Gendering the spirit: women, religion and the post-colonial response

Edited by Durre S Ahmed


by Dr Ayesha Jalal

With social and religious movements in parts of South and Southeast Asia targeting women more brazenly than ever to promote extremist agendas, this collection of essays could not have appeared at a more timely moment. They capstone a project on women and religion sponsored by the Heinrich Boll Foundation between 1996 and 2000 that resulted in the publication of four earlier volumes on the same subject but which were not available to a broader international audience. Striking a high note in critical thinking, Gendering the Spirit charts the course of women’s vital but for the most part unacknowledged contributions to religious traditions as far afield as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Uncompromising in exposing the self-serving and sterile male dominated view of religion in general and spirituality in particular, the volume will undoubtedly touch some raw nerves. But the lucidity and sharpness of its counter-narrative and the firmly grounded inter-disciplinary research of the five women authors drawn from fields like psychology, anthropology, gender studies, theology and political activism will also elicit praise and admiration.

The essays are organised around three thematic clusters. Part I on alternative perspectives, introduced by Durre S Ahmed, sets the agenda with a combination of wit and provocation. The stated aim of the volume is to energise the emergent global narratives on women and spirituality by providing an alternative to male literalist thinking on religion for which “fundamentalism” has become a useful, if inadequate, euphemism. One might quibble with Ahmed’s critique of the academy for its disengagement with real life issues, not least on account of the reliance of the contributors on works produced by those who inhabit the proverbial ivory towers. But it is difficult to deny that the subject of women and spirituality has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Academic theology has relegated it to the margins of intellectual discourse. The feminist movement for the most part too has skirted around it because of the distaste with which its luminaries look upon matters to do with religion. Ignoring women’s spirituality is to impoverish understandings of religious traditions and privilege monochromatic, hyper-masculine interpretations. For all too long, women’s view of their own spirituality has been dismissed as an aberration and, worse still, heresy. This is what lies at the root of the psychological, social and physical repression of women in all religious traditions. Rejecting the homogenising and exclusionary idioms of the male discourse on religion, Ahmed lauds heretics as “cross-pollinators of civilisations” in much the same way as Peter Wilson did in his book, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (New York, 1988). Describing the subject matter of the volume as the final frontier of post-coloniality, she calls for a thorough decolonisation of male interpretations and meanings of women and religion. What is needed is a radical reclaiming of the past, re-conceptualising it in terms meaningful to the contemporary world, particularly for feminists, and comparative insights which highlight the diversities of perspectives in the different religious traditions while also identifying the unifying threads in women’s spirituality.

She sets about doing so in an interesting conceptual essay on women, psychology and religion. Her main argument is that the diversities inherent in earlier religious traditions were overwhelmed by the ascent of an archetypal male heroic consciousness which saw conquest and subjugation, not persuasion and accommodation, as the only meritorious goal. What was symbolic, polytheistic and emotional was transformed into literal, monotheistic and hyper-rational understandings of spirituality and, by extension, religion. It is with the rise of the latter consciousness that charges of heresy proliferated and women’s spirituality was repressed and marginalised. It is a thesis which resonates well with Madhu Khanna’s theoretical essay on the goddess-woman equation in Sakta Tantra tradition of Hinduism and Mary John Mananzan’s analysis of the Catholic Church’s teachings on women with special reference to the Philippines. Both point to the ways in which religious orthodoxy, brahmanical and Catholic, have perpetuated patriarchal social structures and their accoutrements - notions of women’s passivity, and subordination. Khanna demonstrates how the Sakta Tranta strand in Hinduism has resisted and subverted brahmanical discourse both in theory and in fact. Rejecting the phallocentric images of woman as a passive sexual symbol of male fantasies, the Saktas energise and feminise Hinduism by conferring a remarkable degree of agency on goddesses who are represented as the source of primal energy. Far from being a mere theoretical construct removed from the social sphere, the Sakta texts extend the autonomy of the goddesses to women, regardless of caste, creed, age or personal status by viewing them as the physical incarnations of “Sakti”, divine cosmic energy. Even if Sakta women were not entirely immune from patriarchal norms embedded in brahmanical social structures, they could aspire to become teachers, saints and mystics. By contrast, such space as women possessed in the early Christian tradition, Mananzan shows, was systematically constricted by the Fathers of the Church. It was not until the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s that women could hope to stake a claim within the Christian religious hierarchy. She documents her own professional and personal experience to throw light on the social awakening among women of religion in the Philippines. Far from resigning themselves to the esoteric realm of spirituality alone, women of Mananzan’s ilk are becoming increasingly aware of the need to participate in the political sphere to affect real change in their religious and social status.

Hidden women

Part II of the volume illuminates the role of hidden women, past and present, who challenged male constructions of spirituality to secure their rightful place in their respective religious traditions. In her short essay, Hema Gonnatilake looks at the forgotten women of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka who, faced with unstinting hostility from the Buddhist male hierarchy, took the initiative of recording their own spiritual and intellectual experiences for posterity in an ancient chronicle called the Dipavamsa. Written in the fourth century AD but covering events from the third century BC, the Dipavamsa contains an altogether rare account of the efforts made by the Buddhist nuns to set up an order and the subsequent history of its development and spread throughout the island. Significantly, there is no mention of this early, if not the earliest, instance of a feminist historiography in a later chronicle, the Mahavamsa, which attributes the spread and accomplishments of Buddhism in Sri Lanka exclusively to the monks. The erasure of the women’s story and the absence of any reference to their contributions in subsequent texts goes some way in explaining why, contrary to the original teachings of the Buddha, gender inequalities have remained embedded in Sri Lanka.

Using theological, anthropological, historical and literary texts, the four remaining essays in this section reveal that whether silenced, marginalised or appropriated by the purveyors of male discourses on religion, women have never failed to create their own spiritual space. Binding them together is the ubiquitous archetype of the Great Mother in different religious traditions. The two pieces on the Philippines by Grace P Odal and Mary John Mananzan detail the role of women, as symbols and agents in their own right, in the spiritual consciousness and social development of their communities. An anthropologist by training, Odal in her study of popular belief and practice as a counter-discourse to established religion juxtaposes the archetype of mutya - the primordial and original spirit - in Filipino consciousness to delineate the spiritual significance of “Mother” Victoria Vera Piedad, who remains larger than life long after her death. Mananzan delineates the spiritual and intellectual development of Isabel Suarez, the Suprema or spiritual leader of a community of about 50,000 and the important contribution of her feminist perspectives on religion for the women’s movement in the Philippines. Shifting the geographical focus to India, Madhu Khanna provides a richly textured narrative of her encounters with the incredible Madhobi Ma. From her miracle birth to her progression as the embodiment of several strands of spiritual initiation, Hindu and Muslim, Madhobi Ma like her Filipino counterparts enjoys a pivotal role in her religious community. A wife, a mother, the fount of wisdom and a spiritual healer all at the same time, Madhobi Ma is the veritable sage and saint who reverses and subverts the normative Hindu ideal of the passive, dependent and subjugated woman.

She is in the same tradition as the 13th or 14th century Kashmiri woman mystic poetess, variously known to her devotees as Lal Ded, Lalla, Mai Lal and Laleshwari. Deploying a Jungian framework for her analysis, Durre Ahmed recounts the amazingly bold exploits of Lal Ded in defiance of all authority, religious and temporal, in the quest of giving expression to her unique spirituality. Born into a brahman family and married at a young age, Lal Ded abandons social norms and embraces nudity as her weapon of protest against the absence of real men in Kashmir. Her fateful encounter with the Persian/Iraqi Sufi mystic Mir Sayyed Ali Hamdani, the patron saint of Kashmir (popularly known as Shah Hamdan), occasioned a cross-fertilisation of Hindu and Muslim spirituality which finds expression in her poetry. Literalist male interpreters in India and Pakistan have of late heroically sought to appropriate Lal Ded for Hinduism and Islam respectively, in complete violation of the eclectic and inclusionary spirituality which was the hallmark of this inimitable female mystic.

Religious violence

The third section probes the causes of what the authors call “religiously inspired violence” and ways of resisting and overcoming it by restoring and strengthening the feminine dimensions in the different religious traditions. Khanna, Mananzan and Ahmed convincingly argue that it is the suppression of the gentler and more compassionate side in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam respectively, which they equate with mysticism and women’s spirituality, that generates socially unaccommodating attitudes and aggression. Such a positive view of mysticism and the feminine may arouse scepticism among those aware of the excesses carried out in the name of spirituality today. But the spirituality hailed by these authors is a stretch removed from much of what is taken to be its contemporary practice.

Making a case for the inseparable dyad of violence and non-violence in Hinduism, Khanna describes Durga’s battle with the demons in which the goddess as an integral totality of the divine feminine appears as slayer and saviour, wrathful and merciful. She broaches the issue of women becoming agents of male-directed violence in the public and private sphere with selective references to their depictions in Indian cinema and popular folklore. Her contention that it was the “hidden woman” in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi which made him the modern purveyor of the ancient Hindu philosophy of “ahimsa” or non-violence might raise eyebrows. An intriguing suggestion, characteristic of the interpretations proffered throughout the volume, it is substantiated by references to Gandhi’s personal life and relationships. But Khanna avoids any mention Gandhi’s alleged ill treatment of his wife. Nor does she see any contradiction between Gandhi holding up Ram’s wife Sita as the model of the passive and chaste Indian women and her claim that it was the feminine in him which constituted the archetypal Gandhian personality.

Mananzan in her theological reflections on violence against women furnishes textual evidence of the misogynist writings in church history. Women can counter these by developing a spirituality for life based on self-affirmation, self-empowerment and inner freedom. Given her own background as an activist, Mananzan is firmly of the opinion that only through participation in the public sphere can women hope to play their part in reconditioning patriarchal social attitudes which inculcate in them a victim consciousness.

The final essay by Durre Ahmed bemoans the effects of sidelining the feminine in Islam with an analysis of the minority Zikri sect in Pakistan. From being largely invisible in the past, the Zikris have in more recent years attracted the attention of orthodox elements in socially conservative and mainly tribal Balochistan. While socio-economic and political factors have much to do with the spate of attacks on the sect, Ahmed suggests that the centrality accorded to women in Zikri rituals has evoked fears among the orthodox of the feminine and unknown “other” which they have suppressed or rejected as intrinsic parts of their own psyches. Only by liberating the feminine side in all religions, then, can the social and psychic balance be restored to stem the tide of “religiously inspired violence”.

With a wealth of depth and originality, this volume of essays deserves to be read and absorbed widely by scholars and students alike. While some of the essays are more dense and closely argued than others, the collection overall makes for an excellent read and is a welcome addition to both gender and post-colonial studies.

Courtesy: The Economic and Political Weekly

25th May 2006


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