There is at least one group in India willing to confront the issue of women’s relationship with their spiritual traditions, SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association). Mirai Chatterjee, a member of SEWA, points out in her essay, “Religion, secularism, and organising women workers,” that the need for attention paid to women’s relationship to their spirituality is imperative. She says SEWA recognizes the importance that religion plays in shaping world views and facilitating or debilitating relationships between communities of women. With the rise of communalism (defined as loyalty and commitment to the interests of your own minority or ethnic group rather than to society as a whole) throughout India, it has become increasingly important to understand how and to what extent religion/spirituality informs women in their everyday lives. SEWA has become aware of the use of religion by sadhus, mullahs and other religious leaders to forward their own communal agendas and the resulting devastation it has wreaked on individual women’s lives and the chances for alliances between women of differing religious communities.[i]

Amidst all of the communal devastation, SEWA has remained vigilant in encouraging open communication between its members from different religious traditions in order that “From this exchange [of both positive and negative religious experiences] ideas for action and further organizing could develop, together with a strengthening of our own bonds.”[ii]

SEWA’s efforts at encouraging dialogue between members include touching on issues such as:

  • communalism as a virus that, due to prolonged socialization, affects everyone and this internalization should be confronted;
  • recognition and emphasis on the positive, humanistic aspects of religion;
  • challenging the patriarchal, oppressive and divisive aspects of religion through a feminist lens is vital to creating alternatives, which are possible through introspection and collaboration;
  • women’s roles in religion and religious women’s contributions to society should be highlighted and understood- and not just leaders, but average’s women’s contributions through ritual, folklore and songs;
  • secularism needs to be addressed and an understanding of its role in dividing communities; disassociation from the definition of ‘religion’ used by communalists that only further divides communities and would-be allies;
  • encourage minority women to take up leadership roles;
  • encourage a ‘common civil code’ that respects everyone and is not co-opted by communalists and used to oppress women, dalits, the poor or religious groups.[iii]

(C) 2010 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.


[i] Chatterjee, Mirai. “Religion, secularism, and organising women workers,” in Against All Odds: Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan. Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Nighat Said Khan, eds. Kali for Women: New Delhi. 1994. pp. 107-16.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Chatterjee, Mirai. “Religion, secularism, and organising women workers,” in Against All Odds: Essays on Women, Religion and Development from India and Pakistan. Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Nighat Said Khan, eds. Kali for Women: New Delhi. 1994. pp. 114-5.

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