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Augustine Perumalil

Towards a Religious Emancipation of Women in India

On Arvind Sharma (ed.): Women in Indian Religions

Arvind Sharma (ed.):
Women in Indian Religions.
New Delhi:
Oxford University Press,
vi, 270 pages
ISBN 0-19-564634-7
book cover
Oxford University Press:
external linkWebsite
1 Written by distinguished women scholars, Women in Indian Religions contains nine essays, which discuss the status of women across various Indian religions. It addresses issues pertaining to the position of women in all the major Indian religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Baha'i, and tribal religions.
2 In the first article titled, "Women and Hinduism", Katherine K. Young traces the changes that have taken place in women's status, worldview and issues over time, starting from the Rgvedic Period (~1200-800 BCE) to the Post-Independence Period. She also identifies various cultural factors and worldviews that not only brought about the changes but also shaped various stages in the change. Young ends on a positive note as she finds that more Hindu women now have real choices and multiple role models from which to choose, which holds the promise to bring an end to the long history of the subordination of women.
3 The second article examines the role and status of women in the three successive periods of the history of Buddhism: Early Buddhism (up to 300 CE), The Middle Period (300-1500 CE) and Modern Period (from 1500 CE). Nancy Barnes treats the Mahāyāna and Tantric traditions separately and accords a special treatment to Dalit Buddhist women. She presents a balanced picture of the status of women in Buddhism, highlighting both the opportunities offered to them for self-actualization and the limitations placed on them. Thus her presentation of the life of women in Buddhism highlights a conflict between the freedom to pursue spiritual realization and the restrictions on the scope of their religious activities.
4 In the article "Women and Jainism in India", Nalini Balbir examines separately the life of Jain nuns and laywomen. Examining the present-day practice and the vast body of literature handed down in the course of time, Balbir concludes that because of the concept of the four-fold sangha, women were never excluded in Jainism. Nevertheless, she notices that except in the recent times, when a few prominent Jain nuns have spoken of their own lives, Jain women have not been able to speak for themselves. Balbir also examines the ›doctrinal crisis‹ wherein one group, the Digambaras, challenged the spiritual capacities of women and made an effort to prove theologically that women are inferior to men, and the other group, the Swetambaras, defended them, arguing that women are able to annihilate karmic matter with the help of the three ratnas-right faith, right knowledge and right conduct.
Religions of India:
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Indian Religions:
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5 In the fourth article, Rajkumari Shankar investigates the role and status of women in Sikhism. After a brief overview of women in Sikhism and a short biography of Guru Nanak, Shankar goes to analyze the Sikh attitudes toward women and the ideals of femininity as presented in the Sikh scriptures and chronicles. She then proceeds to assess the fortunes of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making special reference to sati and polygamy among the Sikh elite. The final section of the essay examines the limits of Akali-led women's movement in the Punjab. Shankar reveals two extreme views on women prevalent in Sikhism – woman as a seductress and a potential threat to spiritual welfare, cause of pollution and familial instability, on the one hand, and as the paragon of womanhood because of her procreative function, on the other.
6 In the next article, Ketayun Gould examines the various ›divinatory‹ documents in order to grasp the individual and societal prescriptions that both religion and tradition impose on Zoroastrian women. Gould surveys the major periods in the history of Zoroastrianism from the perspective of female-male relations. She finds that the Zoroastrian women have suffered much under the stern and menstruation taboos. But she also finds that these taboos have not damaged their self-concept.
The essays are threaded together by an underlying need to dismantle gender stereotypes within a religious framework and discuss various issues that affect the life of women. By going back to the past, the essays seek to understand the tide of female emancipation and attempt to describe the historical roots of the various issues concerning women in the different religious traditions found in India. 7 Sheila McDonough in her essay portrays the situation of Muslim women in India as a dynamic process that started with the religious inspiration of Muhammad and held under the tension between the Muslim community's effort to implement that inspiration and the constraints of particular historical contexts. She examines the impact of various dynasties on the life of Muslim women and analyses the various social problems and constraints that confront them, especially in relation to fundamentalism, education and marriage. The underlying tone of the essay is one of optimism, because the author recognizes the potentiality of the Qur'ān and the Islamic law to motivate women to work for changes in their life situation.
8 Starting from a reflection on Arundhati Roy's book The God of Small Things, Susan Visvanathan in her essay reflects on the status of the Christian women in Kerala. Disagreeing with much of what Roy wrote, she, an anthropologist, dwells on the power structures existing in family which, though outwardly patrilineal, is »very subtly loving and protective of daughters«. She also describes the subtle way in which the Christian women in Kerala influence the lives of men, and exercise authority. While lauding the Church for playing a positive role in their lives, she finds the Pauline theology as lending to the subjugation of women, and calls for radical transformative action.
9 Madhu Khanna in "The Case of Santal Tribe" studies the status of Santal women as represented in Binti, the Santal creation story and in the veneration of the sacred grove. She also deals with the taboos for women and the practice of occultism. She concludes that the man-woman relationship among the Santals is built on the twin principles of complementarity and abiding sensitivity towards the feminine. Khanna argues that the feminists, while calling for emancipation of women, must recognize cultural plurality and diversity among women and desist the temptation of »globalize« theoretical positions and lifestyles by advocating uniformity.
10 The last essay by Susan Maneck examines the status of women in Baha'i, the youngest of the world's religions. Starting her analysis from the life of Tahirih, the most well-known woman in Baha'i's history, known for her exceptional courage and will, Maneck dwells on Baha'u'llah's attitudes towards women as found in his writings, on the changes brought about by the openness to the West, and on the status of Baha'i women in Iran and India. She ends by highlighting the potentiality of the Baha'i scripture in protecting women's rights.
11 The essays are threaded together by an underlying need to dismantle gender stereotypes within a religious framework and discuss various issues that affect the life of women – female feticide, ordination, salvation, acceptance of children of mixed parentage, marriage reform laws, exclusion of females from important memberships. By going back to the past, the essays seek to understand the tide of female emancipation that characterizes our age and attempt to describe the historical roots of the various issues concerning women in the different religious traditions found in India. This book will appeal to all those interested in gender, religion and society.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://www.polylog.org/lit/4/rpa-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
external linkSatya Nilayam. Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 3 (2003), 130-134.
Author: Augustine Perumalil, Chennai (India)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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