Religion, gender and equality

Women and their struggle for equality are inherently tied to the struggle for democracy in India.

Published : Jan 17, 2019 12:30 IST

Different parts of India witnessed reform movements from the mid 19th century. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy led the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu.

Different parts of India witnessed reform movements from the mid 19th century. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy led the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu.

It is ironic that while women andtheir rights are generally seen as peripheral to the political domain, discussions on women’s rights inevitably get embroiled in the deepest of political manoeuvres. Specific issues pertaining to aspects of gender equality tend to spill over into debates on religion and tradition. Equally perplexing is the fact that while issues of women and sexuality are seen as taboo in both private and public discourses, time and again flashpoints emerge where women’s sexuality is the underlying issue in public debates. This points to both the complexity of struggles for rights and the challenges to democracy and democratisation of society in India.

January 1 witnessed women from different walks of life across districts and towns in Kerala standing up to make a women’s wall. They stood up for gender equality and against discriminatory practices and drew support from women outside the State also, many of whom organised solidarity events. This was against the immediate backdrop of the issue of women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. Subsequently, another kind of mobilisation was undertaken. This was clearly directed against women’s assertion for equality. This marked a consolidation of forces in the name of identity politics supposedly on the grounds of religion, religious practice and tradition and clearly in opposition to women’s democratic rights.

No restriction on entry prior to 1991

Prof. Rajan Gurukkal, one of the most renowned historians of south Indian history in our times, while outlining the evolution of the Ayyappa cult and its complex history has drawn on historical evidence to state that there was virtually no restriction on women’s entry prior to 1991 when the Kerala High Court upheld the restriction of entry of women aged between 10 and 50 into the temple. There was neither ritual sanctity nor any scientific justification for this stipulation, he argues.

Social scientists and activists in contemporary India need to ask this question: what is it in the nature of and about women’s rights that each time an issue comes up discussions around the subject result in a political line-up for and against, with variation only in the names of those leading the charge? The polarisation provides retrogressive forces an occasion to rally around in the name of religion and threats to the rights of a specific religious community. This may include pressure mounted to upturn judgments and decisions of the highest court in India and even dilute existing legal provisions in favour of women’s equality. Clearly, this resistance is not confined to the followers of any one community and in fact emerges as a trait common to the leaders, often self–appointed, of all faiths and religions. Interestingly, along with religion, the authority claimed by those standing in opposition to equality is that of tradition.

The fact remains that there is no clarity about the tradition(s) that we hark back to. Can unilinear claims be made on the basis of tradition to uphold discriminatory practices? Should the state, government or an individual/institutional entity be permitted to claim sanction for discriminatory practices and seek to enforce these with impunity on the basis of interpretations that may have no historical validity?

In contemporary Indian society, which is marked by a plurality of traditions, beliefs and practices, respect for diversity that has evolved over centuries emerges as the bulwark of democracy. However, can these be invoked to deny equal rights to women and as justification to uphold discriminatory practices? The Constitution is clear in this regard and it is incumbent upon the state to uphold these rights. Further, respect for “tradition” cannot be selectively invoked in the name of upholding practices followed by certain groups while those of other sections are attacked in the name of false dichotomies drawing upon the rhetoric of gender equality versus tradition. Debates in the Constituent Assembly reflected a great deal of sensitivity to the difference between individual and community-based rights and placed both these in perspective to enshrine Article 15, which prohibits the state and public-funded institutions from discriminating against any citizen.

The continuing debates for equality and against discrimination need to be understood in a historical context wherein the democratisation of the social order and of institutions emerged as part of a process. At one level, it is correct to see the present debates as a continuation of trends that first became visible in the 19th century when issues of “social reform” and women’s rights first came to be enmeshed within a larger discourse of anti-colonialism and modernity. These became a part of the anti-feudal, anti-imperialist struggle with a concrete agenda of social transformation. Different parts of India witnessed reform movements from the mid 19th century, ranging from distinct roots in local/regional histories of struggles, such as the Satyashodhak, Dravidian and the temple entry movements. The national movement in the early 20th century drew upon these, with different leaders putting forth their thoughts on emancipation, freedom and dignity with a concrete agenda of banishing all forms of untouchability, discrimination and social prejudices. The subject of equality for women was integral to these debates, even as there were differences among the participants.

It is important to remember that the women’s movement in pre-Independence India and the political movement came together to work towards this social transformation even as differences persisted and differences continued. While the Left stream pushed for more radical reforms in the early part of the century, many like E.M.S. Namboodiripad entered the political stream with strong links with reform movements. Even as the more radical streams in intellectual thought had mellowed and become muted by the latter half of the 20th century, as observed by historians such as K.N. Panikkar, political debates remained imbued with a commitment to equality. The Legislative Assembly proceedings in the decades prior to Independence are replete with engagement with issues of women’s equality cutting across different religious communities despite the fact that women’s own presence in these platforms was visibly limited.

The contrast to the situation today is only too visible. The agenda of social transformation has ceased to be part of the project of nationalism. Leaders of established parties vie with one another to reflect patriarchal prejudices in the course of their interventions, and the aim of legislation appears to be driven by a “backlash” against women and in favour of upholding inequalities in the name of tradition or religion unless they serve the specific purpose of sending out signals to specific communities to fall in line. Outside Parliament, too, leaders of religious communities assert claims contrary to constitutional rights and the commitment to equality. While in the past we witnessed arguments that sidestepped equality to assert uniformity between communities, today we are seeing new ways of denying equality to women by adopting a selective approach. Thus, the rights of Muslim women in marriage are sought to be upheld through legislative intervention even as the rights of women in general are sought to be restricted through contrary interventions. The establishment today seems to be bent on a selective approach to issues of women’s equality.

Surge of conservatism

Across the world, the dawn of neoliberalism has witnessed a surge of conservative thought. This has gone alongside a targeting of communities and women of these communities.

Religions in India and elsewhere have a complex history. These are not immune or divorced from the evolution of the political economies and concomitant social relations. These histories also cannot be delinked or studied in isolation from political contexts and the role and patronage of the state, which varies over time, region and the nature of the political regime. The element of patriarchy, which is common to virtually all religions and religious practices, also needs to be understood in its specificity. This engagement lies at the heart of women’s movements across the world, and scholars of women’s studies have undertaken sustained analyses of the modes and methods of forms of domination whereby religion has upheld and contributed to ideological frameworks that uphold and perpetuate the subordination of women. In this exercise all faiths have been subjected to continuous scrutiny. The same holds true for India and the religious communities amidst which women in India live.

Contrary to the arguments advanced by those who disrupted normal life across Kerala to oppose the women’s wall for gender equality, all the women standing up to form the wall that day were not atheists. The majority of women in India are believers, in whichever faith they are born into from their familial location. This is a fact that the women’s movement recognised way back when it entered the struggle to negotiate rights in contemporary India. This remains as true as the fact that most women in India believe in and continue to live in the institution of marriage. It is precisely because of this that we are today witnessing increased struggles for equality within these domains and institutions. This fact is in sharp contrast to the premise on which opposition to women’s organisations is mounted by those who seek to stall the process of democratisation of society and recognition to rights for women. The change today is that struggles for what may appear to be issues of gender parity have become key components in the struggle for democracy and democratisation of the society and politics of this country today.

Specifically with regard to religion and women, the diversity of the canvas needs to be understood at different levels. Firstly, a distinction needs to be drawn between religion and rituals relating to the practice of religion. While tenets relating to the former are often contained in texts and classics, which may carry the knowledge embodied in religious thought of the times that they evolved in, rituals and traditions involve practices on the ground. These offer proof of a continuous process of adaption, exchange of ideas, adherence to and absorption of different practices. These stem from and draw upon diverse histories of rituals and beliefs observed by the communities living in different regions and contexts over time and place. Scholars such as D.D. Kosambi and others have established how in ancient India the pantheon of gods and forms of worship evolved, drawing upon prevalent cults in different regions, and were over centuries subjected to assimilation within the Great Tradition of what then emerged as classic forms of worship.

Assimilation of cults

Students of Indian history are familiar with the process whereby local practices pertaining to the Mother Goddess and fertility cults from ancient times were sometimes absorbed and also subordinated within the overarching male pantheon, with women being delegated to the status of consorts even as these forms of worship continued within the Little Traditions. It is not surprising to see women’s greater involvement in the latter. Not unsurprisingly, these practices and beliefs amongst the vast population remain more closely aligned to a rich history of festivals to mark agricultural harvesting cycles around which social life continues to revolve.

The greater presence of women in these is in sharp contrast to the more masculine, overt forms and ceremonial aspects of religious practice. In recent years, these have become more closely aligned to the market. However, there is a clear division of roles, with women being involved with the observance of rituals on a more day-to-day basis, while the visible forms of worship are seen to be male roles. Interestingly, while motherhood was and is the most commonly invoked form of worship of women in the present-day nationalist rhetoric, it is her very reproductive capacity that is stigmatised and becomes the basis of discriminatory practices against women.

These remarks may be seen to pertain more directly to the more well-known Hindu practices but are not unknown elsewhere with regard to subordination and subjugation of women. In India, it is common to find such adaption across religious faiths and denominations. At the risk of some generalisation, it may be argued that while women remain central to everyday practice(s), the more visible roles of the high priests in rituals across all religions have become male preserves over the years. It is this complexity and evolutionary nature of religion and religious practices that is integral to the practice of religious rituals and beliefs which needs to be emphasised. This also needs to be kept in mind while selectively invoking tradition.

Religion as battleground

Why is religion emerging as a battleground for these struggles?

This is not a question easy to answer.

We necessarily/perforce need to take note of the visible efforts at mobilisation around religious lines since the 1980s. While this is true of all religious denominations, in India it is the most visible with regard to the majority community. The number of godmen, organisational outfits and champions claiming to represent Hindus has proliferated by the dozen across States. Meanwhile, pan-Islamic organisations are also active in the different regions, often with links to international networks. All have community leaders with a presence at the national and regional level, with many having close links to political platforms and parties. The followers of these outfits alternately emerge as constituencies for vote-bank politics, while some have been seen to act as hoodlums on the streets or engage in criminal activities.

It is striking that despite this continuous mobilisation around religion and the assertion of religious identities, contemporary India has not seen any meaningful developments with reference to contributions to religious thought and ideas from the vast and ever-growing fraternity of godmen, cult leaders and their armies of followers.

Another question we need to ask is the following: Have we seen any significant idea that would have represented, revived or offered intellectual insights into what religious thought and philosophy may have to offer its followers when their lives are sinking into newer levels of social and existential crisis? This is largely true for the multitudes claiming to represent and be spokespersons of Hinduism, as also for all other faiths. However, this may not be the place to do so.

This scenario is in sharp contrast to earlier, historical times when religious and religion-centred movements enriched the debate on ideas even as they met with sharp contestation with regard to prevalent inequalities and newly emerging social practices. India has a rich legacy of religious discourse and the historical moorings that shaped the contours of the debates of those times across different contexts and spatial time. While the names that come to the fore are of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, who emerged as the foremost to represent the heterodox sects of the sixth century BC, the contributions of Adi Shankaracharya or the wide array of saints and ascetics thrown up by the Bhakti movement and their impact on social life across regions in India are perhaps still to be fully fathomed. Each strand and stream of thought represented a specificity of ideas, and issues of equality were often germane to the prevalent discourse. Women’s voices emerged within many of these movements to articulate experience and resistance.

In contrast to those waving religious banners of all hues, Indian academia and scholars of history have often been more sensitive to the intellectual traditions historically present in India and the contributions made by these to the body of thought and philosophical streams that the religious discourse in India represents as also to the diversity and contestations inherited from and inherent to these.

The question then remains, how and why are women caught up in this battle?

For this we need to turn to debates in the 19th and early 20th century when the colonial powers constructed a social frame within which women’s condition was seen as a marker of India’s backwardness, justifying intervention.

Parliament of Religions

As far back as 1893, speaking at the Chicago Convention of Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda delivered an iconic and eloquent speech to draw the attention of the world to the rich inheritance and tradition of tolerance in Indian society. Our present-day champions of Hindutva specifically claim to carry forward the mantle drawing upon his pride and claim “to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”. However, they have chosen to ignore the remaining part of the now iconic speech where Vivekananda announced that “we believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”

Above all, it may be worth it to remind the practitioners of all faiths that “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

The question we may still need to ask ourselves is, does the neoliberal and marketised context of religion and religious assertion combined with a fascistic right-wing assertion in different parts of the world allow for more liberal interpretations of matters of faith, belief and practice of rituals? The women’s movement in India came up against the political manipulations on the grounds of faith from the two dominant communities in close proximity in the 1980s, when the Shah Bano issue and the incident of sati in Deorala (Rajasthan) witnessed aggressive mobilisation and political capitulation. If the bloody battles around issues of faith in early modern Europe are any indication, we may have to wait longer to understand the need to make a distinction between individual faith, organised religion and matters of state. Polarised politics provides greater opportunities for such manipulation. At stake is the issue of democratisation of society and the terms of social organisation and institutions.

Ambedkar’s speech

To end, we may turn to B.R. Ambedkar’s last speech in the Constituent Assembly: “The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others.”

Women in India and their struggle for equality are inherently tied to the struggle for democracy in the country. This is a lesson women learn each time the debate on their rights gets entangled within the vagaries of political fortunes. Each time round, they also see how religion can be used by political regimes to divide them, to selectively use their plight to advance vote-bank politics and sectarian ends. Each time round, women reflect, analyse and prepare for the next round of onslaughts, attacks and struggles. So be it. The women’s movement continues to be a crucial component of the struggle to save and build a strong political democracy that will allow for more intense debates even as women step out each day into a new dawn. What forces working on behalf of radical social change need to recognise is that women’s presence is as crucial for their own rights as it is for the survival of democracy in India.

Prof. Indu Agnihotri is a women’s studies scholar with a special interest in history and the women’s movement in India. She retired as Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment