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Faith, Belief, Piety and Feminism

Beyond an Awkward Relationship


At the very start of a remarkable study of an “anti-god”Rahu, Ranajit Guha (1985) declared that religion is the richest archive in South Asia. Far from being a neo-orientalist assertion about the irreducible “religiosity” of India, Guha’s declaration was gesturing towards the imperatives and the rewards of exploring this embarrassment of riches, rather like D D Kosambi (1956) had suggested three decades earlier. Yet, questions of religion—particularly, faith, piety and belief—have remained domains of relatively benign neglect amongst feminist scholars. A sophisticated body of Indian feminist scholarship from the 1970s focused on gender and the difference it made to questions of the economy, work, and politics, and to law. Even when the question of religion and its intersections with law were foregrounded, notoriously as during the Shah Bano case (Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum 1985) and in its aftermath, the feminist discussion centred on the vexed relationship between religious, political and legal rights of women, to remark on the disappearance of the subject of woman, as an individual embedded in largely misogynist “communities,” even if these were religious ones (Pathak and Rajan 1989; Kumar 1994). In most accounts, and in collections reflecting this body of work—whether liberal, Marxist, or generally “progressive”—religion, insofar as it was coupled with communalism, was an ideological and institutional constraint that had to be overcome or superseded if an egalitarian social order was the goal.1 This, despite a substantial body of specialist scholarship on religion, or by anthropologists, that foregrounded women, though largely as bearers, devotees and followers, and sometimes as makers, of religious traditions.

A great deal changed following the critical years of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the demolition of Babri Masjid, when feminist scholars were compelled not only to account for the large-scale public participation of women in a markedly politicised religiosity, but also for the unusual prominence of inflammatory female voices in this campaign (Sangari 1993; Menon 2006). The enormous boost given to the movement by participants from all regions, classes and castes of India was a sobering reminder of the continuing hold that structures of religious belief and meaning, however politicised, had in the subcontinent. Hindutva had certainly enabled an articulate, agentive, and individuated Hindu self for both women and men, though invoking an “organic-conservative” notion of religion (Tharu and Niranjana 1994: 106, 108). Feminists could no longer be just helpless witnesses of this upsurge. “We need to understand what we are faced with” was the anguished cry of the editors of a book that valiantly took those inaugural steps (Sarkar and Butalia 1995: 4).

A certain feminist reflexivity followed, showing up earlier silences and oversights, as well as the unwitting blindness to the effects of the chosen signs and symbols of the women’s movement in a densely hatched religious space such as India (Agnes 1994; Kishwar 1990: 4). Since the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, there was a growing sense of urgency to understand, and an embarrassed negotiation of, the awkward relationship between Indian feminism and the religious practices and legacies of the subcontinent (Rajan 1998). Despite its anguish, feminist scholarship was still preoccupied with the political uses and abuses of religion, the political legitimation of public professions of faith, even when it was acknowledged that there was a world of meanings to which women had particular and privileged access (Geetha and Jayanti 1995). This scholarly reflexivity has complicated and visibilised, though without bringing to crisis, the gendered and patriarchal hierarchies that all religions, including those on the subcontinent, without exception, thrive and build on.2

Religious Resurgence

By the advent of the new millennium, a new field of forces had emerged that called for renewed, respectful and empathetic understanding (Madan 2004). The religious resurgence, as we came to quickly understand, was not a consequence of Hindutva’s poisonous political message alone. At least two strands of visibly expanded engagements with religion may serve as illustrations. First, among the multitudes of spiritual leaders—who defined new public engagements while donning the robes of “renunciation” and in some cases were strengthened by the televisual medium—were a large number of women. The success of Mata Amritanandamayi was an instance of an independent female guru with a large and growing following, which in turn became the basis for a legitimate route to institution-building and cross-class/caste community construction (Raj 2004). Mate Mahadevi must also be indexed, less known but, perhaps, more significant as the only woman Lingayat guru, and a rather beleaguered presence, in a resolutely male institutional structure dating back to the 15th century, the Lingayat mathas of Karnataka (Schouten 1991: 229–30). These multiple trajectories of renunciant women and their sizeable followings, in a wider context of largely misogynistic asceticism, complicate our understandings of doctrinal religion’s construction of gender relations in contemporary India.

Also challenging the wariness of feminists about religion is the exploding realm of popular, shifting and mobile religiosities. The dizzying ascent of the Hindu “anti-god” Shani, among the nine planetary deities conventionally worshipped as part of a temple, is a case in point. He has come into his own now, become independent, acquiring a new mobility while occupying prime shrine space on the street corners of most Indian cities today. Usually worshipped by the lower castes and marginal communities, Shani’s meteoric rise has been enabled in large part by women. Not immediately available to us are the reasons as to why they have felt compelled to exceed routinised forms of worship and prayer in the kitchen, home and temple, to worship these public street-side forms.3

No doubt, strenuous efforts are being made to change the fortunes and trajectories of popular religiosities, not always rural, by the organisations associated with Hindutva or orthodox Islam or Christianity (Naidu 1990; Berti 2007; Assayag 2004). But, to reduce the recent flourishing to the manipulations of a politicised religious orthodoxy would be to compound early neglect with wilful ignorance. In addition to bringing visibility to women in the public sphere, the yearning for ever newer forms of religious engagement not only provides access to forces of legitimation and sources of identity, but generates new spatial and ritualistic practices.

Kalpana Ram, whose sustained engagement with spirit possession (but also agency, gender relations, and affect) in southern Tamil Nadu has been methodologically innovative and conceptually enriching, reiterates the urgency of recognising “what is at stake in continuing to allow certain dimensions of social existence to remain unacknowledged,” not just within academia, but crucially for “the politics of class and caste in India and in the Indian diaspora” (Ram 2013: 4). Her call for an “understanding,” rather than a purely intellectual goal of “knowledge” production, startling as this may sound, points to the rewards of “refreshing and renewing ourselves by attending to quite different aspects of human existence for a while” (Ram 2013: 275–76).

This issue of Economic & Political Weekly is, therefore, an attempt to focus less on the public–political strands of contemporary religiosity, and more on the realms of faith, piety and belief as they have been shaped by, and continue to shape, gender relations (Mahmood 2004). Encoded as they are in radically altered social structures, and transformed by both burgeoning markets and innovative communication technologies, there are signs of a new spiritual flourishing that deserve feminist scrutiny and analysis. We have been witness, of late, to at least two developments that present an unanticipated challenge to conservative religion’s attempt to appropriate, politicise and indeed monopolise these complex structures of religious feeling. On the one hand are the series of campaigns mounted by feminist-inspired female supplicants, who have strategically leveraged constitutional rights over religious ones in order precisely to lay claim to those religious spaces that had long been monopolised by men. Indeed, a new kind of “place-of-worship entry” movement has been embraced enthusiastically by women, through recourse to the law. These scattered struggles have been taking shape and yielding interesting debates and discussions, as well as positive outcomes, not least on the rights of women adherents. An open call is increasingly coming from women wishing to transform the doctrinal religions to which they belong, without being forced to relinquish these relationships. Qudsiya Contractor, in the present issue, recounts two such moments in the life of the Muslim women of Mumbai.

At the same time, popular religious practices are themselves increasingly being brought under much more identifiably Hindu and Muslim practices, or are transformed altogether as a result of conversion, often reducing or eliminating the important roles that women may previously have played within these. The life of the Pejjenis, or female priests among the Khonds, which has been tracked by Bhanumathi Kalluri in this issue, is illustrative of the ways in which female priestly power is more or less extinguished when conversion to officially, patriarchally oriented Christianity takes place, as among the Khonds of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. These powers are being “masculinised” and “corporatised” in ways that undermine forms of participation that women had hitherto found meaningful and worthwhile. Yet, as Kalluri’s fieldwork shows, it is women themselves who appear willing to exchange those older powers for possible new forms of respectability that Christianity offers, in its disciplinary sense, to both men and women. This brings a new kind of agentiality into focus.

Popular Religiosities

Where does that leave the large pantheon of female goddesses, to which new ones are continually added—Jai Santoshi Maa in 1975 (Hawley and Wulff 1996: 3–8) and Manushi Swachha Narayani in 2005 (Kishwar 2005) come to mind—that have been an irresistible attraction not only for scholars of religion (Kinsley 1995; Vicziany and Bapat 2009), but also for feminists searching for feminist forebears? (Another hardy category that has cast its spell on the secular intellectual is “syncretism,” which is not discussed here.) The large body of writings on these figures is continuing testimony to this fascination. While we have not completely laid to rest the preoccupation with whether Indian goddesses are feminists (Rajan 1998; Hiltebeitel and Erndl 2000), there has been a reorientation, especially since the early 1990s, towards the “feminine principle” in Indian religiosities, which, while also limited, turned attention to less celebratory ways of approaching the question of female power and agency. Folk goddesses of the same region, for instance, span a wide spectrum of personas and powers, ranging from the more Brahminical vegetarian deities, to the intermediate deities who both inflict and cure disease, to those malefic and bloodthirsty deities who only bring harm (Brueckner 2005). Much anthropological work has demonstrated, quite clearly, that the malefic powers of the goddess Bhadrakali in Kerala, for instance, have not only kept women devotees at a fearful and completely marginalised distance, but have thoroughly absorbed male fantasies and fears about unrestrained female sexual energies (Caldwell 1996). Yet, the process of such participation, including female possession, itself carries with it the promise of healing and justice.

There is a long tradition, from the period of the earliest Bhakti movement, that posits the irreconcilability of marriage and devotion (“inside my husband, outside my lover, I cannot handle them both,” said Mahadevi Akka in the 12th century). The dilemma for feminist scholars has been one of interpretation. Is the avowed adoption of celibacy, say, for instance, among the Brahma Kumaris, a repudiation of the chains of domesticity (Babb 1987)? Or, once more a sign of the operation of local and historically defined patriarchy (Chowdhry 1996)? Indeed, which of these interpretations is more correctly feminist? Can we grasp the contradictory nature of female devotion in the terms Kumkum Sangari (1990: 1468) has used in analysing that legendary Mirabai’s spiritual quest: “Her bhakti is at once a principle of consonance and discord.”

Such work on goddesses, gurus, bhakts and saints repeatedly reminds us that there need be no contradiction between the exalted and fearful status of goddesses and real women as suffering social beings, since both the worship and the degradation of women are fashioned by patriarchies (Rajan 1998: WS35). As Kalluri’s description of the Tari Pennu (earth goddess) reveals, the hyper-visibility of female deities, particularly in South India—who embody both the capacity to inflict disaster, disease, or death, as well as the ability to cure, prevent or revive—even when they are mediated by female priestesses, can occupy no more than an ambiguous place in the spatial and social ordering of the village.

New and unprecedented forms of mediatisation have focused attention, often undesirable, on all forms of popular religiosities, with important consequences for these rituals and practices themselves. In 1986, during the outcry against bettale seve (nude worship) at the Renuka temple in Chandragutti, Shimoga district, Karnataka, government officials, social workers, and feminists joined hands (and continue to do so) in attempting to end what they believed to be a demeaning and exploitative practice (Brueckner 2011: 103). The debates that followed, and continue up to the present day, revealed an almost unbridgeable chasm between urban, middle class elites (even when they identified themselves as politically progressive), and the rural groups whose “blind faith” (muda nambike) had to be confronted and reformed, in tones that were remarkably similar to 19th century colonial readings of popular Indian religious practices.

Caste–Gender Relations

How does popular religiosity encode these female deities, who embody not only special powers, but entire histories of the tortured lives of men and women who commit transgressions in caste society? And, with what consequences for caste–gender relations in rural society? These questions—which have particular resonance in our time of rampant murder in the name of caste/religion honour—have been in fact a long and enduring preoccupation in caste society, which produces a variety of resolutions that recoup female, and therefore caste, honour. Rahamath Tarikere, in this issue, analyses the innumerable variations on a single, classic mythic narrative structure in Karnataka to reveal how the myth is refracted through local socio-economic formations, rendering futile any attempt at tracing an “original” set of meanings. In his analysis of the Maramma/Dyamavva mythic narrative, and the pratiloma marriage of a Brahmin girl and a Dalit boy, where the girl is duped into believing her husband is Brahmin, Tarikere unpacks the multiple registers and narrative devices by which the deceit is gradually revealed. We have only a glimpse, lost in the byzantine pathways of time, of the girl’s continued anguish during the annual commemoration of the restoration of honour, through the murder of the Dalit pretender.

This could well be the “prescribed inversion” that in fact sanctions and upholds the systematic arrangements for the perpetuation of caste, a brief transgression that is appropriately violently redressed. Had it not been for the counter-narrative, which Tarikere presents, we would be unaware of the multiple ways in which local religiosities flourish, retain, and create other social memories. If some Dalit communities live that counter-narrative, celebrate the transgression, it is perhaps only as a way of turning the harsh realities of social abjection and economic degradation into a more bearable existence. But, for the woman, the resolution is always death, since the narrative and performative choice, whether one takes the upper-caste or the Dalit version of the tale, is between murder and suicide. Yet, what kind of bearable existence is possible for the women of the upper-caste communities, for whom such deification does little to prevent the impending doom? And, where in this schema is female Dalit honour upheld? Still, the fervour with which these multiple versions are sustained, altered and commemorated suggests that, rather than being a residue of a remembered humiliation on both sides of the gender–caste divide, and rather than being phenomena that have been superseded, these are present and active invocations of what is simultaneously caste-threatening and caste-sustaining.

It is not surprising that the history of modern religious practices has also seen conversion as a welcome relief from oppressive, dehumanising lives. In the example of Kerala’s former slave castes, foregrounded by Sanal Mohan in the present issue, it is the exit from caste society altogether that provides even a modicum of self-worth. For the former slave castes of Kerala, Protestant Christianity offered new forms of self-definition: through clothing, through language (standardised Malayalam), and through offering a possibility of participation as equals in worship and in Bible propagation. It is another matter that several caste distinctions were reproduced within the space of the church itself, which Mohan (2015) describes in his longer work on the modernity of slavery. But, the reinscription of the body as sacred, rather than as polluted, which was also sustainable in everyday life, and the solace offered by prayer, was what made the abjection and economic degradation more bearable.

Mohan’s account of the conversion of former slave castes and the opportunities it offered for a new kind of self-worth both mirrors and contradicts the trajectory of the Pejjenis in contemporary India. Is Pejjeni priesthood traded in for respectability, leaving no trace within the doctrinal framework of Christianity, or are there creative shuttlings between the past and the present, as seen in the work on spirit possession among other Christian communities (Ram 2013: 73–74)? Is the power of the Khond male priest transposed into the new religion unscathed?

Theology, Law, Science

We have been transfixed for so long by the relative intransigence of doctrinal religious structures on questions of gender and sexuality that we may have missed on the important ways in which alternative resolutions have been found within them. An unexpected and instructive example is discussed in the present issue by Afsaneh Najmabadi of transgendering in post-revolutionary Iran, and of possibilities that have opened up about sex-disambiguation at the intersection of religion and science. Through an examination of a specific conjuncture—the Islamicisation of Iranian society following the Iranian Revolution in 1979—we are shown that Islamic jurisprudence and medico-psychological discourse could enter into a surprisingly promiscuous and productive mingling. This was enabled in large part under the somewhat ominously titled rubric of “Compliance of Medical Matters with Precepts of the Holy Law” by the disentangling of the psyche from the soul. Here, an early 20th century emergent discourse has been deployed in order to creatively produce a new triangulated space between theology, law and science.

Note that Najmabadi, here, does not allude to civil society (say, of those organised around counter-heteronormative sexualities) as having played a role in this disentangling. Indeed, as she concludes, the efforts to keep male and female as irreconcilably separate, and the very effort to separate the trans from same-sex practitioners continue apace, while yet provoking a dialogue that blurs the gender divide. But, it is precisely the path of problem solving, rather than delving into causes, that led to interesting and enabling provisions for the fulfilment of trans desires within the framework of religion.

If civil society is largely absent in the critical reconstitution of the trans question—where state and scientific establishments have been in dialogue to seek a resolution—the state, and the institution of law in particular, has been summoned to the aid of women yearning for their equal right to worship within communities, whether at the Haji Ali dargah, the Shani Shingnapur temple or the Sabarimala temple. Law has indeed become a weapon of the faithful: the invocation of rights is not against faith, but in order to enable it (EPW 2016). The female devotee exercises her constitutional right in order to claim equality of worship. Though faith and belief have long been invoked as the means to justify the misogynic practices that remain in place (as in the case of Sabarimala, where every other aspect of this pilgrimage has undergone drastic transformation without generating the same vociferous hostility), organisations like the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, and women who have suffered khafz or female genital mutilation, have appealed to the secular realm of the law to find their place in the religious community (Vatuk 2008). This redefinition of piety is not as a form of obedient abstinence or meek observance, but as an assertion of equality of the right to all religious spaces, held historically out of bounds for women. These are signs of a new and passionate embrace of religiosity, rather than its rejection.

Qudsiya Contractor reveals that new civil social modes of mobilisation alone have been brought to bear on orthodox religious practices, as they are structured by the male-dominated Haji Ali Trust in one instance, and the leadership of the Dawoodi Bohra community in another. The women’s defiance of male-ordained structures is anchored in hopes of state intervention. In India, in other words, where the close identification of state and religion has not (yet) been achieved, and where the necessary dialogue between theological, state, and scientific power cannot emerge, an appeal to the state, and to the Constitution—to assist the pious in fulfilling their spiritual needs, or in maintaining their religiosity without bearing the marks of genital mutilation—has opened up new possibilities and options. The contest urges women to draw from contemporary texts (such as the Constitution) to checkmate religious orthodoxy or reread Islamic texts themselves, without either falling short of, or exceeding, what it means to be Islamic.

“What it means to be Islamic” is indeed the ground that is covered by Tanvi Banerjee-Patel and Rowena Robinson’s ethnographic research on Muslim women in the metropolitan space of Mumbai. Everyday or worldly Islam can be made to reveal not a doctrinal domination of all aspects of life but an embeddedness, which allows us to make sense of the paradox of participating in structures and practices that may effectively subjugate women. Patel and Robinson, in the present issue, document the work of ijtema groups that have emerged in Mumbai over the last two decades. They take forward and also critique, using comparisons from the subcontinent, the influential work of Saba Mahmood (2004), who inaugurated the discussion on meanings of female agency that had been largely ignored by feminists, with her close look at the politics of piety in contemporary Egypt. Like Mahmood, staying largely within the constraints of the modernity paradigm, Patel and Robinson track how new communication technologies have also enabled women to follow individual paths and have richer forms of engagement with religious text or practice, permitting a greater space for learning, questioning and reading texts for oneself, even if in order to be correctly pious. The redoubling of the faith of these women despite, or perhaps even because of, their successful engagement with the opportunities proffered by the new economy, clearly calls the established narratives of “secularism” to account. This demonstrates how a refreshing idea of reason is brought to bear on the right way of being Muslim, thereby making life a reasoned choice rather than a scripturally ordained dictum.

The methodological focus on the everyday, the quotidian ritual, prayer, myth, textual readings, and struggles to have access to places of worship allow for an understanding of forms of piety, and expressions of faith and spiritual well-being for which women and men yearn. At the limits of the knowable, the quantifiable, and the consciously manipulable—secular modernity, in short—are non-conscious structures of meaning that are far from being superseded phenomena, as Tarikere shows us, but are structures that receive a fresh lease of life within modernity itself. From earlier feminist positions that either rejected religion outright or hoped for its privatisation/secularisation, new feminist scholarship (and also the women’s movement) appears more open to the possibility that religious belief and faith may not always, everywhere, be fatally patriarchal, but open up meaningful pathways of empowerment. Perhaps, social theory will be enriched and the emancipatory potential of feminism enhanced if we take the risk of being open to such possibilities.


[I have come to take an interest in the relationship between contemporary religiosity and gender only over the last few years. So, it is somewhat impertinent of me to have undertaken to edit this special issue as part of my own learning process. For this opportunity, and for their enthusiastic and constructive support, I would like to thank the editorial advisory group of EPW’s Review of Women’s Studies: Padmini Swaminathan, Samita Sen, Mary John, Kalpana Kannabiran and J Devika.]Janaki Nair ( teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


1 Two early works representing a review of the Indian women’s movement were strongly focused on violence and work (Kishwar and Vanita 1996; Shah and Gandhi 1991). Three important collections/texts may be cited for their changing approach to the domain of religion: Mary John’s Women’s Studies in India: A Reader (2008) has a section on religion linked to communalism; Nivedita Menon’s otherwise excellent introduction to Indian feminism Seeing Like a Feminist (2012) gives religion the go by; Raka Ray’s Handbook of Gender (2012) has a section on religion that includes the pioneering work of Saba Mahmood.

2 For an early investigation, see Kloppenberg and Hanegraff (1995).

3 I would like to thank Annapurna Garimella for a brief and helpful communication on her forthcoming work on Shani.


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