In India, Religion Meets Feminism

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In India, Religion Meets Feminism

In India, priestesses and goddesses lead the fight for women’s empowerment.

In India, Religion Meets Feminism

Muslim women stand inside the compound of Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque) in the old quarters of Delhi (July 25, 2014).

Credit: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Bhopal’s old town is a maze of narrow streets, where crooked houses jostle for space alongside pastel-colored mosques. Pedestrians flatten themselves against the walls as motorbikes hurtle by, carrying men with skullcaps and giggling teenage girls in burkas, sitting three abreast. Bhopal is one of India’s most Muslim towns, with a 40 percent Muslim population. That makes it a fitting place for Safia Akhtar, one of India’s first female qazis, to live, in a blue house down a small alleyway.

Qazis are Islamic priests, who give counsel on family issues based on their readings of the Quran, to make sure Sharia is respected for matters of personal law. Although they have no legally binding authority, they are highly respected members of the Muslim community in India, and their decisions are generally heeded.“When someone has a problem, they don’t turn to Google. They turn to us qazis!” Safia laughs.

It’s a position that has traditionally been reserved for men, until the organisation BMMA, or the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, trained 30 women from all over India to become qazis. Safia was one of the first to sign up, two years ago. She hoped to put an end to the misogynistic rulings made by her male counterparts.

“Recently, many male qazis haven’t been doing their duty. They mislead women, by saying that their decisions are based on the Quran, whereas really, they are just speaking for men’s interests,” she explains. And since qazis play a major role in every aspect of family life, from marriage to divorce to property spats, this has created some major problems.

Over the past few years, Safia explains that many practices have become widespread and socially accepted in Muslim society, such as triple talaq divorce, whereby a man can divorce his wife instantly, or men failing to pay meher, the “maintenance” to be given to women at the time of marriage, which enables them to remain financially independent.

Working as the only female qazi in her community isn’t easy, and religious leaders haven’t been happy to see her coming. “Many qazis have a very haughty reaction; they think I am not legitimate to be a qazi,” Safia continues. She organizes meetings with her rivals to debate on family issues. “They won’t accept that what they are doing is wrong. They say they know the Quran. But I come armed with my verses, and then they are forced to see.” Safia uses her in-depth knowledge of Islamic texts to talk down the men “mansplaining” it to her.

“Islam is an open-minded, fair, flexible religion. But our scholars, our mufti, they aren’t any of those things,” she says, decisively.

In the West, feminism and religion are often perceived as being at odds, but in India, where spirituality is a major part of many people’s lives, women are using their religion as a guide for empowerment. Female qazis are just one example of this.

From the outside, Hinduism seems to be a feminist’s dream faith. Instead of a monolithic, presumed male deity, Hindus worship a wide pantheon of gods, including female badasses like Kali and Durga. They’re better than any female superhero: they ride on the back of tigers, carry spears, and fight demons. However, despite the fact that Hindus continue to worship goddesses, tradition has left real live women by the roadside.

Modern day feminists are reappropriating their favorite goddesses to challenge sexual and domestic violence. The graphic novel Priya’s Shakti, written in 2014 by Ram Devineni, Lina Srivastava, and Dan Goldman, tells the story of Priya, a young girl banished from her home after being the victim of a gang rape. She joins together with the Goddess Parvati to fight gender crimes in India, and rides back into town on a tiger to get revenge on those that wronged her.

The traditional roles of husbands and wives are also being called into question. In February, Indian lawyer Chandan Kumar Singh sued the popular God Ram for mistreating his wife, Sita. According to legend, after she was rescued from the kingdom of the demon Ravana, where she was being held captive, Ram forced her to undergo tests to prove she was “pure” and hadn’t lain with another man. She refused to be humiliated this way and was banished to a forest. The court, in the eastern state of Bihar, refused to discuss this “impractical case,” but it did create ripples in the Indian media, as Ram and Sita incarnate the ideal couple, where the wife respects and obeys her husband in all things.

The myth of Sita and Ram is proof that not all religious texts can be used as guides for gender equality. However women are beginning to reappropriate their religion to make them more female-friendly, beginning with the right to worship wherever they want to. In recent months, Hindus and Muslims alike have been demanding entrance into major religious sites. Some shrines and temple don’t allow women inside, as they think that they might be menstruating, and this would “defile” the sacred space.

On January 26, as India celebrated Republic Day, 400 activists from the Bhoomata Brigade group stormed the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra and attempted to enter by force, aiming to put an end to a centuries-old custom preventing women from entering the inner sanctum. Although at first they were stopped by the police, the Bombay Court later ruled on their side, announcing that “offering prayers at a temple is the fundamental right of a woman and it is the government’s fundamental duty to protect their right.” The Bhoomata Brigade has now turned their attention to the Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai, taking their fight across religious lines. Last week they staged protests demanding entrance into the holy shrine.

It may seem like a mere symbolic struggle, but this battle is breaking down beliefs about menstruation and impurity. It’s also a huge step for the women demanding equal rights to worship. The importance of such decisions is perhaps best illustrated by the severe reaction from religious leaders, who have been digging their heels in to fight such an evolution. After the High Court decision, Indian religious leader Shankaracharya Swaroopanand claimed that allowing women into Shani temple would “increase incidents of rape.” Prayar Gopalakrishnan , the head of the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in Kerala, said that the only way he would allow women into his temple is if someone invented a machine to check if women were menstruating, the way they check for metal at airports.

Such shocking statements show how deeply ingrained misogyny has become among Indian religious leaders. In a country where faith and tradition lead to female feticide, domestic violence, honor killings and the ostracization of widows, you have to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for women to fight against religion all together.

“We don’t decide whether people are religious or not,” protests Zakia X, the co-founder of the BMMA, Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. “We live in a religious society. And we have to fight back in that same public space. We have to redefine what is Islamic within Indian society. ”

The group began in the aftermath of the massacres in Gujarat in 2002, when India was ravaged by communal violence. A group of Muslim women in Mumbai came to the realization that they were paying a double price. Even when their houses weren’t under siege by violent mobs, they couldn’t feel safe behind closed doors. “Outside, we were faced with the serial targeting of Muslims, including widespread sexual violence,” explains Zakia. “Inside, we had to deal with to domestic violence, marriage, and divorce laws that leave us vulnerable, and no means of financial independence.” Neither the state nor the “conservative, patriarchal” religious leaders offered them any protection. They founded BMMA to have someone fighting on their side.

They soon realized that fighting religious tradition head-on was one of the most important battlefields for women’s rights. “Many men insult us, they say we are free-minded women, that we don’t wear the veil, and that we have no Islamic identity. They say we are an insult to Islam,” Zakia says. “But they are backwards; they don’t want evolution to happen”

In India, religion seems like one of the hardest places to achieve progress in women’s rights. But although it may be one of the toughest battlefields to fight on, it is also one of the most vital. For many Indian women, religion is a huge part of daily life, especially in the lower classes. It’s hard to imagine any large scale feminist movement that didn’t take this into account. By linking feminism and religion, these women are bringing the fight for women’s rights to a wider part of the population. The women fighting to get into Shani temple were rural women, from humble backgrounds. BMMA’s 70,000 members come from all over the country, from every kind of social class.

Not only are women reclaiming religion from patriarchy, they’re also reclaiming the fight against patriarchy itself, which was long reserved for upper class, urban women. A few years ago, a group called the Consortium of Loose, Pub-Going, and Forward Women fought religious groups head on after several occurrences of women in bars being attacked by groups of moral police. Today, the fight has changed, from the bar to the mosque. They’re equally valid demands that illustrate the subtle shift in the feminist forces of India, as religion becomes one of the main battering rams for women’s rights.

Eloise Stark is a master’s student in journalism at Sciences Po in Paris, currently residing in New Delhi.