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Beyond an Awkward Relationship

Faith, Belief, Piety and Feminism

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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insofar as it was coupled with communalism, was an ideological and institutional constraint that had to be overcome or superseded if an egalitarian social order was the goal.1 This, despite a substantial body of specialist scholarship on religion, or by anthropologists, that foregrounded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).

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