ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Gender, Religion, and Virtual Diasporas

Anjana Narayan (anarayan@cpp.edu) and Lise-Helene Smith (lvtrouilloud@cpp.edu) are with the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, United States.

The rise of web-based social spaces has expanded the political sphere beyond the boundaries of the nation state, while also disseminating and shaping religious ideologies. Minority groups in diasporas use their increasing online representation to challenge mainstream perceptions about them and to create transnational virtual communities. The gendered constructions of Hindu identities in the virtual sphere are analysed here, examining the discourses of Hindu conservative groups and post-immigrant progressive groups.

As critical aspects of diasporic life have migrated into virtual spaces, a number of scholars (Diamandaki 2003; Kissau and Hunger 2010) have been tracking the ways in which cultural practices are made and remade via these spaces. Some scholars (Bennett and Iyengar 2008; McDonald 2015; Mitra 2001, 2005; Mitra and Gajjala 2008) note that the open and decentralised nature of the internet makes it an important tool for marginalised communities to bypass mainstream media networks and create their own spaces to challenge the constraints and hierarchies they face in the offline world. Others (Elias and Zeltser-Shorer 2006; Georgiou and Silverstone 2007; Ignacio 2005; Mandaville 2003) highlight the power of the internet to create transnational networks and virtual communities, connecting diasporic groups not only within their homeland, but also with members in different parts of the world. Finally, scholars contend that the internet, social media, and other digital tools have enabled diasporic groups to construct and articulate ethnic and political identities, disseminate information, and mobilise global support for issues important to them (Bernal 2006; Georgiou 2006; Georgiou and Silverstone 2007).

In contrast, sceptics (Hargiittai 2008) claim that while the internet can challenge the restrictions minority groups face offline, it can also reinforce existing inequalities online. Scholars argue that, just like offline environments, virtual spheres are dominated by powerful groups who can control both information production and its representation (Friedman 2017; Morozov 2011). Furthermore, given the lack of regulation and availability of broad audiences, cyberspace has emerged as an unprecedented platform for the proliferation of ideological websites to shape conversations and enhance the reach of their propaganda within and across nations (Awan 2017; Howard 2006; Lal 1999; Narayan and Purkayastha 2011). Thus, despite the promise of diversity and heterogeneity, scholars claim that the architecture of the internet with its use of algorithms and news filters has facilitated the spread of homogenised and simplistic messages, creating echo chambers that limit our exposure to views that do not conform to our own cultural and traditional attitudes and beliefs.

The small but growing literature on the South Asian diaspora in the virtual space similarly offers competing views on the ways in which technology shapes ethnic identities. Mitra (2001, 2005) argues that the internet has offered Indian immigrants a safe space to both challenge their stereotypical portrayal as well as create cybercommunities to create networks and alliances. Likewise, recent studies (Adur and Narayan 2017; Narayan and Adur 2018) on the Dalit diaspora demonstrate that digital tools have enabled Dalits to build transnational coalitions and access a global platform to shape a Dalit human rights discourse. Similarly, Murthy’s (2010) study on diasporic South Asian musical subcultures highlights the fact that the internet has provided South Asian Muslim youth, who feel marginalised offline, with the opportunity to create progressive online spaces that allow them to freely articulate and express their creativity.

On the other hand, Gajjala (2004) reveals the duality of the internet in the context of South Asian women in the diaspora. She argues that while the internet has provided a space for South Asian women to create counter-narratives to dominant discourses of gender, ethnicity, and nation, it does not necessarily disrupt offline gender hierarchies. By the same token, Raghuram et al (2008: 15) argue that though the internet has provided a “comfortable space for diasporic belonging,” it is dominated by “techno-savvy English-educated Indian diasporic elite,” constructing new forms of hierarchies. Finally, the scholarship on Hindu nationalist organisations in the diaspora reaffirms the duality of virtual spaces. Studies demonstrate that while cyberspace has provided a platform to challenge the marginalisation and racialisation faced by Hindu immigrants, it has also facilitated the online dominance of privileged right-wing Hindu groups who are constructing a simplified and homogenised version of the religion that is more consistent with the culture and society of host countries (Chopra 2006; Lal 1999; Rai 1995; Rajagopal 2000; Narayan and Purkayastha 2011; Therwath 2012).

The discourse on the practice of an Indian religion, Hinduism, is the focus of this paper. Recognising the ties between lives in tangible spaces, that is, within the context of laws, policies, and interactions on religions, and the discourse, ideologies, and interactions in web spaces, a feminist perspective on gender, religion, and virtual diaspora is provided. It is analysed how the internet has become a crucial battleground for debates on the construction and articulation of gender and Hindu identity in the diaspora. The digital discourse of Hindu nationalist groups who have traditionally played an influential role in shaping the discourse on women and Hinduism online, as well as the cyberactivism by progressive Hindu feminist groups who are harnessing the internet to confront and challenge these hegemonic voices, are examined. The conclusion contains comments on the power differences between these voices in the virtual spaces. It is asked: Has the recent emergence of progressive Hindu blogs, websites, and online forums grown large enough to provide a counterpoint to the dominant Hindu nationalist discourse? Are these independent alternative voices filling the void that has existed in the online discourse on the experiences of Hindu migrants in the diaspora? What challenges are progressive Hindu groups facing as they craft more inclusive and intersectional feminisms online?

Gender and Religion in the Diaspora

In the American diaspora, South Asian women are a part of a racially marginalised group that commonly experiences discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice. The cultural changes resulting from hegemonic pressures to assimilate can result in the increased rigidity of traditional social mores, which can negatively affect women’s lives in their various social roles, including as wives and mothers (Bhattacharjee 1992; Kurien 1999). In this context of othering, religion emerges as a common source of comfort and as a binding communal force across genders. As Ryan and Vacchelli (2013: 1) put it, it is at the intersection of gender and ethnicity in the diaspora that religion “plays a central role in providing a sense of meaning and belonging for migrants and represents a source of identification during the migratory experience.” Religion not only provides a connection to the culture and land of origin, but can alsoact as a source of peace while offering reassurance, respite, or assuagement. According to Ryan and Vacchelli (2013), religion allows for transnational identification, offers material and social support, and encourages integration into an ethnic community within the host country. Yet, religion could also further its racialised members’ othering in that host country, especially when the religion in question is Islam or Hinduism, two religions often misunderstood in the West.

Scholars Narayan and Purkayastha (2011: 54) posit that “ideologies about subordinated women in ‘other’ cultures continue to survive in the twenty-first century.” They assert that “such ideologies are most strikingly evident in framing the discussion about women in “other” religions,” despite scholarship questioning “the construction of this overgeneralised, ahistorical construction of ‘the oppressed woman,’ without reference to her multiple social locations.” While many postcolonial regimes have used religion to suppress women’s rights (Loomba 1998), the common conflation in the West about Islam or Hinduism with religious fundamentalism and/or extremism creates a problematic context. Moreover, religion continues to be conceptualised in the West as centred around the church and anchored in concrete, architectural spaces regulated by recognisable, patriarchal institutions (Narayan and Purkayastha 2011). Shaped by Christian ideology, this narrow definition fails to recognise the many ways in which religion manifests and is practised around the world: from spiritual experiences taking place in natural holy places, to meditations, initiations, festivals, and expressions of faith articulated in virtual spaces. Religious worship and expression take on many forms, especially in today’s digital age and remain a very gendered experience that can reproduce or encourage traditional gendered dynamics and empower women at the same time (Avishai 2016; Avishai, Jaffar and Rinaldo 2015; Narayan and Purkayastha 2009).

Reconfiguration of Hinduism

The religious beliefs and practices of immigrants from South Asia have received much scholarly attention in the past 20 years (Nagaraj et al 2018). One of the fastest-growing communities in the United States (US), South Asians typically originate from places as varied as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. Amongst those, 2.23 million identified as Hindu in 2014, making Hinduism the fourth-largest faith in the US, along with Buddhism, but after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Louis 2015). By 2050, Hindus in the US are projected to number 4.78 million, which would make the American Hindu population the fifth-largest in the world (Louis 2015), while Hinduism was recognised as the world’s third-largest religion in 2012 with 1 billion self-declared adherents (Pew Research Center 2014). The traditions of Hinduism have been made available to Americans in translation and via interpretations (Coburn 1991; Eck 1993; Kupperman 2001). Most recently, scholars have studied the ways in which migration and resettlement in the US have affected the way Hinduism is conceptualised and practised by Hindu Americans, in contrast to how Hinduism manifests in South Asia. In South Asia, individuals tend to worship privately and publicly in a variety of ways; they may regularly go to temples, or attend public celebrations sporadically, or they might simply not engage in these forms of participation. In the US, even with its restrictions on public manifestations of religions, worship has taken on a more public dimension with the emergence of temples as central pillars of the community, allowing Hindus to gather, organise, and gain recognition (Eck 2000; Kurien 2002; Mazumdar and Mazumdar 2006; Shattuck 1996). As a result, Hinduism is transforming into a congregational religion with uniform precepts and values, perhaps due to the anxiety to conform to recognisable religious structures as Christianity and Judaism do in the US (Joshi 2006; Kurien 2007; Narayan and Purkayastha 2011). As Joshi (2006: 123) argues,

Religious oppression manifests the majority’s belief in the superiority of Christianity and the inferiority of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism and the oppressor’s desire for a homogenous nation … Religious oppression in the United States exists and is perpetuated by and through a specific combination of facts and acts, each building upon its precedent: first one particular group, Christians, has the power to define normalcy; second, the histories and belief systems of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism are misrepresented and/or discounted; third, harassment, discrimination and other forms of differential treatment towards non-Christians are institutionalised; and fourth: religious oppression is manifested through violence or the threat of violence.

Joshi (2006) makes clear that the hegemonic Christian model and history of discrimination towards non-Christians, heightened by the events of 9/11, act as socially oppressive forces that aim to homogenise the nation. In such a context, Kurien (2004, 2007) explains that Hinduism is becoming increasingly institutionalised through the presence of ecumenical temples and of programmes like “bala vihars” that teach children about Hindu customs on a weekly basis, or of spiritual gatherings like satsangs that guide an individual to truth. She views this growing institutionalisation as a need to articulate an American ethnic “public” identity, one that allows for pride in one’s cultural and ethnic heritage and rootedness in the American multicultural society. Kurien (2004, 2007) further argues that American Hinduism is informed by both ethnic mobilisation and ethnic nationalism, often in reaction to the experience of marginalisation and prejudice post migration, which reinforces a desire for community, but also for national recognition and social rectification.

The institutionalisation and homogenisation of Hindu religio-cultural practices along with the increased politicisation of Hindu religious spaces (Kurien 2007) have resulted in increased patriarchy and ideologies with more conservative gender roles, according to scholars Narayan and Purkayastha (2011). Central to the maintenance of traditions post migration, Hindu American women are subjected to increased scrutiny and control as a response to racism and in an attempt to retain a sense of dignity and honour rooted in a cohesive ethnic identity (Dasgupta and Dasgupta 1996). At the same time, many Hindu organisations promote ideologies about the distinctiveness of Hinduism through its treatment of women who are granted a high status in their religious communities (Narayan and Purkayastha 2009, 2011). While understood as an effort to combat American mainstream prejudice, such presupposed female superiority is nonetheless performed within culturally acceptable gender norms that align strength, respect, and power with dutifulness, devotion, and selflessness (Narayan and Purkayashta 2011).

Cyber Activism and Feminism

As the transnational context within which Indian-origin migrants are positioned in the US continues to change, a key pattern has been the rise of religious nationalism in cyberspace. Scholars have noticed two broad trends in cyber activism that frame women within Hinduism. One trend represents the voices of American Hindu nationalism in the diaspora and its use of the internet to promote the superiority of Hinduism and respectful treatment of Hindu women, as an oppositional frame to counter-narratives of backwardness and oppression. An opposing stream consists of women who reject the patriarchal forms of Hinduism as well as the mainstream racism to construct their perspectives on Hinduism.

Scholars have shown that Hindu nationalist groups used the internet for more than a decade as a platform to highlight selective facets of Hinduism and propose values, traditions, and mores that are likely to appeal to Indian immigrants struggling either to assimilate or to avoid racial profiling (Joshi 2006; Kurien 2005; Rajagopal 2000). Two such Hindu nationalist groups, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), have access to high-performing information technology teams (Gittinger 2015a: 55), giving them the tools to control the discourse surrounding Hinduism in order to present it as “cohesive, historically contiguous, [and] traditionally authentic.” Yet, despite these cyber activists’ interest in shaping the public perception of Hindu traditions in digital spaces, Hinduism on the web appears quite “decentered, ethnic, and transnational” (Gittinger 2015a: 25). Gittinger (2015b: 3) also argues that the empirical difference between its online and offline communities is disappearing rapidly with the emergence of virtual rituals and the “virtual sacred space” where “real world” geographies act as substitutes for actual locations, mimicking the function of digital spaces. Virtual Hindu communities become virtual ethnic neighbourhoods that have the ability to transcend the limitations of geographic proximities through chatrooms and forums, online Indian newspapers and other digital news sources, business or cultural sites, and online access to temples and foods, but also healthcare and educational resources, as well as social, cultural or spiritual networks (Gittinger 2015b). Yet, because the web is far from a neutral space, this type of online “cultural regrouping” facilitated through such access to services, news, forums, activism, etc, can shape a web-viewer’s experience: the arrangement of hyperlinks between websites, online organising categories, and algorithms regulating search engines betray both a Western bias and the heavy influence of right-wing, Hindu nationalists (Gittinger 2015b).

More recently, however, scholars are noticing the emergence of alternate discourses and of a new type of cyber activism on the web: Hindu women are emerging as active producers of contemporary discourses that are redefining the online representation of Hinduism. Digital feminist activism has been linked by scholars such as Baer (2015) to Fourth Wave feminism, which Knappe and Lang define as using “the web to re-link older and newer organisations, foster stronger networks, and encourage outreach to a new generation. Fourth Wave feminism is thus defined by its focus on technology” (qtd in Baer 2015: 30). For Baer, digital feminism engages “substantively and self-reflexively with issues of privilege, difference, and access” while encouraging intersectional dialogues (p 18). Cyberfeminism faces the significant challenges of preventing its co-option by neo-liberal discourses that tend to replace “anti-hierarchical politics with discourses of personal responsibility and individual empowerment” while avoiding the deployment of discourses that might reproduce rather than resist patriarchal norms (p 30). Yet, Baer (2015: 29) argues that “by drawing attention to the relationship of personal experiences to structural inequalities” and “by highlighting the ongoing precarity of individual female bodies in public spaces,” digital feminists successfully “combat the neoliberal reduction of the political to the personal” while laying “the groundwork for re-establishing a collective feminist politics.”

Subramanian (2015: 77) has examined how digital technology transformed feminist activism in the specific context of the Indian diaspora. Her findings suggest that online spaces have allowed women to form networks of solidarity, share personal experiences and partake in consciousness-raising efforts. She attests to the desire to both stage and protect a plurality of female voices and to highlight the multiplicity of female experiences and perspectives, an effort that has been perceived as a threat to Indian culture by patriarchal and nationalist Hindu groups. She posits that feminist activists have begun using online spaces “to debate and reformulate Hindutva’s notions of Indian culture and gender identity” and to reclaim “online spaces for the creation of counterpublics” that capture their identities, desires, and needs (Subramanian 2015: 77). The conversations that cyberfeminism is enabling suggest a shift in the control of the discourse that regulates the representation of Hindu women’s roles in the American diaspora.

The ‘Strong’ Hindu Woman

Historically, the predominant discourse on Hindu women in the virtual space stems from a vast network of groups in the diaspora that supports the ideology of Hindu nationalism, an ethno-religious movement. Through a constellation of websites and prominent social media presence, these groups have managed to portray themselves in the US as the voice of Hindus, who are collectively looking to construct a positive identity in the hope of countering ideologies that stigmatise their culture as inferior and backward. Since the perception that women are of inferior position is often used as the key symbol of their denigration, these groups specifically emphasise the distinctiveness of Hindu female identities to challenge such racialisation (Narayan and Purkayastha 2009, 2011; Kurien 2004, Rajagopal 2000). The discussion of Hindu women’s superiority is also conducted within a cult of domesticity, privileging women as valuable primarily to family and community. These seemingly contradictory ideologies help reinvent and reinscribe a form of patriarchal ideology as the normative narrative of Hinduism.

First, it is to be noted that because these websites place women at the heart of the Hindu world view, they appear to affirm the feminine. They reinforce this perspective through two frameworks: strong Hindu goddesses and obedient epic women. From the vast pantheon of Hindu goddesses, they most often refer to Durga or Kali as autonomous figures that embody Shakti.Shakti incarnates the feminine precept intrinsic to Hinduism, which the websites emphasise as the primary reason for Hindu womanhood’s high status in the religion. At the same time, they depict Sita and other mythical beings as strong-willed, liberated women who represent absolute devotion to their husbands. The web discourse uses images of potent and self-reliant goddesses and epic heroines to suggest that the religion gives Hindu women a wide range of roles from which to choose. Their implicit message is that Hinduism wants women to take on strong roles in the public sphere, as long as they are obedient and faithful in the private sphere.

Second, these groups (among others) representing the “voice of Hindus” aspire to bring back the glory of Hinduism, allegedly tarnished by Muslim and British invasions as well as by the postcolonial rule of so-called secular Indians. In their version of history and vision of Hinduism, gender is critically important. Their websites make it clear that the ways in which Hinduism empowers women separate Hindus from other South Asian individuals, including Muslims. Hindu student group (HSG) conversations present Hindu women’s equality of status with men as unique to Hinduism and non-existent in every other South Asian religion, particularly Islam. These websites emphasise the fact that academia, Christian evangelists, and the Western media constantly derogate Hindus and Hindu women. In their view, these spokespersons are Western-thinking, from non-Eastern cultures and ideologies, and often anti-Hindu. As a result, their discourse often leads to Hindu-bashing at events such as human rights seminars, feminist gatherings, and social studies or religious conferences.

They request the formation of a forum where Hindus can have a voice of their own, where Hindu women can mingle and network, but also talk about issues important to them and engage with their distinctive viewpoints, rather than embrace beliefs that have been imposed upon them. According to them, the Westernised or feminist woman is the converse of the powerful Hindu woman, whose chief concern is to meet her familial obligations rather than to let “polluting” Westernised influences like ambition, feminism, and sexuality, invade the sanctity of the Hindu family. It is evident in the following quote:

Feminism is a Western–liberal universality, and like all Western–liberal universalities, it is disingenuous. An absolute view of history seeks to represent universal morality norms of human beings, and feminism is a Western interpretation grounded in new liberalism that professes universal application in conjunction with human rights … Hindu women at large not only find no relevance in feminism, and thus no need to subscribe to the development that is Hindu feminism, but they also do not believe the victimhood narrative so regularly circulated. (Devayasna nd)

The message is clear: Hindu women, unlike their Western counterparts, are empowered and do not need feminism. The discourse seeks to return to the fundamentals of Hinduism to improve Hindu society and move away from Western influences that have the potential to threaten Hindu cultural and religious identities.

Paradoxically, despite their aggressive critique of such influences, the discourse actively reaches out to non-Hindu consumers in the West. To quote from an anonymous post on the website Hindu Human Rights (2015):

Hinduism thus becoming an integral part of their daily lives, with Dharma becoming a powerful force in the West ... Another popular aspect of Hinduism that has attracted the Western woman has been the long-prevailing respect and practices that adhere to the Goddess, which guides self-realisation and development by invoking and incorporating the natural forces of Shakti.

This suggests a tendency to legitimise Hinduism by documenting its appeal to or endorsement by Westerners. Websites likewise showcase biographies of famous Western women who converted to Hinduism such as Sister Nivedita, Julia Roberts, and most recently Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard, who is of Samoan and White ancestry and the first Hindu woman to be elected to the US Congress, has emerged as a prominent advocate for Hindu groups in the US. Described by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) as “not just a strong political voice but an inspirational icon and role-model for Indian American youths,” Gabbard has served as the chairperson of the World Hindu Congress that was held in Chicago in 2018. She also issued a personal letter to the California State Board of Education to correct the “inaccurate” portrayal of women in Hinduism in California’s K-12 History–Social Science Framework for public schools. In a 2016 letter featured on several Hindu websites, Gabbard (2016) writes,

In the context of Ancient India, Hindu women were able to perform their own religious rites and also authored the Vedas, Hinduism’s sacred texts. The framework should thus acknowledge these historical facts when describing the roles of women in ancient Indian society.

These corrections speak to more than a decade of concerted efforts by conservative Hindu groups to affect how Hindu religion and culture is represented in California social science textbooks, a contentious issue that resurfaces regularly as the California Board of Education reviews its textbooks every six years. These groups argue that associating caste and gender inequality with Hinduism is a distortion that diminishes the contribution of Hindus and leads to the harassment of Hindu students. In the spirit of rectification, a social media campaign #DontEraseIndia was launched by the HAF. According to their website (Hindu American Foundation nd):

The campaign seeks to ensure that Indian and Hindu American students are able to feel secure in their religious and cultural identities and are not bullied due to misrepresentations of their beliefs or heritage. Hindu American students continue to be bullied and feel socially ostracised for their religious beliefs, according to the results of HAF’s nationwide survey of middle and high school students.

Overall, these efforts to stop the alienation or mistreatment of Hindu American students document the reconstruction of Hindu culture and values as a way to challenge the racialisation of Hindus in the US. In the process of creating a positive identity, new gender hierarchies are being reinscribed, however, with a few dominant voices defining the role of women within Hinduism.

Progressive’ Hindu Women

In recent years, new voices have emerged out of the political sidelines to produce alternatives to the narratives that have dominated the public sphere. The virtual space is witnessing the appearance in the US of South Asian Hindu women who are trying to navigate competing discourses of conservative Hindu groups and mainstream Western perceptions of Hinduism. These voices have gained new vigour and dynamism on the internet in their attempt to create an intellectual virtual space capable of addressing the gender inequities that exist in their diasporic community and of challenging the stereotypical, discriminatory, and monolithic ideas about Hindu women that dominate the American discourse.

Several blogs and online discussions, especially those authored by women who identify as Hindu in the US, engage in meaningful dialogue that deconstructs and redefines what it means to be a Hindu. Online blogs provide them with an ideal platform to narrate their personal lived experiences and struggles while debunking Orientalist perceptions about Hinduism. A noteworthy example is the blog of Sayantani Dasgupta, a second-generation Indian immigrant, a trained paediatrician and author of children’s books, who teaches in the graduate programme in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She effectively uses her blog to challenge dominant discourses about race, gender, and health, and narrate her own life story. Critiquing a media campaign by an Indian ad firm that used images of battered Indian
goddesses as a way to condemn violence against women in India, she writes (Dasgupta 2013):

Having grown up in the heart of the American Midwest at a time when no one in the media looked even remotely like brown-skinned and dark-haired me, I have a particular soft spot for images of glamorous Indian women ... Yet, no matter how appealing, these ads are also deeply problematic … By portraying bruised and battered goddesses as beautiful yet passive and in need of “saving,” these ads simply play into the same patriarchal narratives that allow gender-based violence to take place, as well as the same colonialist narratives that frame women of the Global South as needing, and welcoming, “rescue.”

In addition to countering such images of passivity and distress that call for protection, bloggers are invested in documenting their experiences of growing up as Hindu in the US to raise awareness. Meghna Chandra, an ESL (English as a second language) teacher for immigrants in the Philadelphia area, shares her experiences of racism in the US thus:

I was the only Hindu kid in my grade in my overwhelmingly white hometown of Merrimack, New Hampshire. Growing up, I fielded plenty of questions about the “dot on our foreheads,” why gods and goddesses were blue and had so many arms, whether or not I would have an arranged marriage, and which hand I used to wipe my shit. I endured racial slurs about the bindi worn by Hindu women and bizarre comments about the color of my skin and its proximity to the color of dirt. I internalised shame about all the ways I was different, and struggled to get by without drawing too much attention to myself. (Chandra 2016)

In addition to feeling the burden to explain, justify, and defend Hindu values and traditions, children like Meghna Chandra who are singled out and bullied at a young age by their peers learn to equate difference with lack, inadequacy, and humiliation.

While these women are vocal about their experiences of marginalisation, they are equally critical of the victimhood narrative promoted by conservative Hindu organisations in the US. They use virtual platforms to call out Hindu groups who are exploiting experiences of racialisation in the diaspora, in order to present a glorified version of Hinduism. This not only erases the experiences of Dalits and women, but also separates Hindus from Muslims and from other minorities. Addressing the California history textbook debate, Deepa Iyer (2016), a South Asian American activist, writer, and lawyer, writes in her blog,

But our experiences will not change simply by excluding or mischaracterising information about the caste system. Instead of focusing on the erasure or revision of history and practice, we should be ensuring that teachers are properly trained to present material in classrooms and are creating safe learning environments where no child has to experience what Maddi has. That’s how systemic change will happen.

While Deepa Iyer supports teacher training and teacher education to promote inclusivity in the classroom, Chandra (2016) advocates perspective, critical distance, and self-reflexivity:

Pointing out and understanding contradictions in history do not have to simply lead to low self-esteem for the Hindu child; they can be a valuable pedagogic tool to develop people into critical thinkers who can transform themselves and transform the world.

Although blogs and online forums are giving individual women control over their own narratives and tools to enact change, it is witnessed that women are coming together collectively as well to form organisations to challenge dominant narratives of the Hindu right in the US. Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus was established in 2011 in New York City, in response to the Park51 controversy involving the building of a mosque a few blocks from ground zero. Outraged by the sight of Hindus protesting the Park51 mosque, Sunitha Vishwanath (2017), a feminist and human rights activist, felt compelled to articulate her position as a Hindu who is against Islamophobia:

In 2011, a few of us created the group Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, headquartered in New York, because we could no longer bear that there was no politically progressive Hindu voice in the face of a growing and rampantly Islamophobic and casteist Hindu nationalist movement.

Since its establishment, Sadhana has organised conferences and public talks at college campuses and developed a website. Members of Sadhana are engaged in grass-roots advocacy on various issues, including gender-based violence, gender inequality, and climate change. They have been particularly successful in articulating a more inclusive discourse on Hinduism online through their website, blog, and social media presence.

Similarly, a recent organisation called Hindus for Justice shares a mission that echoes that of Sadhana. The website describes the group as “a network of Hindu progressives across the United States committed to ending violence and injustice against Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians, Sikhs, LGBTQ communities, women, the poor, and other vulnerable communities.” The co-founder, Sapna Pandya, is a queer, second-generation Hindu woman whose social justice work includes heading Khush, a Washington DC-based South Asian LGBTQ organisation. Pandya has also been actively involved in officiating both same-sex and straight Hindu wedding ceremonies in the US, a rarity for a queer Hindu woman. Women like Pandya are articulating a new political voice that embraces Hinduism with a critical lens, as this post emplifies (Hindus for Justice 2017),

The beauty of Hinduism is in our ability to deal with dualities and accept complexity. When we’re at our best, we’re able to embrace nuance and diversity and respect others while respecting ourselves. Unfortunately, some Hindus are ashamed of themselves and frightened of criticism. Some Hindus believe the only way to find pride is to denigrate others … But many Hindus aren’t thin-skinned and afraid. Many of us are able to find pride in what’s best about Hinduism, while still respecting others, acknowledging our faults, and embracing complexity. Hindus don’t have to be fragile.

This post presents Hinduism as a source of strength, while encouraging self-study and self-criticism in an acknowledgement of cultural relativism and the plurality of cultural traditions or beliefs in order to support harmonious living.

Similarly, the rekindling of the California textbook controversy in 2016 exposed once again the challenge of fighting racism without being silenced by members of one’s own community and provided a tremendous impetus for women to create a space for criticism and free expression. Co-founded by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a second-generation Dalit American activist, the South Asian Histories For All (SAHFA) coalition “is an interfaith, multi-racial, inter-caste coalition of organisations and individuals from all over California—advocating for a neutral more factual history of America.” Individuals who were associated with the textbook debate decided to come together and form SAHFA to collectively use their experience and engage in activism, both by digitally using hashtag activism and online petitions as well as through traditional modes of protest. Overall, a new space is being created to change the discourse and meanings of how Hinduism is discussed online. These blogs and websites represent the voices of Hindu women who are keen to challenge the constricting religious rhetoric of right-wing Hindu groups, and yet draw on the best of Hindu religious traditions to embark on various forms of activism in hopes of enacting change.

Dalit Women and Hinduism

Another voice that has been growing strong in the virtual space is that of Dalit women in the US who are joining the conversation by highlighting the intersections of gender, caste, and the politics of the Hindu right in the diaspora. The digital advocacy of autonomous Dalit groups established for and by Dalit American women suggests a three-pronged approach. First, they have been instrumental in highlighting the invisibility of caste inequality in the diaspora. Equality Labs, founded by Dalit American activists Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, uses technology, storytelling, and art
to document the experiences of Dalits online. The Dalit History Month is one such example of this effort by Equality Labs. Using collaborative and participatory approaches, they are creating an online archive of Dalit stories and experiences from the 16th century onwards. The group has also published a report titled “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste among South Asian Americans,” which is the first large-scale survey on caste discrimination in the US. In addition to collecting empirical data, Dalit women have been particularly vocal about their
experiences of growing up in the US. Soundararajan (2014), a second-generation Dalit woman from California, describes her experience of coming out as a Dalit at age 19 thus,

Coming out meant my whole family was out and not everyone was ready for that, particularly my family in India. Friends stopped talking to us. I had plates and utensils switched on me. I even received hate mail and death threats. My coming of age and recognition of my family’s identity was viewed as something sinister … All of the Indian professors on campus were upper caste as well, and all, except one, refused to advise me on projects and blacklisted my work. I stopped getting invited to South Asian events. These are some of the structural manifestations of caste in the diaspora. Once you’re out, you’re ... out.

That the ostracisation experienced began with family and friends and extended out to her academic circles, including trusted faculty members on a multicultural, progressive campus like that of UC Berkeley, reflects the deep-seated nature of such discrimination and its continuing pervasiveness in today’s society.

Given these lived experiences of casteism in the US, the second approach adopted by activists such as Soundararajan has been to expose the efforts of right-wing Hindu groups in the US to erase facts about the caste system and caste discrimination in the history of Hinduism that is being taught to students in states like California. As mentioned earlier, Dalit groups have actively contested the portrayal of Hinduism in California textbooks. Writing about the California textbook controversy, Soundararajan (2016) notes,

While conservative Hindu children might complain about low self-esteem because of the teaching of caste, Dalit Bahujan families are being murdered, raped, and discriminated against in the face of caste apartheid and religious intolerance in South Asia. For this violence to end we must end the culture of impunity that would silence history instead of unleashing it. With our community’s future at stake, we will not allow our history to be disappeared.

While Dalit groups have posed a strong challenge to Hindu organisations in the US, they are equally critical about the invisibility of caste in mainstream Indian feminism, which they claim has primarily focused on concerns of upper-class and upper-caste Hindu women. As a result and as a third approach, Dalit feminists in the diaspora have drawn from African American feminist experiences, sharing analogous histories. This acknowledgement of shared oppression has been reaching out to movements such as Black Lives Matter in the US. Soundararajan (2017) notes,

I marched also so that Savarna/dominant caste women could confront the knowledge that there is no caste-less feminism and that intersectionality, for them, must begin with the understanding that they own that burden of calling out and resisting their own Brahminical and Hindu fascist networks, instead of expecting Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan women to do this work for them … I marched for Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name because the state violence that operates as violent policing. Dalits stand deeply in solidarity with Black folks, as we suffer from similar state violence in India. We cannot allow it to continue and we see our struggle for freedom deeply intertwined with theirs.

It is clear that Dalit women are working towards a more inclusive and intersectional feminism; the use of digital tools has opened up spaces for solidarity building and networking with other minority groups globally. Activists like Soundararajan who have a very large social media following have significantly enhanced the online presence of Dalit groups who already have a long history of grass-roots mobilisation.

Hindu ‘Feminism’

Adding to these new voices, a small but growing engagement with Hindu feminism is also noticeable on the web. Activists and intellectuals are engaging in meaningful debates about gender equality within a Hindu framework and the need to include more diverse feminist voices grounded in religion. First, these conversations are critical of what Avishai (2016) describes as “the feminist dilemma of religion” or the assumed incongruity of religion and women’s rights. Jorawar (2017), an abortion-rights activist based in New York City, writes about her gender-justice advocacy on a digital platform for millennial women:

I do this work because I’m compelled to put my spiritual beliefs into practice. My spirituality tells me, as I learned from my mother, that we are all equal, regardless of gender. It tells me women deserve to have control over our own bodies and lives, and the ability to feel and express our sexuality freely. I’m called to ensure the women who mind our temples are treated with deep respect and honor inside the temple walls, as well as in their homes, at work, and in our legislative process. I want them to be as respected as the goddesses I was taught to worship. I fight for women to determine their own destinies and pursue whatever fulfills them. I do it, not only because I believe deeply in feminism, but because my Hinduism compels me to.

By proposing that women do not have to choose between religion and gender equality, the author also suggests that one must engage in feminist interpretations of religion. Given the rich history of powerful gender symbolism within Hinduism, activists call for more discussions on gender-sensitive religious knowledge from the vantage point of Hindu spiritual traditions. The need to articulate a feminist discourse within a Hindu paradigm also stems from the need to correct the narrative of women’s subjugation within Hinduism often deployed by Western feminists. Their goal is to deconstruct the stereotypical portrayal of non-Western religions as being intrinsically misogynistic. To this end, the Women Living Hinduism and Islam Project (WLHIP) website features a conversation between three scholars on the relationship between Hinduism and feminism. One of them states,

I find the constant binary thinking of reductive feminism—the liberated West and backward oppressed rest—very problematic though I understand this constant hovering round the theme is to allow the liberated Western feminist identity to be created against the backward other. We see such binaries reflected in the most scholarly pieces as well … So how do we, women, find a source of strength in a spiritual tradition? I go back to my own tradition, realising that this tradition is ignored and denied in the reductive feminist discourse that believes all Indian women are oppressed. (WLHIP 2019)

In addition to challenging binary colonial narratives and expressing the desire to reconcile feminism and religion, discussions on the web also present arguments against equally limiting narratives of conservative Hindu groups who view feminism as a problematic Western construct. New voices on the web are keen to change the fundamentalist interpretations of Hinduism that reassert more traditional gender roles, with the understanding that this effort is not inconsistent with their religious beliefs. Once again, the WLHIP website offers,

When I turn to Hinduism, I want to explicitly reject the narrow, authoritarian, ethnocentric, gendered version of Hinduism of Hindu fundamentalists. Instead, I concur with Scholar 1 about the importance of the Divine feminine principle. As a Bengali Hindu, I was brought up, almost exclusively, with Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, so I never doubted or imagined women were not important … That said, I am not going to ignore the kinds of harm that are done to women in the name of religion. How often are the broad non-gendered, non-discriminatory fundamentals of the religion misused by groups that use their power to exploit and trample over other human beings in the name of religion? The 13th-century “laws” of Manu continue to be selectively evoked by people whose inhumanity is reflected in their abuse of women. (WLHIP 2019)

Overall, these views show great potential for feminists to engage in a nuanced conversation about religion. Though the predominant audience for these discussions is feminist activists, scholars, and students, the emergence of feminist blogs and academic websites are representing the voices of women who have been marginalised from the dominant discourse of Hindu women on the web, and increasingly mainstreaming them.

In Conclusion

Today, cyberspace is being used as a platform more and more frequently by post-immigrant generations who are invested in shaping a Hinduism that relates to their lived experiences in the US. At the outset, it appears from a casual reading that there are surprising intersections broadly in the rhetoric of right-wing Hindu groups and that of progressive Hindu women. First, both groups problematise the Western monolithic construction of backward Hindu women oppressed by their religious traditions. However, right-wing Hindu organisations in the US reject feminism as a universal model in favour of proposing “authentic” scholarship on Hindu women’s roles and challenges. Meanwhile, progressive groups express the need for greater intersectionality to acknowledge the ways in which women’s overlapping identities affect their experience of oppression. Second, both groups stress the existence of empowered or strong women within the Hindu tradition, whether as religious leaders, goddesses, female symbols of power, or androgynous presences. Both religio-nationalist and progressive groups revendicate the strength of the Hindu woman discourse, present women as central to the Hindu world view, and insist on affirming the feminine within Hinduism.

However, careful distinctions need to be drawn between these ideologically opposed positions. The religio-nationalist discourse opposes feminism on the grounds that Hinduism is built upon female empowerment and female freedom and, as such, remains far superior to Western models of feminism that appear corrective in their approach. In so doing, right-wing groups pit their version of Hindu women against all other women, especially Muslim women, in order to disseminate the superiority of Hinduism. In addition, while this discourse claims to promote and support female empowerment, it can only conceptualise female power within the context of domesticity, thus envisioning strong women as first and foremost spouses, mothers, and cultural gatekeepers. On the other hand, the kind of feminism embraced by progressive Hindu women on the internet is inclusive, diverse, and intersectional. Although their ethno-religious affiliation is important to them, their activism extends beyond Hinduism, demonstrating how race, nationality, caste, class, and migration histories intersect to shape the construction of Hinduism in the US. In fact, progressive Hindu groups are building alliances with other minority groups, such as Muslims, Dalits, Christians, Sikhs, or LGBTQ communities, based on shared histories of discrimination and humane values. Finally, given their minority status in the US, these Hindu groups are not only challenging the stereotypical monolithic construction of Hindu women as subordinated individuals in the mainstream American discourse, but they are also exposing the co-optation of feminist themes by right-wing Hindu groups to further their nationalist politics in the diaspora.

What this study also demonstrates is the need for critical engagement with feminist interpretations of religion, a dimension that has been commonly overlooked in Western feminist literature (Avishai 2016; Purkayastha 2012). Drawing on frameworks of Semitic religions, religion is often seen as perpetuating patriarchy, and therefore as an obstacle to gender equality. However, the web discourse of progressive Hindu women suggests the need for a more nuanced conversation on the relationship between religion and gender. Challenging the binaries of sacred and secular, and of tradition and modernity, their accounts describe how religious values have influenced their activism ranging from gender-based violence, to Dalit rights, immigration rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, and other forms of mobilisation and change. By highlighting the strong gender symbolism within Hinduism, they are contesting both the efforts of right-wing groups to appropriate such symbolism as well as the mainstream perception that religion and gender equality are ontologically at odds. This study demonstrates the need to acknowledge heterogeneous religious practices and their organising principles, instead of assuming universal commonalities, as is too often the case. It calls for more nuanced feminism that can document and theorise the simultaneous existence of empowered and subordinated women in religious ideologies, the reasons for this and the ways in which these ideologies manifest (Narayan and Purkayastha 2011).

The analysis of the web data also shows that Hindu women, especially from post-immigrant generations, are now creating their own alternative space online. Their voices are gaining increasing prominence on the web as they engage with their own constructs of feminism and as they question and challenge prevailing claims regarding what Hinduism is and is not. However, despite the proliferation of web-based feminist voices, Hindu nationalist rhetoric continues to monopolise virtual spaces. Much of the online content on Hinduism and gender are still created, controlled, and disseminated by well-financed and technologically savvy right-wing Hindu groups in the diaspora. They use sophisticated and intricately networked websites and forums (Narayan and Purkayastha 2011) that deploy simplistic and affirming pan-Hindu themes to attract Hindus from all over the world, including Europe, Canada, and Australia (Smith and Narayan forthcoming). Although feminist groups have an increasing web presence, they are currently tailored to the Hindu diaspora in the US. As such, they appear more diffused and scattered with limited access to a wider global audience. In addition to creating a more robust and
coordinated online presence, another challenge facing progressive feminist groups is the question of caste inequality in the diaspora. Gajjala (2018: 2) argues that “Dalit women activism online is not new—neither is a Dalit presence online,” yet their presence until recently has been fairly invisible to Indian feminist groups. She suggests that Dalit feminist voices have been made possible because of their solidarity and strong networks with feminists from the Black Lives Matter movement. The Dalit feminist activism in the diaspora has opened up conversations about the need for progressive feminists to critically reflect on the invisibility of caste discrimination in countries such as the US and include the voices and perspectives of Dalits, especially post-immigrant Dalit women.

Overall, based on this study, three conclusions can be drawn about the role of virtual space in shaping religious identities in the diaspora. First, academic conversations about religion and gender should take into consideration the fact that religious institutions, such as churches and temples, no longer function as hubs of religious practice. Younger generations of Hindus, who are seeking their own response to being Hindu in the US, are actively using the internet to bypass traditional sources of authority and engage with religion based on their own lived experiences. Second, our study highlights the dual role of the internet. While the internet enables a multiplicity of voices and provides a platform for independent and candid conversations about religion and gender, technology-savvy right-wing groups are also empowered by the internet to shape a monolithic version of Hinduism and solidify their transnational networks. Finally, our analysis also calls into question the binary conceptualisation of virtual and real spaces. Virtual representations of religion are often a manifestation of structural opportunities, constraints, and challenges in physical spaces. What is more, virtual spaces can encroach upon physical spaces and, likewise physical spaces can get literally redefined by virtual interactions. While feminist and progressive Hindu groups in the US are mobilising digital tools creatively, they will have to continue to engage in offline grass-roots activism to prevent their co-optation by larger, well-established political groups motivated by their own agenda rather than by the need for challenging the status quo.

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Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019

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