As Asian women, a large part of our identity is interlinked with our culture and religion, well for me at least. I want to preface this by saying; I love many aspects of my culture and my religion. In fact, what I admire the most about Hinduism, is that it recognises that there is not one God or Goddess and nor is there one “right” way to practice the religion (Tharoor: 2018). Yet, there are many parts of Hinduism and my culture that I struggle to identify with, particularly, the role of women.
Although some would argue that Hinduism’s “reverence for the female principle in the godhead is exemplary. No better example of this exists than the many manifestations of the goddess in the form of Shakti; which literally means strength- the power of the life-force that creates, nurtures, sustains and also destroys the world. The goddess is seen as a source of energy, without which the male aspect of the godhead would be ineffectual” (Tharoor: 2018:19-20).
It is widely known that women within some Asian cultures are prohibited from participating in some aspects of religious life, which is often linked back to menstruation and ideas of purity. Whilst this is not always explicitly said, it can be denoted. This is the case for Hinduism too. Despite its different practices and denominations, one commonly held belief (albeit cultural) is that women cannot participate in some aspects of religious life, especially when they’re menstruating.
Although this may have started off as a cultural belief, instigated by the need to let women rest and due to their limited access to menstrual hygiene or sanitary products, it has been incorporated into religious life. However, it must be noted, that there are no specific teachings within Hinduism which explicitly states that women must be prevented from performing religious rites (Phalnikar, 2010). It is suggested that this cultural practice was introduced by men when they came to dominate the priesthood profession (Phalnikar, 2010). Whilst I recognise that Hinduism and culture are two separate fragments of identity which vary and depend on each individual person, family, region and so on; they often feel as though they cannot be separated. Nevertheless, this ideology is still prevalent in society today. It dominates our culture, our religious life and the role of women within them.
I personally have experienced and felt the impact of this enforced ideology. I have been excluded from our religious rituals and have been made to feel unwelcome in my own home because of it. There are two experiences which come to mind which were particularly hurtful, and uncoincidentally, they were both occurred during the funeral rituals for loved ones.
The first time I was excluded from participating in religious rites was in 2008, during my own mother’s funeral. I was told, by my elder female relatives that I was not allowed to go to the river where my mother’s ashes would be scattered because only men were allowed to partake in this part of the funeral rites. When I questioned the reason for this, I was told this is just the way it is done.
As a fourteen year old girl, I could not fathom that I was being deprived of saying my last goodbye to my mother simply because I was born a woman. That was over ten years ago and things have not changed as much as I had hoped. In February 2018 my grandfather passed away, and I found myself in a similar situation once more. Instead, I was prevented from participating in one of the rituals which took place in my own home because I was on my period. I was banished upstairs in my room until the ritual was completed. Upset and isolated, I felt excluded and robbed of closure.
My personal experiences have led me to question the role of women within Hinduism, and to ruminate on my decision to identify with being a Hindu. I ask myself, “How can I practice a religion that I cannot completely participate in it?” Can I really identify and participate in a culture which is deep-seated in patriarchy and misogyny? If I continue to identify as a Hindu, am I participating in my own dehumanisation?
In an effort to truly understand the need for this division, I asked the my family priest. I posed the question of “why it was that only men who were able to do these puja’s” and he gave me two responses. Firstly he said that it’s because women give birth. Though it was unclear whether he meant this in the sense that it was the most spiritual or devout thing they could do, and thus men had to partake in a greater number of rituals to be on the same spiritual level as women; or whether he meant that women are “dirty” or “unclean” from birth or menstruation which is why they cannot do it. I assume it is the latter because this is what I have been fed by my family when I’ve previously asked this same question. This did nothing to quell my anger about being excluded from something that I should be included in.
Personally, I find it ironic and contradictory that Hinduism is labelled as matriarchal religion, that we worship goddesses but do not allow women to participate in all of our rituals. If Hinduism is a religion that worships goddesses and celebrates the diversity of belief, traditions and interpretations; then why can it not embrace women by including instead of prohibiting it’s female devotees. In my opinion, if we were created by God then surely he or she knows we cannot help this natural bodily process. I would rather believe that God does not view these natural biological processes as “dirty” or a “curse” but as holy, because it allows us to create new life and I cannot think of anything more divine than that.
Though that’s not to say beliefs are not changing, more recently, there have been a small number of Hindu women who have become priests (Phalnikar, 2010).
These women are redefining Hindu practices and challenging archaic, patriarchal traditions and changing the way we worship. This is certainly a sign of progression, but we need to continue to change the attitudes of elder generations. Our generation must continue to challenge the unequal power dynamics and privileges that exist in society. They are overall striving towards bettering the world. As a generation, we are fighting for equality in all areas of society, be it; in the work place, for equal pay, equal rights, equal opportunities and etc… yet we are still denied this equality in our own culture and faith. We cannot preach about equality and then remain silent when our own religion and culture seeks to oppress us.
I cannot see how we will be able to sustain our religion and pass it onto our future generations if it continues to refuse the same rights or opportunities to participate in our rituals as it does to men. I am under the impression, after speaking to some of my friends and family, that I am not the only person who feels that my generation and the next generation of women will not want to silently accept such sexists and misogynistic practices.
For us to truly identify with our religion and culture, we have to re-examine our internalised misogyny and reprogram our brains to practice and participate in a way we feel comfortable with. We must take it upon ourselves to reinterpret what our religious practice and culture means to us. Only then, can we truly identify with it.
Tharoor, S., (2018), Why I am a Hindu?, Aleph Book Company: New Delhi.
Phalnikar, S., (2010)., Female Hindu priests in India are making strides in male-dominated profession,[online]., Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/female-hindu-priests-in-india-are-making-strides-in-a-male-dominated-profession/a-5569382
Guest blog by: Talesha Maya
Talesha Maya is an emerging poet from Leicester, her debut poetry book ‘Fragments’ published in 2018, captured her deeply personal journey from ‘grief to healing’. Her focus is now shifting to identity, culture and politics. Her next collection will capture her experiences of being a ‘Young British Asian Female’.