The She and Them in Faith
By Nadia O’Brien
Who we believe, what we believe, why we believe and how we believe, much like everything else in our lives, revolves around the ‘he’ and the ‘him’. Never around ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘they’ or ‘them’. He has always been in charge- at home, at work, at parties, and functions, at churches, at mosques, at gurudwaras, and temples. He decides what she can do, what they can do, what you can do, and what I can do. He wrote HIStory- the Bible, the Quran, the Gita, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Pitakas, the Agamas. He maintains the tradition. He maintains his position.
He led us in prayer, he rose from the dead, his will be done- He is Jesus. He sat under the Bodhi tree, he transcended Karma, he was the enlightened one- he is Buddha. He is God, he is the creator of the earth, he is the judge of mankind- he is Allah. He, the creator, he, the preserver, he, the destroyer- he is Brahma, he is Vishnu and he is Shiva. He was the first Guru, he taught us about Waheguru- he is Guru Nanak.
In all this fascination around him, where did she go?
The way we worship, the things we believe, the morals and values we have are all a result of the environment in which we have been socialised. Unfortunately, we have lived, and continue to live in an unequal and patriarchal world. It has also manifested in who we put our faith in.
The world is evolving, at least legally. In most places, women can drive, women can vote, women can work (though they still carry on the brunt of the work at home too), and women can choose to be pro-choice. But our traditions are not meant to catch up with the times- they are traditions after all! And religion rarely progresses from tradition.
As a Catholic, I often find that the church has grown over time. Women are not scrutinised if they do not cover their head, or on the basis of what they wear- not as much as they were before. But, the Pope, Bishops and priests are all male and must remain so. Priests and nuns (all female) still perform different roles within and outside the church. Priests are generally held in higher regard as they spread the Word of God, while nuns spend their time serving society, and praying for those in need.
Although traditionally, women are permitted to pray at mosques, Indian Islamic tradition says otherwise. They do not attend funerals or go to the mosque even for their own nikah (wedding). They worship in mosques behind pardas, just as some wear hijabs and burqas– to maintain mahram (Muslim women must cover their faces and heads for any man who is not their father, brother, husband or son). A misconception within and about Islam is that only he can initiate divorce through talaq. Through the concept of khula, she can too!
In Hinduism, women are traditionally instructed to not enter the kitchen or any religious place while they are menstruating. I have even heard stories about “modern” families leading an urban life whose women must not touch any clothing, sleep on the bed, or use regular utensils to eat and drink from for fear of de-sanctifying it.
Buddhism righted a lot of the wrongs in history- they ensure equal status and non-discrimination within their faith. Yes, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama reincarnate and as they have always been male, so they will remain.
Sikhism portrays women as equal to men, in service, devotion, bravery and sacrifice, even using gender-neutral names to ensure the same. Although female Granthis, Pathis and Sants (religious propagators) are permitted to read and preach teachings, Sikhism is more equal in ideals than in practice. The lack of accessibility and encouragement for women to apply to be a Granthi creates inequality and discourages the possibility for change. Lohri is primarily celebrated in honour of the birth of new-born sons. But Sikhism crowned women with the identity of ‘Kaur’ (derived from the word kunwar) providing her with an identity independent from her father and husband.
Our faith is something personal to us, but we made it political. He put himself at the head of the table, and now he believes that to be his birth-right. Let us change the shape of the table- at a circular table, there is no head! Remember that she gave birth to Jesus- she is Mother Mary, she is the destroyer of evil things- she is Durga, she helps us on the right path- she is Lakshmi, she was the first feminist liberator within Buddhism- she is Tara, she issued orders to the Khalsa army and single-handedly sustained Sikhism for 40 years- she is Mata Sundari.
There is always a place for him at the table, but let us make a place for her, and them too!
Illustration by Stuti Gupta