Sunday, November 20, 2005

Women and religion

Women's engagement with religion has always been taken as a part of being feminine. Really staunch atheistic women have existed only in the Self-Respect Movement. A woman who decides not to observe the rituals and customs dictated by religion has always been seen as a harbinger of conflict, disorder and pain within a family. This is because, for a woman, religion is not just something linked to a god but a cultural practice that she is supposed to preserve. Despite the influence of the Self-Respect Movement, one of the important duties of a married woman is to continue the worshipping tradition of the family she is married into.
In the women's movement, it was generally assumed that those who fight for the liberation of women cannot be believers because the rituals that are a part of religion and the meanings attached to the rituals bind women in many ways and degrade women in unacceptable ways. Moreover, engaging with religion also meant accepting the divisions in the society based on caste and religion.
But in many of our households, certain symbols of religion casually lay around as cultural objects in the form of a terracotta goddess whose name one had forgotten, bought from a small village temple or a lamp which one's mother had lit all her life, an unusually carved Ganesha, brass Deepavali lamps handed down by the family, a brass candle stand or a rough wooden cross carved by a village sculptor or a Ravi Varma painting of Rama's coronation.
One still found it difficult to step on a book. One did enjoy Carnatic music, bhajans, Christmas carols, some festivals like Id, Pongal, regional new year celebrations, Christmas or Deepavali which meant new clothes, tasty food (even if the women had to slog cooking it), the smell of sugar cane and jaggery permeating the house, the fragrance of a cake cooking in the oven, the flavour of spicy mutton and milk pudding with cardamom boiling on the stove and the smell of flowers and fruits which change the atmosphere in the household for a while. Many of us who had discarded the ritualistic part of a festival did enjoy the food that we cooked or the family cooked or the neighbours sent over.
Over the years, we understood that while religion and the identity it imposed was not acceptable to us, faith was something deeply personal and that so long as faith did not make you look at the other with hatred, so long as it was not imposed on the other to create hierarchies, it was not harmful. However, we did stay away from groups openly professing a faith or a religion. We were still trying to grapple with the issues religion raised when the demolition of Babri Masjid happened and we realised that what was demolished was not just a religious structure but the very foundation of harmony that had been built over the years. Ochre was no more just a colour. Nor was the trident a wall decoration. The Hindu Literary Review Sunday, Aug 07, 2005

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