Religion as a barrier in women’s empowerment

RELIGION, PATRIARCHY AND CAPITALISM: Jayanti Alam; Kalpaz Publications, C-30, Satyawati Nagar, Delhi-110052. Rs. 865.   | Photo Credit: mail pic

The book is a collection of chapters on the varied dimensions of a woman’s life in the contemporary Indian society under the larger umbrella concepts of religion and patriarchy. Capitalism appears as a catalyst in strengthening the practice of patriarchy as wealth accumulates in the hands of the male. Putting the author's own life and various situations in perspective, the book tries to unearth the social practices related to the life of a woman.

It takes on a general notion that the religious scriptures promoted the practice such that the child preference in the family becomes highly unfavorable to women. This entrenched mindset furthers the idea of female infanticide, thus eliminating female infants at birth considering them as an economic burden. The dowry system and the notion of the girl child belonging to her husband – a kind of tying up of the woman to a man – treats women as an expensive and uneconomical commodity in her own family. Even at a time of societal progress in terms of science and technology, there is no benefit to the woman. Rather, what is observed is a reverse social dimension.

In the beginning, it was female infanticide, the advancement of technology changed this practice into foeticide. Thus, it argues, that the old notions of patriarchy and religion work much more intensively even if the society undergoes rapid changes. The author also argues that no matter which religion, the rigidity in approach towards the code and conduct of the woman is an absolute given. But, there exists a slight distinction when we compare them. Unlike in the Hindu scriptures, women’s position in the Quran appears to be slightly better. Women are at least allowed to hold and inherit property and have the right to divorce a husband. But the application of these norms in practice in the Indian subcontinent is a complex one. This may be due to the cultural hybridisation wherein one religion has influenced the other. The author asserts that more often, the practice of ‘ mehr’— sum of money given at the time of marriage to a Muslim woman in the Indian situation becomes only a promise.

The argument may not be fully taken as a generalised phenomenon. This could have multiple types of veneration taking specific socio-religious contexts into account. It seems to me that micro specific contexts should be meticulously located before making such generalisations. This is applicable not only to a specific religious practice of marriage, but also to other practices in various religions. Inter-sectionality of region, religion and caste is a point for further examination.

Shifting identity

According to the Manu, the Hindu law giver, in a “pratiloma” marriage, where an upper caste woman is marrying a lower caste man, the woman falls into the trap of social disadvantages and humiliation. Her caste is determined by her husband’s caste. The author cites the case of R. Uma Devi born to an upper caste family but, married to a boy from the fisherman caste. She secured admission in Kurnool Medical College as a member of the Backward Caste. Against this, the college appealed to the Court arguing that Uma Devi cannot claim her husband’s caste. But, the verdict came in her favour: her identity, post-marriage, is reckoned in accordance with her association with a male member, and in this situation, her husband. The author tries to relate the similarity between Manu’s code and the court verdict which falls under the modern secular Constitution of India. Both endorse the norms of patriarchy. I do agree with the author that what works in this court verdict is patriarchy rather than the caste. It is not that easy to change one’s caste. Manu had also laid stress on the fact that caste is not changeable. One’s caste is determined at birth. That, being the case, the context of the court verdict may be examined considering the logic of the judgment that was offered.

The Court might have seen this as a question of social equality versus social injustice. The Hindu caste folder works under the logic of graded inequality. The shifting identity of Uma Devi is now not just attributed to her caste origin. This is socially constructed by the society including people or society of her own caste. Now, she generally will not have any association with the caste that she was born in, rather, she will be pushed into the social dynamics of double oppression that is of being a woman, and that too an outcaste woman who is now the wife of a lower caste man. The question of equality is the fundamental attribute that constitutes the social condition of Uma Devi. The broader idea of patriarchy should be viewed in the specific context and the social implications of being a lower caste in contemporary society. Interconnecting Manu’s code and the code of the modern laws of the land would not be a sensible exercise of social scientific analysis. But, in my view, it is true that patriarchy works under the broader premise of religion. It is with this conviction that the book argues that most of the oppressive structures that work against women are attributed to religion, which are further legitimised and sanctioned by the society at large. The primary control over this rests with a few powerful male members. Thus, it is further articulated that the separate personal law given on the basis of religion further works against them.

The effect of patriarchy, religious laws and social obligations in the social realms hinders a woman's realisation of her rights. This unearths the social barriers faced by women that withhold their entry into the socio-political sphere that yield to the diktats of a patriarchal society. The author takes up examples and events that are unfavourable to the assertion of women’s rights through an analysis of her own reflections on the society that she lives in. The stereotypical portraying of women in social customs and morals irrespective of their caste, class and religious background makes women submissive in the male dominated society.

The politicisation of religion under the banner of a secular nation in a way engendered violence in our times. The fact that ‘woman’ is the most discriminated category — double discrimination — has not been a concern of the makers of the law of the land. The tearing of Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament shows how intolerant our representatives are towards the women’s cause. Unlike the politics of caste, and religion, the politics of gender makes for a harmonious way to build a secular nation, because the question of gender justice is not a communal question. Alternatively, the author proposes a ‘Common Civil Code’ for women that would free them from the clutches of the religion.

Tracing the basic features of tribal life and their dependence on forest, the work highlights the contemporary processes of deforestation in tribal areas in context. The practice of ‘development’ deteriorates the life conditions of adivasis in general, particularly the women. This increases the average working hours of women as they are primarily engaged in collecting minor forest produce and firewood — which is vital for their household economy. Though women were engaged in laborious work in the earlier times, the mechanisation process has deskilled women more than the men.

Moreover, women’s work is not reckoned as income-generating activity. Stretching the aspects of mobilisation and organisation of various women workers in the unorganised sectors, this part of the chapter links the question of child labour and the vulnerable condition of women workers. This is primarily so, because of the de-valuing attitude of the society towards the work done by the woman folk. Thus, the question of development needs to be re-framed in the perspective of the rights of the people. If so, the victims of development — as a result of displacement and environmental degradation — could be met with issues of human rights i.e., a rights-based perspective of development which primarily focuses on the human rights of the people over and above the growth outcomes of development. This would help, mostly, the deprived sections such as the children and women.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2022 4:02:23 AM |

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