‘security’ of remaining within an even imaginary, illusionary boundary of some sorts, so they don’t get lost and hve to work to find their way out/back/wherever – by themselves.
    does religion make people lazy?

  20. Precisely! When the politicians, both on the right and the left, rile against the Communist China or Pinochet’s Chile, they have no hesitation in declaring that it’s not the people of China or Chile that they are against, but the totalitarian regime – the idea that a few men (and fewer women, if any) have the power and authority to dictate the lives of millions of others. Why, then, when it comes to religion, they pussy-foot around and put this very similar idea on a pedestal?

  21. @TRF: Because you are assuming
    (i) politicians are neutral and really are the knights in shining armor when in truth they are just like everybody else – they also play to their advantage. After all, they are only human 😉
    (ii) At home, there are still enough people for whom religion is a precious thing (as opposed to oppressive dictators 🙂 ) – and at least here they remember they were elected by the people. It is easier to point fingers at something which cannot be turned back on you.


  22. While Religion may be man made, and partial towards men, Perhaps the security it provides women compensates for the inequality it cages them in, and before long the bird in its cage cannot survive beyond its confines. Just to bring a different angle the argument, I wonder if the family bonding that traditional religion provides has more feminine over tones to it than masculine. Perhaps it has left some women between the devil or the deep sea, but most of them remain unaffected because they are ready to put up with some inequality, for security. When I look at lawlessness in some parts of Africa, I realize that unless women are in groups, there is not much of security in their lives or for their children.( this is animal behavior at its finest) Here the social morality that religion offers will probably be more than welcome. One could say that religion was the cause of lawlessness in some parts of Africa, but I still wonder if it goes beyond that.

  23. I somehow don’t understand the concept of holding on to something for the heck of it without understanding the reasons.
    A few days back I was telling a Brit colleague about the concept of “no meat eating” policy of some Hindus on Tuesdays and Thursdays because the Gods might get angry.
    He was amused and asked – Is it the same set of Gods who get angry on different days or is it two different Gods for the two days?
    I laughed quite hard that day.
    I think Religion was created as a mean to suppress people and keep them under control. The only difference between now and centuries ago is that now we are quite open about it.

  24. While Religion may be man made, and partial towards men, Perhaps the security it provides women compensates for the inequality it cages them in…

    The safety of religions, it appears, is illusory at best. I am sure you have read the recent reports on crimes perpetrated against children in the care of the Catholic Church in Ireland – ‘Endemic’ rape and abuse of Irish children in Catholic care, inquiry finds. Have you seen the films, Maya and Osama, both based on real life stories of female children abused by priests and mullahs?

    For a more rigorous refutation of the purported deterrent effect of religion on crime, please read Does religion reduce crime? by Paul Heaton of the University of Chicago. Here are a couple of extracts from his conclusions:

    … I find no statistically significant relationship between religious adherence and property crime or violent crime. There is some evidence that religion may encourage crime in areas with greater population or few religious adherents.

    … If there is a negative effect of religion on crime and the substantial increases in church attendance in the United States on Easter represent a temporary increase in religiosity, one might expect to observe lower crime rates immediately following Easter. I find that crime rates are slightly higher for most categories of crime in the first 4 weeks after Easter, controlling for seasonal and other factors, although these increases are not statistically significant.

    So, there you have it. Even if you didn’t want to take Mahendra’s or my word for it, evidence suggests that you’ll likely be safer amongst us atheists, than those who profess to take their cues from easwar, allah, god, or whatever 🙂

  25. I will take your word for it. My premise on the argument was not to mean “religion was not all that bad” I know it is a addictive habit. and …all the bad weight it carries with it. I was thinking in terms of ancient time that sometimes lives in today’s world in pockets. I would agree with the fact that there is no relation with crime and religion. But does religion really encourages it, or do people find loopholes to suit their needs. I would not recommend totally trusting Atheists, because they too are inherently human. The fault lies when these loopholes fall into religious beliefs and gets the (pretended ) protection of religion. It is foolish to believe that crime and discrimination will not happen in a atheistic society. Human will be human. In yesterday’s world as in some pockets of today’s society, religion formed a stable backbone in a changing political system. It therefore handled the burden of ethics and is reluctant to give it up. Also how stable is today’s political set up, or how uniform is it, to protect its vulnerable citizens? In such a world, would the vulnerable be ready to give up an illusion of stability that gives them temporary relief (at least in their minds) (and re emphasized by social approval) over a chaotic society they see unfolding before them?

  26. //Did women have ‘fewer’ rights than men or ‘different’ in the context of Hinduism’s history?//
    Hindu women didn’t inherit property from their parents, most of them still don’t. Polygamy was practiced by most Hindu Gods. Swayamvara was the right given to the girl to choose a husband of her choice but the terms and conditions were set by the father.
    Savitri won her husband back from Yama by her intelligence and wit but we are made to believe that it was the power of her satitva that defeated Yama. Sita committed suicide but it was glorified. Ahilya was cursed to turn into a stone because Indra the King of devtas cheated her. Indra lived happily while the poor woman had to wait for centuries so that Rama could come and bring her back to life. Laxman had no problems in leaving his wife Urmila alone for 14 years because he had to serve his brother. Nobody bothered about her. Mahabharat is full of stories which prove that women had fewer rights than men in those times.

  27. Mahendra: I want to make a flippant comment. Can you please please go back to the old theme? I see this and I want to eat chocolate cream wafers.

  28. If you distill the good out of all religions, you will find that the code of morality does not require a God and does not require organized religion. In other words, you don’t need to be religious to be good. Then, with all its accompanying evils, why believe and use it at all?

  29. Mahendra, congratulations for writing such a painstakingly researched post on this complex and also relevant topic. I more or less agree with your ideas and wont say anything further at this point. 😉

  30. To add to Rational Fool’s list: we’ve not mentioned the religion-sanctioned child prostitution in temples through ‘Devdasis‘.

    Your question regarding unstable political setup is in a way amusing, because as an Indian, what am I, or millions of other Indians, worried about? Will this post and discussion on my blog bring some Sena activists to throw stones at my house? Will a bomb explode when we’re out in the city, financed & planned by some jihad terrorist? Where is the evil coming from? How does religion provide me with even an illusion of stability, when I see religion driving human beings insane all around me?

  31. Meenakshi:

    Please read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel. Perhaps, you may find answers to your queries in her life, which spanned a world (Somalia-Kenya) that gave her “an illusion of stability” and “chaotic society” (Netherlands-USA). Alternatively, you could read my entire blog 🙂

  32. No. Some/many use religion to further their purpose by instilling fear. The only difference is you think there is only bad in religion. I think there is lot of bad, but also good. And I dont find that being unique to religion.


  33. Yes. You certainly do not need religion to “be good” at least base on some of the core principles suggest. Of course, it is not uncommon for practitioners to change that meaning of “being good” to imply you follow the religious practices and traditions – this is where I think they go off the beam.

    Religion has been used to convey “what is good” or say what is a healthy way of living. The trouble soon people who believe in it think “this is the only good, and everything else is bad” – thus the coercion to “fall in line”. This IMO has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with general human tendency. Ironically, the exact tendency which some practioneer/trail-blazer of the religion may have warned against! Actually, even those trailblazers who had found “a healthy way to be good” rarely convey “that this is just one way” . IMO, they are just so sure of the one thing the found, that they believe it is the only thing (ironically, perhaps not that different from mahendra and TRF ;-)).

    But IMO, again, it is a mistake to assume any religion has one unchanging, cogent message from the beginning – and this message is in general bad. All religions are a jumble of ideas from various people over thousands of people – some with good intentions, and others with ulterior intentions, and many with a mix of both. Thus at times it is inclusive, and at times it is exclusive. Religion is as organic and ever-changing as the lifetime of a single human being. There is good in it, and to me, those things really apply outside of the extra baggage that practitioners have tacked on. But – no you certainly do not need to believe in a higher power in order to “be good”. So why believe? Like I have hinted, because we are human, we are imperfect :). So why believe? Like I have hinted, because we are human, we are imperfect :).

    Sorry for the long response.


  34. Perhaps you missed my point. I was not saying religion is exactly like science in all respects. Science can be used for good and bad. So can religion. Now you can look at the bad in religion, and use that as reason to abandon it completely. You can do the same for nuclear energy. That nuclear weapons and chemical/biological weapons came out of science is whose doing? Science or how people use science? That was my comparison – but certainly in a limited context (see below).

    But there is a big difference indeed. (Although practitioners would claim other wise) It is hard to separate religion from the practice of it – but application of scientific principles and laws can be separated from the laws themselves. Not sure I phrased it best.


  35. Mahendra

    I think sometime we have had a conversation about Yugant (Iravati Karve). I am reading a not-that-impressive book by Chitra Divakaruni Bannerjee* called The Palace of Illusions which has a sub-text Panchaali’s Mahabharat. Both books present a woman’s/ women’s perspective on things. But Yugant does not show women as weaklings. In The Palace of Illusions too. Draupadi is taught that women achieve the same ends differently. Kunti’s portrayal is not as a wallflower either. It is worth noting that Draupadi’s polyandry was made possible by a woman who refused to take her words back.

    I do not know if there is clean and straightforward resolution possible on what-was, what-was-written, what-was-subsequently-interpreted.

    * Yes it is fiction. Yes I buy silly things when in a bookstore in India.

  36. oh sorry then. I think I am too careless in reading replies to my comments but also this new theme (or maybe it is just wordpress in general) is really hard to figure out the various different sub-threads. So if it seems like I am repeating myself AND not paying attention to what other saying, then primarily mea culpa, but let me also pile on your thema 🙂


  37. Your perplexity at women’s continued faithfulness to faith, is what I was trying to unravel (to myself too). It reminds me of a question I asked when I was a kid, when I was rudely introduced to the 4 varnas, and that was that , the shudras could have opted out of religion, why stick with something and suffer in silence. Then Christianity in India opened my eyes to the presence of cast irrespective of religion. And the primordial need for man to belong to a society, which sometimes overrides his existential needs. That was what I was getting at when it comes to women and the hijab. Here the political dynamics are at the family level or the village level, not at the national level. A dhalit women can be raped and killed, for (her family) stepping out of line before the police come to aid, and no one will be any wiser. A girl can be burnt by a male member of the family for family honor, under the guise of an accident. Religion is not always at the center of the problem sometimes it is culture. I know of atheists who can do the mental gymnastics to give room for cast systems, homophobia, and mental, moral and philosophical superiority of men over women. A scarf over the head is alright for some women if it means that it will allow them some approval, some acceptance and some peace. Others would give religious justification for it, and a woman might chime in too. But what she hopes for is perhaps cultural approval.

  38. Meenakshi, I appreciate your participation in unraveling my perplexity.

    “Religion is not always at the center of the problem sometimes it is culture.”
    Yes, as I acknowledge in my post itself, it is not the only problem. It is one of the problems. Why not do away with at least one problem?

    Cultural approval and acceptance: in other words, if you don’t do this like everyone else, xyz bad things will happen to you. When applied to each individual of the community, the entire community acts like you wish and order them to act. That is what I meant that religion works by instilling fear. Who decides what to do and what not to do? Mostly men (& few women if any) in power.

    Like I mentioned in my post as well as in my reply to Nita’s comment above, I am not surprised by the hordes of women who continue to remain brainwashed and do not even know that alternative schools of thought exist. My perplexity is about emancipated women who have been exposed to different cultures, different ideas, experienced literature/films/other media, who fight for gender equality on the streets, in their workplace, but continue to cling to religion.

    Change cannot reach the grassroot level of society, and widespread changes cannot happen unless thought leaders, feminists, intellectuals lead and show the way. But what we find here is feminists and leaders in the field of women empowerment advising women to ‘work within their faiths’, and writing books like Shefaly mentions below in her comment. Why? If this continues, I do not see any positive change for women empowerment happening at all.

  39. I do not see why a ‘clean and straightforward resolution possible on what-was, what-was-written, what-was-subsequently-interpreted’ is required in the first place.

    From what you say about these books, I am tempted to reach a clean and straightforward conclusion: these women authors don’t care about women, they’re just making some bucks out of writing books that appeal to pseudo-intellectuals who have kitty parties, discuss coffee-table books and have discussions about the ‘literature scene’.

    The women who care for and work towards women empowerment are out helping real women in Indian cities, rehab centers, hospitals, and villages. They don’t have the time to write or read such books.

  40. Mahendra:

    The reason why I brought up the resolution thing is because of your response to Prerna. I disagree with the stories she cites because they are one version of something that may have happened. The whole issue is so hermeneutically determined that no two people will ever be in agreement over whether women were unequal and if so, to what extent and whether institutions of patriarchy or women’s own practices perpetuated such inequality.

    The second part of your response is (uncharacteristically, I believe) cynical. The charge can be heaped on all writing on societal issues, including your own blog post. I am sad on one count though. Chitra DB is a published author and writing teacher indeed, but Iravati Karve, a woman of the city you live in, was an educator and a social reformer, married into a family of reformers too. I am surprised you put her in the same basket as Chitra DB. Karve’s words were not an empty commercial proposition but an alternative framing of a hitherto patriarchal telling of a story many Indians deem an epic. How do you know that “pseudo-intellectuals” read these books? (I could take this to mean that by reading those books, I am now a pseudo-intellectual in your eyes but I shall pass on the temptation to feel offended). Isn’t the choice to read what we do in itself a symbol of how much freedom women enjoy?

    And in your last line in response to me, I believe you are channeling something I said to you on Twitter: 😉

    And once again you’d be wrong. Some people both effect change and write/ speak about it. Some do neither. It is a continuum. For my good fortune, I know many more people in the former category than I do in the latter. The difference has to be made through personal choices that are difficult but right. Revolutions are bloody; the real change in women’s status is evolutionary and it is real.

  41. Mahendra:

    In your reply to Meenakshi above you say: “..and widespread changes cannot happen unless thought leaders, feminists, intellectuals lead and show the way.”

    In your reply to me, you say: “..these women authors don’t care about women, they’re just making some bucks out of writing books that appeal to pseudo-intellectuals who have kitty parties, discuss coffee-table books and have discussions about the ‘literature scene’. The women who care for and work towards women empowerment are out helping real women in Indian cities, rehab centers, hospitals, and villages. They don’t have the time to write or read such books.”

    I would say that you are in disagreement with yourself 😉 Another way to say it would be that you agree with my comment that “Some people both effect change and write/ speak about it. Some do neither. It is a continuum.”

    But what do I know? I am a pseudo-intellectual for reading such claptrap and discussing it not in a “kitty party” but on a blog!

  42. Shefaly, I was being so cynical because I do not see the point of going back into re-interpreting the epics and our mythology. Yes, it was uncharacteristic of me, probably because the frustration is getting to me. Through my blog post, I’m trying to pull emancipated women away from religion, and your comment seemed to drag it back into the topic of which interpretation is correct or can any interpretation be correct, and so on. I thought I’d already made it clear in my post that there is no point debating anything about Hinduism regarding what is ‘true’ and what is not ‘true’. It is a meaningless exercise IMO.

    No, I wasn’t channeling that tweet of yours. And I completely agree with you that change happens gradually, it is difficult, and evolutionary.

    I do not know anything about Iravati Karve. To reiterate, I do not see the point in an alternative framing. If she believes it can lead to empowerment of women, its good. That is not what I gathered from your brief comment. I should not have clubbed her into a stereotype and I apologize for that, because I do not know anything about her or her books. But I will certainly be least interested in the book you describe.

  43. The way I am recommending is AWAY from religion. This is what I hope thought leaders and feminists do. I don’t see how re-interpreting the epics helps. It only increases the obsession of Indians with religion, as if there’s not enough of it already. That is why I do not think I was in disagreement with myself.

    You know very well that I do not engage in or allow personal attacks or even insinuations in my blog comments. Neither is my blog akin to a coffee table, nor is your reading anywhere motivated by the reasons I was referring to in my cynical comment. Please don’t misunderstand. Such an interpretation would be unnecessary, undesirable, and was never meant in the first place!

  44. the answer is so simple Mahendra, it would shock you: because YOU teach her to not get it, with your parenting, with your conditions for loving her, with your conditions for respecting her, with your rules for her social life etc. It is because of MEN, that mothers bring their daughters up to believe they never can do anything, never will be loved if they aspired to fly “udney lgai hai” is not supposed to mean well for ‘good girls’.
    I get it because my mum put a copy of Vivekananda in my hands when I was six, her Shantiniketan upbringing made her force me to think, question, not conform, fight her when she did attempt to make me do so herself.
    So today I got my wings, and I use my tools of thought, curriculum to devise strategies that would help my girls to want to and finally empower them to go mke their own world rules. I fail often, fall down, get hit, slapped socially, trampled upon, all the time – I do care deeply too – but I do not give up, as I know what I have is good. It is of value. Then I have friends like you, my colleagues, who are Jediis too. so we stay alive somehow, dream of apocalypse:)

    I liked your comment where you say, one doesnt need religion to be GOOD or do good. That is the truth.

  45. To Meenakshi, would you teach your girl child or your boy to conform to religion because it provides’security’ or would you tell them it is an aspect of our culture created by men to help protect rights of some, therefore, it can be rewritten as cultural norms chnge, values change with chnging needs of our collective lives?
    Would you approve questioning which is the bqsis for scientific temperment, in your children, Meenakshi and let them choose something tht may not ‘seem right’ to you?
    Do you realize your own power? The power YOU as a woman have, to shape the thoughts in your children’s heads? And thereby influence generational chnges and subsequently cultural and lifestyle chnges through just one child, one person you touched the life of?

    The collective derives from the power of one tiny single little seemingly uninfluential individual Meenakshi. Eve tho these get killed and smashed to smithereens in their own bloody times, they are the ones that get remembered. Did you think MJ greta when he began? Look ta him in retrospect now, my mum is doing a mental sommersault, I sit back and say, “told you, you scolded us” Neverland Ranch would now become the pilgrim’s destination now.

  46. Men (and women) use religion to teach daughters to obey, not question, conform, not think. Social pressure, religion, everything stunts the capacity and courage for independent thought.

    Your mom brought you up this way and now you’re a teacher who’s shaping the minds of young girls. The chain of good – which I referred to in my writeup of Kurosawa’s Red Beard – in action! This is what is heartwarming and inspiring. When you don’t give up, you inspire many others not to give up. This is the only way we can effect change.

  47. yes, Pererna, because 1) women were not strong enough to kill to assert themselves, 2) the terror of physical harm hurt overwhelms us and we give in. 3) In the West or with Mughals, (who are basically descended from people from the tribes that dwelt the harsh terrains of the middle east etc) it is different: they teach their women combat skills, they are strong themselves and therefore apprecite strong women like themsleves, that can weild a weapon.

    Arjuna was smitten by Chitrangada and Ulupi remember? He was a warrier, he expected his women to be smart and adept like him not little pussy cats.

    Men are largely responsible yes, but women are equqlly responsible too. Vidyasagar or Vivekananda could operate largely due to the tremendous support to be different they got from their mothers, who sheilded the aberrant child from the wrath of the dominant father that expected conformity for thweir sons.

    They remembered that all their lives and worked for the empowerment of women al their lives too – life is simple if we see it for what it is and if we keep getting back to history. but then they make such a mess of it, children learn to detest the whole subject and never realize the relevance of knowing the current of events that shape us, shackle us to misery. So we look for Liberators, uddhra kartas who would come rescue us!

  48. so the equation here: one uneducated village woman (not knowing English or even powerless, confined) > (begets, influences) Vidyasagar > changes the lives of hundreds of women (widow remarrige, women’s eductaion, Sanskrit college, alphabets in vernacular that is esay to understand, emergence of women writers) > influences Rammohan > abolishment of Sati, the rest the world knows.

    One woman > Vivekananda > hundreds of lives here, abroad
    One woman > Jesus Christ > millions of life the world over etc

    None of these were even one third of what you or I am. Yet, they did get remembered through powerful sons they raised, empowered to be different.

    So, then can you imagine what we could do? If we had the courage to join the right forums for change? Give up a rewarding career, live in rented apartments without even a fridge, to work with a group that is making serious attempts at chnage.

    Do women really seek power or merely the comfortable cocoon of sexual and monetary security? Because keeping power, being powerful chnage agents require 24/7 vigilnqt hard work, constant – relentless watching over it, tending to work in progress, protecting work done – being a queen is tough, being a handmaiden, easy.

  49. what is sad is, it didn’t even recah where it might have made a difference. when I come here looking for the female responses to the idea I go away dejected. but my mum says people do not forget what they read or hvae responded to, it stays somewhere in the depth of their minds affecting thoughts, ideas and responses at some stage later bringing on “O-ho, yes”
    so she hopes, I despair, but still this was such a wonderful journey drfting through al these minds you drew here with your power of words and being, Mahendra. you are such an asset. do come and talk to our children sometime or pitch in in our design thinking challenge for Give India contest where children will design a unique Giving Idea that would affect the lives of millions. Do continue to be who you are, give us the benefit of all the critical thought you brng in to any endeavour you undertake: our children need contact with minds such as yours that would nourish their audacity, allay their fear of falling and failing. thanks for doing this post from the bottom of my heart (mind?)

  50. I kind of was expecting it. Once I too was like that and am to some extent think like that now too. (Let us leave MJ be…I dont have a big opinion of him any way). People can be inspired to change and be brave , for a short period of insanity, but we cannot impose bravery on them (that is me being practical not idealistic). As for my children, practically, what I teach them is very different from what they will learn. I can tie them in my apron strings, and show them a world through my eyes and make them believe in it for a long time. But beyond that it is up to the children how they interprets this world. How practical or idealistic their dreams become…

  51. “People can be inspired to change and be brave , for a short period of insanity”
    you make ‘change’ sound like a luxury, when it is a constant of life. A necessity. Truth: Life is transient, by default. Therefore, survival skill must include training to combat, monitor, direct the force of change in favour and not let it tke its own random course.

    “As for my children, practically, what I teach them is very different from what they will learn” – your scripting is the most imminent one on the psyche of your child, (Dr MD Harris). Even their learning pattern to a great extent is like the one you forged even while it was in your womb – that is how powerful you are. Remember that story about how Aruni had learned everything while being in the mother’s womb or how Arjuna’s son picked up the strategy to break the chakravyuha? In primary eduction therefore, we have 0-2 years as a major consideration

    “how they interprets this world” – is exactly how we, the influential, significant others in his 0-4 years scripted him. That is why it is imperative you choose your primary school with the best care. In adolescence they learn to use their meta cognition and their teachers etc but bef tht you are the ONE.

  52. one does not become a change agent one fine morning. It is a habit of the mind inculcated when one is in the formative stages. when a child gets up to close the doors because no one else did it and quietly goes qbout his work as if it is the most ordinray thing to do, we know it hsa begun. when you do not break the line even when everyone around you is rushing madly, you are doing it. It never stops, manifests in small things in the kitchen to the way you use furniture at home or talk about issues at home. It is a way of life.

  53. nd everyone of us are actually shaping the course of events continuosly, only some are using the force of chnge knowingly, consciously, others are bumbling through life, deluded by thinking “am nothing, I can do nothing” when in fact they do, they are. this is dangerous. affects democracy, let us break this “dont know-dont care syndrome”

  54. Hi Mahendra, thanks for the great post and like the cliche goes – may your tribe increase!

  55. Nabina, thank you. Your feedback means a lot to me. At present, I am learning to deal with being a parent for one baby daughter! 🙂

  56. Am coming in a bit late here, apologies. Interesting post, as I commented to you on twitter, when you first wrote it (I had promised to read it in detail at leisure, if you recall).

    The main theme seems to be (and I say this because you seem to be zeroing in on it in your responses to comments) that religion is an obstacle to progress, in general terms, and in specific terms, it inhibits the evolution of an egalitarian society in terms of gender equality. Further, that women in key positions should initiate reforms aimed at breaking away from the paradigm of religion, which keeps them subjugated and promote a secular, if not atheistic, mindset in which the idea of equality can bear fruit and manifest itself in day-to-day living.

    If my understanding / interpretation of your core theme is broadly correct, then I’d like to say that I’m more or less in agreement. I’d just like to add that along with religion, there’s this whole bunch of socio-cultural beliefs, customs, traditions, practices, rituals, superstitions etc., a lot of which form the ‘tools of oppression’ if you like (most of them designed by chauvinists for that very purpose) and therefore need to be phased out.

    We live in a new world – a world in which there is already a critical mass of empowered women to initiate and lead reforms in the societies where they are necessary, and also a critical mass of men who would express solidarity and support such moves. This is very different from the old world, where such reforms necessarily had to be brought about by enlightened men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule et al. and there were very few, if any, women who were in a position to lead such reform initiatives. So in that sense I agree with your second point as well, that women need to take the lead in bring about these reforms.

  57. HyperActiveX, with the benefits of coming late and being an incredibly talented writer, you have succinctly encapsulated the theme of my post and comments.

    Your note about the whole bunch of socio-cultural beliefs is also bang on target. I was also trying to make the point in my post, that Hinduism, in its unique way of obfuscating what it ‘truly means’, is devious at propagating such beliefs, traditions, rituals, and superstitions. Billions of people follow them blindly, and any intellectual argument pointing the finger at Hinduism as the religion responsible is met with emphatic denials and erudite posturing, claiming that it is not Hinduism at all. I think the founders of Hinduism were the cleverest of all, because many otherwise emancipated folks nevertheless fall for this ingenuous ploy.

    At the risk of being didactic or even pedantic, let me also clarify that by ‘religion’, I am referring to organized religions. Atheists too have deeply spiritual experiences that are described by some as ‘religious’.

    You have noted an important aspect of the difference between the old world and today’s world. That makes it all the more imperative, in my opinion, for emancipated women who care about gender equality and women’s rights, to lead the way in the right direction by abolishing religion, rather than re-interpret it, or continue to struggle against it while trying to live it.

  58. Thanks for your compliment on my writing skills, but I’m not worthy of it! Not trying to be modest, just being realistic. I am at best mediocre in this department.

    Just wanted to add that other religions too (than Hinduism), have created a lot of accompanying social and cultural tools that support them. A lot of these were designed to preserve a certain sense of order in society (as defined by the religious elite who were also the custodians of morality and moral conduct). In most societies, the premises on which the frameworks of proper conduct were built (and then baked into religion), essentially involved the positioning of Man as the supreme creature on Earth, next only to God, and of positioning men as superior to women. These are the roots at which we must strike.

    The belief that of all God’s creatures on Earth Man is supreme, has led to large scale exploitation of plant and animal life and other resources on the plant, and to gross negligence of our delicate environmental balance. Gender equality is one thing, but ‘species equality’ is something else. It is in this other area that we are going to find major clashes between environmentalists and upholders of religious beliefs that proclaim Man’s supremacy. It is already happening in North America – in the supposedly most forward thinking and progressive nations of the world.

  59. …the roots at which we must strike‘. Liked that.

    I was under the impression that we can’t generalize religious ideology vis-à-vis species equality. This is off-topic for this post, but something to ponder about. How Green Are Religions?, Environment vs. Religion, etc. – possible topics for a future post? 😉

  60. That came from a quote by Thoreau – “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” … good advice to aspiring revolutionaries!

    I don’t think ‘Green’ was an issue as such (either pro- or anti-) with any of the world religions, but if you look at the crux of the philosophy underlying ‘Green’ thinking, it is a fundamental shift from the (in some cases implicit) premise which most religions are based on: that Man is a special creature in a class by himself – more equal than all other forms of life, and hence has the power to do pretty much as he pleases. ‘Green’ puts Man on par with all other forms of life in terms of moral rights to resources. But more on that in another post / thread, as you said.

  61. Pingback: And, equality for all – POV

  62. > What I find perplexing is how even emancipated women prefer to remain within their religious faiths and struggle against oppression, rather than choosing to discard religion?

    The answer, I believe, is in your blog itself: the line between religious and social traditions is very thin, and you cannot really cross one, without crossing the other, many a times.


  63. I largely agree with this answer – in about 80-90% of cases/situations. There are a few however, where I still find things incongruous: those who still are deeply religious within themselves when no social environment is influencing them, those who may still perform a ritual ‘pooja’ or ceremony so that their child may get better marks in examinations, or continue to wear a mangalsutra at home even when it doesn’t matter socially, or even those who continue to perform a prayer to God at home daily.

    Now I know you would ask me, are these women really what you mean by emancipated women, and I would be stumped. Not flabbergasted, because some of these things are difficult for me to write about, and would be easier discussed in person.

    Notwithstanding these, assuming conformance to social norms is primarily out of fear of ostracization, what about feminist leaders who have risked a great deal fighting for women’s rights and who are already ostracized in many ways for their unconventionality? They are established non-conformist rebels, who however, still follow religion, and continue their struggle within religious thinking. These are the ones I really wonder about, as I know the social acceptance pressure is too great for most of the other women.

  64. Well researched and in depth, and very thought provoking, this my friend is one heck of a post.

    Women, to me are still a bit of an enigma…

  65. It is in this other area that we are going to find major clashes between environmentalists and upholders of religious beliefs that proclaim Man’s supremacy. It is already happening in North America – in the supposedly most forward thinking and progressive nations of the world.

    I’ll have to disagree here.
    1. Religion doesn’t really have the kind of influence on the lives of a significant number of people in North America (US, spec.).
    2. Surveys show that majority of people do care for the environment – it’s the systems which they live under and have little power to change, that don’t.
    3. The conflict is between environmentalists and capitalists, or rather, the current model of capitalism which doesn’t take into account the fact of finite resources. Many religious groups in the US are allying with environmental groups on the issue of global warming. So, there’s not that much of a conflict, unless you consider religious extremists.

  66. The 1st point should read:

    1. Religion doesn’t really have a huge influence on the lives of a significant number of people in North America (US, spec.) today. (Though the idea of mastering and taming nature, and flora and fauna is there in the Bible.)

  67. 1. It does, albeit indirectly. For instance, the principle of Manifest Destiny, which is not really a religion, but is founded on beliefs that are supported by (Judao-Christian) religion. While I agree that a significant chunk of the American population is either agnostic or atheist, I’m sure you’d agree that they have a very strong moral framework. And their core moral values are built on the same premises as the religion they ancestors practised.
    2. It is fashionable in some parts of the US to care about the environment, yes. However I don’t think all those who care (or say they care), fully understand the issues. In any case, they don’t care enough to mobilize their elected representatives to shape government policy in line with their concerns (else we would have seen signs of it by now). Also, in other pockets of the US, it is equally fashionable to denigrate ‘tree-huggers’, to mock environmental causes and in fact to challenge the very basis of environmental conservation. According to these people, global warming is a myth.
    3. Agreed. Greed is far bigger than religion or sustainability considerations, and cares about neither. The current model of capitalism doesn’t take into account the fact of finite resources, because it is convenient not to. It is not as though they are dumb or ignorant – the folks at the helm of American enterprise are some of the sharpest minds in the world, but they operate out of a different value system, in which the top three priorities at any given point are the need to maximize gain for self.

  68. As far as Sita is concerned, I am not in a position to make a statement. I find it pretty sad, but people smarter than me have had very ambiguous thoughts about it. So I’ll keep an open mind about it for now.

    About Draupadi, the point is not that violence was done to her. Violence against women is unfortunately something that we can’t prevent. The point is that everyone agrees that it was wrong, and that the Kauravas faced destruction for that act. I guess the point being that the culprits against women will always meet their end.

  69. Not sure exactly what you mean to ask. Both male and female genital mutilation are bad. The practice varies by geography, culture, and religion.

  70. Nabina, that is a great post! Goes straight to the heart, raw, with a punch. I couldn’t comment there as I’m not registered with Open Salon, but I tweeted and stumbled it. I hope you get strength and support from all those who understand what you’re going through.

  71. hi mahendra……………written very nice…..liked it
    it helped me in my project………….thanks.

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