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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.

Oral History of Jean D.*

“We seek beyond history for a new and more possible meeting.” –Audre Lorde

This is a retelling of  Jean D.’s story in an adaptive form. In the way that the Indian Shakta tradition has reclaimed their history by adapting the Bhagavad Gita to a form more comprehensive and pertinent to their particular experience in the form of the Devi Mahatmya and the Devi Gita. I have decided not to include certain factors in this retelling, such as race, for Jean’s ancestry is European American and this is just her story. Other factors have also been left out due to length of this project and the complexity of the interconnectedness of all of them, this project would become infinite (issues such as occupation by invasion and immigration). Mary McGee described stories such as this as “women-centered” stories in her essay, “The Virtuous Hindu Woman as Icon and Agent.” She also agrees with A.K. Ramanujan, who asserts, “that women’s tales ‘present an alternative way of looking at things. Genders are genres. The world of women is not the world of men’”. In this way, women become significant agents in defining morals and consequently bringing about change. The deviant behavior that results (according to the contemporary social norms) is backed up with moral justifications- the benefit of their families, friends, etc. The adaptive history can be very useful in empowering women to change their own perceptions of the “ideal woman” and in turn change similarly held perceptions of women by men. In essence, “the icon (ideal woman as represented in the story) becomes agent” (McGee 1994: 4).Although the women in Jean’s family are strong within the context of contemporary social ideology, I did not wish to create conflict between their adaptive and historical stories. Instead I wanted to impart on them even more strength in the form of divine power as expressed in their roles as the centerpieces of their families, as mothers, daughters and wives.

“…it is undeniable that the male symbolism of deity has been a major contributor to the exclusion of women from positions of respect and authority in Western society and religion.” –Rita Gross Read the rest of this entry »

Female Sacred Sources of Empowerment: Indian Hindu Women Full of Strength and Power Since Time Immemorial

Women, Religion and Social Change; New College of California; Fall 2004 Research Paper

What is feminism? What is the women’s movement? Is it a frill? Another aspect of individualism? An imperialistic western product? It is none of these things…The woman’s movement is a major, global and most profound shift in both human relations and thinking in modern times. Who is thinking and acting? It is the women who are at the bottom of the social structure. Margaret Mead, the eminent anthropologist, when asked about the most important periods of human development in all history, identified four such periods: …evolution; …ice age; …industrialization; …and —the period of the Woman’s Movement. After these periods nothing was the same again, she said. What is changing? Everything! When women begin to move, the whole social structure begins to shift!…Going to the great religions of the world, she [woman] finds her experience there largely encapsulated in man’s language and patriarchal structures…What, then, do women really want?  They seek to reclaim their lived experiences in past history in all fields of knowledge. They want their experience to be part of the present. Finally, they want to ensure that their lives and experiences will be included and counted significantly in a vision of a better world for the future…to see their experiences and contributions become an integral part of the world knowledge and a dynamic for structural change in human relations and social justice. -Frances Maria Yasas, “Woman Reclaiming Her Experience”

The Goddess, in Hindu religious tradition, encompasses both creative and destructive capacities, and as a myth model for women this duality serves as both a divine role model and an immanence to be experienced here on Earth.[1] The Goddess’ presence plays such a vital and essential role in women’s lives in India, I believe, because of some of the cultural obstacles they face on a daily basis. Vedantic law in general, the Laws of Manu, the Stridharmapaddhati and the Yatidharmaprakasa are just a few of the texts that place restrictive measures on all aspects of women’s lives. For example, in these texts, women are not to do things independently of their fathers or husbands; spiritual independence cannot be achieved even when a woman has devoted herself to a ‘proper’ life as a wife; there are six conditions that assist in a woman’s descent into hell: recitation of sacred texts (japa), performance of austerities (tapas), going on pilgrimage, renunciation, mantra chanting and deity worship (temple worship is included in this) and the only auspicious way to perform these things is to meditate on her husband as God, meditate on his deity of choice, assist with any of his ritual duties, and so on.[2] Although the West assumes that these laws are strictly adhered to, there is evidence of popular alternative stories, myths, scripture and female leaders in Hindu culture that show that women are not always willing to emulate the static icons of traditional womanhood. Read the rest of this entry »