Author’s Note: In this article, in an effort to be true to the language often used in Hindu communities, the word “third-gender” (tritiya-prakriti) is used to describe individuals who fall outside of the male-female gender binary, and/or express non-heterosexual desire. The term LGBTQ+ is also used in this article to express a similar system of non-cisgendered/heterosexual categorization. Please google these terms to learn more.
While some religious groups see feminism as a Western or secular invention, and thus, a threat to their belief and organizational systems, many Hindu spaces in America are happy to brand themselves as feminist. However, what it really means to be a feminist space seems to be unclear in the Hindu community. Terms like “women’s empowerment” are thrown around, and yet, many Hindu spaces continue to unintentionally push young women and third-gender people away.
This is not to say that any other religious group is particularly better at being inclusive of feminist thought than Hindus are. Every group has its successes, as well as its failures. However, the examples in this article are based on conversations I have had with many of my female and non-binary Hindu friends, wherein we talk about how much we genuinely cherished the religious spaces we grew up in, yet were eventually pushed away by reasons that were inherently gendered.
Many of my Hindu peers do not regularly attend any temple. This is not because they are irreligious. We have conversations about religion and spiritual practices almost every day, and celebrate major holidays together. However, we are continually disappointed by the way our Hindu spaces continue to be dominated by the same people: uncles with superiority complexes and little valuable innovation to offer; young, entitled men who can do no wrong (according to their moms); religious leaders who read the same messages from the same texts with no concern for what we’re really facing in the real world. Not all, but many.
In my closest friend circle, my female friends faced more immediate discouragement. Growing up, a group of my friends regularly attended a Guyanese Hindu mandir (temple) in Queens. Not only did we go there every Sunday, but we regularly went for classes and pujas during the week. Even while in college, I attended at least three times a week. We formed some of our deepest friendships at this mandir, and gained our most formative connections to spirituality. We do not regret our time spent there.
And there, we also faced some of our deepest indignities, which were almost always along gendered lines. Young women’s characters were constantly judged by how much time we could devote to the mandir; whether we spoke to boys or not; what we wore both inside and outside mandir; how much we deferred our opinion to elders. At age 13, I first started showing symptoms of depression; in college, when I first started seeing a therapist, I uncovered how damaging all of this had been to my self-worth. Of course, I didn’t need a therapist to start to suspect that this all was having an impact on me. By the time I was in high school, my mandir friends and I had already began questioning things ourselves.
We remembered hearing secretive discussions by adults and boys in our community, wondering about girls’ virginity and judging them based on how much it seemed they slept around (completely based on blind speculation, or how much lip gloss a girl wore). There were stories of men in our temple sexually harassing or abusing women, which they were never questioned on. These men continued to hold positions of power in the community. In one rumor spread by a prominent member of the mandir, one of my friends was called a slut because she dormed at college. Of course, none of our concerns could be spoken about openly, it would be damaging to the community. As we entered college, one a time, we felt our relationship with the mandir straining. This caused a great deal of tension, as we were also expected to continue being role models for younger children at the mandir.
I was heavily involved in studying and practicing Hinduism, despite having less time to go to the mandir. However, I had started to form my own opinions and question the things I had held as truths growing up. It was clear that there was little space for any discussion outside of the same kathas we had heard over and over growing up. So little was applicable to my life anymore. Religion didn’t feel irrelevant, but these adults who were preaching in their own world did.
Finally, I wrote my first article for this blog, and then another on virginity and self-worth. To this day, I’m not sure exactly what happened, because once I published that second article, the religious leaders at that mandir stopped talking to me. I was told through other people that I was no longer welcome at the mandir. The religious leaders asked my parents to reason with me, and asked why something I wrote on my own private platform wasn’t passed through them for approval first. Still, they did not ask these questions to me directly. I was told there were rumors that I was teaching sex positions from the Kama Sutra to people.
People whom I had grown close with for years were discouraged from speaking to me, and children whom I had taught for years at that mandir no longer looked me in the eyes. Then, some of my friends told me that they had been spoken to by these religious leaders, and were told that they should stop talking to me. My closest friends did not oblige; subsequently, they started hearing rumors about themselves, too.
Nothing happened in the open. It was a slow, quiet exile. Our male peers never faced any similar social punishment over the years, but we can remember a few Aunties and other women who faced similar ostracization. It was clear that this practice of social exile had a lot to do with expectations on women of how they should behave, and if women did not meet this high standard, it was understood that they were disposable. While it should be noted that men seemed untouchable in terms of this sort of social punishment, women did also engage in taking other women down. We remember many Aunties who could have had our backs, but did not.
To this day, most of the younger people at that mandir have no idea of the real reason my friends and I haven’t gone back. They were told that we stopped valuing mandir once we went to college. In reality, the reason was very different: It became very clear to me and my friends that to the people at that mandir, the way we chose to move from girls to women was not acceptable.
My story is not uncommon. I have heard similar stories from women at other mandirs, as well as from other religious communities. Many third-gender Hindus have been ostracized from their religious communities in some way or another; again, not outwardly or blatantly, but by snide remarks, fake smiles, and subtle ways of being told they are unwelcome.
Yet, I am still involved with people in many Hindu spaces across America. They ask me why people my age are rarely seen at mandir. I tell them that it’s not because we’ve fallen away from our belief, but because these spaces cannot hold us anymore. This is especially true for young women and third-gender people.
Below, I hope to outline some of the ways that Hindu spaces can grow to be truly empowering to young women and third-gender people. Specifically, since many of my peers feel distant from these spaces because of discrimination faced along gendered and sexual lines, each point will focus on how to work towards more equity in these areas in Hindu spaces. These are questions I hope that leaders, influencers, and laypeople in Hindu communities across America (and maybe in other places, too!) can ask themselves to shape their mandirs/kovils/temples, educational spaces, and other Hindu organizations.
Please note that I do not think the solution is to conclude that Hindu spaces are inherently bad or degrading towards women, and that they are all uniformly horrible. It should be clear, after reading, that these suggestions are being made after a past rich with amazing connections and beautiful life experiences from the Hindu spaces I have been a part of. Along with all of our appreciation for our community spaces, we should temper it with questions on how we can best center the emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of women and third-gender/non-binary people.
1. Whose stories are told? Who tells them? Does ritual actually center women?
One reason the Hindu community tends to pride itself on being more empowering to women than any other religion is that we hold Devi, the Goddess, in high regard. It is likely true that being able to recognize God in the female gender can lead us to being more open to valuing femininity. However, this should not be the be-all, end-all of engagement with women’s issues.
In spaces where women can be seen as Devi, but their real-life, day-to-day concerns are unseen and unspoken, it can be akin to freezing women in an unreachable position. Women are told, implicitly, “Sit there, be beautiful, be sacred, be pure — but don’t tell us about the abuses you’ve suffered, the unhappiness you have had to deal with, your secret pleasures, or the hard battles you have fought against men to get where you are.”
What can be done: Women should hold stewardship of Devi-related storytelling in temples. They should decide, or at least take much of the control of which stories are shared; which texts we read from; and, should be in charge of actually delivering kathas and holding discussions in religious spaces. Women can try to share new stories from our traditions with each other, by going back to the texts on their own and sharing things they have found. Popular translations of many Devi-related texts can be found in many online bookstores.
Similarly, stories about great women and third gender people in pre-modern and modern history should be shared often. It is extremely important that all sides of femininity are shared. Sharing only one side of feminine characters bars young people from exploring the multiplicity of values, character traits, and gender expressions that are available to them in the world.
Keep people in your community aware of women and third-gender writers, artists, dancers, and poets, and elevate their narratives.
In terms of ritual, similar steps can be taken. Pujas can be an opportunity for women to lead satsangs and prayers, as well as opportunities for women to explore less-known manifestations of Devi. There are many rupas of Isvara that are agender, mixed-gender, and third-gender as well, which people should be aware of and invited to learn more about.
These opportunities should not be restricted to Diwali and Navratri, but should happen regularly. In many Hindu traditions, Friday is a day where Shakti worship is traditionally done; this could be a day of the week in religious spaces where such prayers and discussions regularly happen. Similarly, in Bengali culture, Amavasya (new moon) is a day where Kali puja and other Devi-related activities are undertaken fortnightly. Other cultures connect women’s rituals with Purnimasi (full moon).
2. Are there specific spaces for gendered issues?
In cultures where males have the most privilege, it is necessary to have spaces that prioritize women and third-gender people so that there can be a concerted and intentional effort to lift their position in society.
Some temples do attempt to form women’s groups; however, they are often either stereotypical in gender roles (i.e. women’s cooking or singing group), or are informally controlled by what men in these organizations think should go on in women’s groups. Furthermore, women are often not equipped with the tools to stay organized and functioning, nor are they created with any particular goal in mind.
What can be done: Women of all ages and identities in the community should get together and discuss what sorts of issues they face in their lives and could use support from the community on. This could be anything from career-building skills; to motherhood and pregnancy; to discussing dating and romantic lives; to “empty-nester” issues.
Based on whichever needs of the community are apparent, different groups can be formed. The membership in these groups should be clearly outlined, so as to ensure the comfort and privacy of the group members. Any efforts to counter these rules should be challenged openly. It is of utmost importance that people in marginalized positions are given the opportunity to define group membership on their own terms. That said, it is also understood that rules can change over time, and that values should be flexible as needs of the group change.
For example, if young Hindu women wanted to make a group to discuss the difficulties of dating in modern society, and they decided they would be more comfortable if their mothers were not present, it would be inappropriate for any older woman to assert her authority and presence in the group because she feels it will ensure that only “appropriate” conversation takes place. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to subtly shame those young women through gossip for wanting to discuss those issues in the first place. That said, these young women might decide one day on their own to invite an older woman to come in to talk about her own early romantic experiences. This would be fine as long as women did not feel coerced to invite a non-group member in.
It is important to note that while separate spaces can be very helpful, talking about these issues should be woven into many areas of the entire culture of the space. For example, though a mandir may have a group where expectant mothers can talk about pregnancy and motherhood, everyone in the entire organization should be aware of the basic needs of pregnant women, and things these women might need in order to feel most included in the community.
While certain cultural groups or sampradayas might find it inappropriate to discuss certain topics (like dating) within a temple setting, it may be possible to have these groups informally at someone’s house, or in another public space. If a group still poses a “threat” in some way to the needs of the larger group, it would be ideal if some compromise or allowance could be made; otherwise, understand these needs will remain unmet for this group and some people may feel the need to leave.
3. Is anything aside from heterosexuality accepted? Is there silence around any discussion of sexuality and gender?
We are not empowering people in our religious spaces until we can say that we empower all people — regardless of what your grandparents would say, what you think women should traditionally be like, what another mandir is doing, or what the swami-of-the-day says.
There is a wide history of not only tolerance, but celebration of all gender and sexual expressions in Hindu history. Sadly, this has been overshadowed and supplanted by cultural values of societies that Hindu groups find themselves to be contained in. In many cases, that which is cultural habit has come to be understood as religious orthodoxy. However, this is not the case across all Hindu groups — for example, ISKCON is widely recognized as having third-gender and non-heterosexual people as a vibrant part of their community, and often in leadership positions as well. Tantric and Devi-related sampradayas (e.g. Sri Vidya) commonly have women as priests, teachers, and center femininity in ritual.
It is rare for any Hindu-American group to vehemently and outwardly put down women, third-gender, or non-heterosexual people (though it does happen). It is much more common for groups to be silent on matters of sexuality and gender, and therefore, complicit in the unjust status quo. Many of our elders may think that it is impossible for an Indian person to be anything but heterosexual, and that homosexuality is a Western invention. Hindu groups are wary of becoming “too political” if they challenge the status quo on any of these issues, and are afraid of scaring off more conservative and “valued” (a.k.a. big money donors) members of their communities. However, saying nothing is also a political stance — or in the words of Shri Krishna, there is action in inaction.
If our current leaders want to take this approach, they must understand that they will lose community members in the near future. The younger generation is much more progressive, and if they do not see a place for their values in temples, they simply will stop donating and stop going. They will form their own new spaces, or will abandon the Hindu spaces altogether. No amount of youth talent shows or pizza nights will help mandirs survive.
What can be done: Some topics should explicitly be talked about in stories and ritual. For example, one should be conscious when telling a story how many times a female character’s inner world is expressed (“She believed, she wanted, she thought”) versus the male character in the story (“He believed, he wanted, he thought.”), and just adjust the telling accordingly if the woman character’s inner world appears less in the story, or invite women in the group to share their views of how they think the woman character must have thought or felt.
When this is not possible, lectures and workshops can be held. For example, some churches and masjids have talks on how to recognize child sexual abuse, how to handle issues of partner abuse/domestic violence, etc. Resources that could fill the needs of women and third-gender people in your community could be shared via flyers and regular mandir email/listserv messages.
Talking about sexuality and gender-related issues does not need to be held in solitude either. It is easy to work these issues into casual interactions, and definitely in age appropriate ways. For example, when telling the story of how Ravana kidnapped Sita, it can be used as an opportunity to talk to children about the importance of seeking consent from friends (and later in adolescence, from romantic partners). With older children, this could be an opportunity to talk about the concept of victim blaming — why Sita’s kidnapping was Ravana’s fault, no matter what she was wearing, if she was a ‘chaste woman’ or not, etc. When young people are curious about issues related to sexuality or gender, they should not be shamed or discouraged.
In addition, we can also take care to speak positively and have an open attitude when mentioning LGBTQ+ people around children. If a child is questioning their sexuality or gender expression, it can be extremely damaging to their sense of self to hear an adult, especially a respected member of their religious community, say something disparaging about an LGBTQ+ person who they potentially may identify with in some way. If you harbor anti-LGBTQ+ views, it is best to keep these views to yourself when around young people in the formative stages of identity development.
4. Are experts consulted when necessary? Is the community consulted when necessary?
In some cases, sexuality and gender are spoken about in religious communities. However, sometimes a religious leader might assume authority on talking about everything, when really, he is only trained and knowledgeable enough to talk about a few things from our sacred texts.
Similarly, the Hindu community in America seems to contain many distinguished doctors and engineers — but this does not mean that every highly-educated donor in a mandir should be allowed to talk on any topic they choose.
What can be done: Be honest about what you don’t know. If women want to talk about women’s health, any random Aunty would not be an appropriate choice, no matter how educated she is, or how many hours she has spent meditating. (Any random Uncle would definitely not be a good choice.) Consider inviting a psychologist and a gynecologist from the community to sit in a discussion with them.
Similarly, not every person with a higher degree is qualified to speak to people on any topic, especially to children. Consider inviting people in specialities related to children, such as child social workers, child psychologists, pediatricians, and teachers to speak to children on topics in their area of expertise.
Wanting to talk to adolescents about LGBTQ+ issues would be a great thing to have in a temple, but again, this would probably best be led by a combination of LBGTQ+ members in the community along with someone who is an LGBTQ+ activist, or works at a LGBTQ+ civil liberties organization.
That said, any time outsiders are invited in to speak to community members, it should be approved by relevant community members first (i.e. LGBTQ+ members of the community should approve the LGBTQ+ speaker).
5. Who holds the most power? Is power distributed equitably?
One great thing about the Hindu community is that many women do hold positions in the board of trustees and board of executives of temples. In addition, there have been for many centuries traditions of women priests and sadhvis. This does not mean that power is distributed equitably, though.
Many young Hindu women I know have been in rooms where we are with male peers who we are equally or more qualified than, and yet our male peers’ opinions are valued more than ours. Even more maddening is when we make a suggestion which is shot down as unreasonable or illogical, and then when a male peer makes the same suggestion, it is championed as brilliant and innovative. There are many, many, subtle ways that we can steal power from women and third-gender people.
Furthermore, there are many instances in which women are only put in positions of power where they are stereotypically relevant: Women can lead a children’s group, a cooking group, or take notes during a meeting, but it would be less likely that the temple might employ a woman priest, have a woman board president (or more than one woman in a high position of power), have a woman in charge of treasury or fundraising.
Even when women hold positions that are hierarchically higher up than men, it may be clear that in this organization, men have the final word, or nothing the women propose can move forward without the approval of men. I have noticed that in many temples, women do a large fraction of community-based labor (cleaning, cooking, childcare, teaching, etc.), but it is much more likely to see men getting community awards and receiving accolades for their one or zero contributions. There’s nothing wrong with women doing things that are stereotypically gendered, it’s only a problem when there is a culture where those are the only things we see women doing.
What can be done: Critical self-reflection by people in current positions of power can be jumpstarted by vocal and widespread discourse by community members. Show up to mandir board meetings, and bring these topics up in satsangs.
Talk about these issues over chai and prasad with community members. Post on social media about things that are important to you, and reflect publicly about what you wish to see in your own community. Build a buzz that’s hard for people in power to ignore.
Use soft power and leverage your personal relationships where applicable. Most importantly: put your money where your mouth is. Give to initiatives that you like, and stop giving to institutions that are doing things you don’t like (and be clear to them why).
If you are in a position of power, understand that criticism from group members comes not from hate, but from a genuine desire to see a space they love change for the better. Actively seek out the opinions and valuable criticism of people in your community, especially from women and third-gender people. Make sure there are anonymous ways of getting feedback, as they may not feel trusted and heard when speaking to you in person. Understand that women and third-gender people may not always feel safe calling others out on things they find unjust.
Radical, concrete, real-life commitment to systemic change might look like the following: a commitment by the mandir board members to appoint 30% more women to leadership positions within the mandir by the end of the year; to change aspects of the mandir’s Bal Vihar curriculum to weave more content on marginalized groups throughout the year’s lessons; to make a concerted effort to highlight feminist issues in community outreach; starting scholarships and programming initiated by and for young women and third-gender people; increase the percentage of time women spend speaking to the public; men committing to stepping down when women and third-gender people can speak for themselves and allow them to take the reins.
I have been involved in many capacities with mandirs over the years, with everything to being a visiting guest to deep involvement in the workings of inter-mandir relations. Sadly, I do not think any of these changes outlined above will be possible as long as the current generation of mandir leadership is in power.
This is why it is important for the younger generation to keep their ideas alive and write about what they’d like to see for a time when we will take positions of power. It is imperative that we keep our vision alive, no matter how utopian it seems at the moment, so we can remember what we are striving towards.
6. Do we take age, race, ethnicity, caste, ability level, etc. into account even in gendered issues?
Even in cases where women are given a chance to speak for themselves, women do not speak for all women in all cases. As mentioned above, older women may not be aware of issues affecting the current generation of younger women, and vice versa. There are cases in which other aspects of identity can allow one group to take advantage of another. For example, some youth put in years of labor into creative and educational programming for their temples, but are given no credit. These programs are often used even once these youth leave the temples, after chronic and legitimate feelings of being undervalued.
Other groups may feel excluded for other reasons. There have been many times when Indian-American Hindus have been surprised to met Indo-Caribbean Hindus like myself. People are sometimes even more shocked to meet Black, Latino, and White Hindus — yet they do all exist in America! This shock-factor makes it evident how segregated Hindu communities can be.
Growing up as an Indo-Caribbean Hindu, I was intrigued by Indian Hindus, who held the mystique of our shared (but distant) homeland closer to them simply by their being. I was also shocked by judgements and rumors I had heard from other Indo-Caribbean Hindus: Indian people’s temples are dirty; their bhajans are boring (“Why dem steady a holla ‘aaaaah’? Dem a cry suh or wah?”); they wear jeans and other horrors of Westernization to mandir; their kids run around everywhere during satsang; they eat weird foods for prasadam.
But now, I’m comfortable in the worlds where I receive puliyodharai as prasadam, dance garba during Navratri, and can correctly respond to “kemon acho?” from Aunties during Durga Pujo. But I’m noticing a shared fear of the other here as well: the casual anti-blackness; the simultaneous idolization and infantilization of White Hindus; the assumptions present in questions like, “Have you found any nice boy yet?” asked to young women; the whispers about children who have gone to college and been ‘corrupted’ by Western values; the socioeconomic status-showing evident in Aunties’ sari comparisons, Uncles’ vehicle comparisons in the mandir parking lot.
Notable was the rampant casteism which I had never seen in the Indo-Caribbean community, besides in mentions of who is a “gori Brahmin gyal” (light-skinned Brahmin girl) by two or three entitled Brahmin families, out of the hundreds of Indo-Caribbean families I know. In Indian Hindu groups, it was strange to see the subtle politics of people denying that caste mattered at all, yet proud and spirited conversation of who is an Iyer, Sharma, Gupta, Chowdhury, or none of the above. I was amazed to see stringent casteist matchmaking and marriage practices being upheld even outside of India.
What can be done: Ensure diversity of identities are represented on every level of the community. Certain people ‘not being around’ or ‘not coming to the temple regularly’ is not an excuse. If they are not coming, find out why. If you are dedicated to being inclusive, find out what is keeping people feeling excluded.
Be aware of the subtle politics of power — Is it common for older people to gossip about younger people? What is said about dark-skinned people? Is the mandir accessible for disabled people? Is power determined by how many donations someone is expected to give? Is there a way for elderly people to get to mandir or carpool if needed?
“Other Hindu organizations” doing work to elevate anti-racism, anti-casteism, anti-homophobia, etc. is not an excuse for one’s own organization to decenter these issues. People are attracted to organizations based on who and what they see represented there.
Further reading can be done on diversity consciousness and on social justice and equity in communities.
7. What happens in our private conversations?
I’m sure every young Hindu woman can remember a time when they cringed through a lecture that should have ended one hour ago, where an older male in their community was telling them about something having to do with their duty as a Hindu woman. Uncles are known for occasionally buying us ice cream and pizza after mandir, but even with the best intentions, they can often be the most notable mansplainers.
In private conversations, men can be even more culpable. Many of my male friends have shared the slut-shaming comments they’ve made about women and homophobic/transphobic comments that they’ve shared with other friends within their mandirs. Religious spaces are not exempt from these sorts of conversations at all.
Even worse are Aunties who seem to speak as if they were never young women themselves, ignoring what should be obvious needs and desires of young women in favor of pushing what men have taught them is the correct way to go about womanhood. Women are just as capable of upholding patriarchal power structures as men are. It can be even more painful when one of your kind does something to hurt you.
Aunties uphold the patriarchy when they shame young, unmarried women for having sexual desires, but don’t have the same concerns about their sons. Aunties uphold the patriarchy when they come up beside you to adjust your sari to cover more your chest as you’re absorbed in prayer, and then give you unsolicited advice about how to dress so as to respect the men in your religious space. Aunties uphold the patriarchy when they scold you when they see you haven’t served your father or brother food before you’ve started eating yourself. Aunties uphold the patriarchy when they only present one right way for a woman to be a woman.
What can be done: This is when it becomes imperative to become uncomfortable and challenge those closest to us. We can have a huge impact if we take responsibility for gently but fiercely raising the awareness of our loved ones. When a friend from your mandir uses a homophobic or transphobic slur, make it clear that you aren’t cool with that sort of language. When someone starts to question the virginity of a young woman in the community in an attempt to shame her, retort or shut the conversation down. Boys will not just be boys.
These sorts of comments can hurt men too: telling boys they’re “acting like a girl” when they show their emotions contributes to toxic masculinity, and is just as disparaging in a gendered context as it equates femininity to weakness. Women are capable of making these comments as well!
8. Are our patriarchs infallible?
When men make mistakes and suffer no consequences, but women and third-gender people are punished harshly or ostracized for making the same mistakes, we uphold one of the most poisonous ways that women and third-gender people can be harmed.
Sometimes, this comes in subtle ways, such as judgmental gossip: Women who leave their husband are seen by others as adharmic, fallen from the right path, probably cheating on their husband and not trusted around other men in the community. Men who leave their wives just ‘made a mistake,’ are probably having a tough time on their own, are career-focused or had a good reason for leaving her.
Even when it is clear that a man did not have a socially acceptable reason for leaving their wife, he often suffers little to no consequences, and continues to hold his position, if not amass more. No one questions him, they just let it pass. Anyone who does raise a question is being negative and needs to keep the best interest of the community in mind.
This happens in less subtle ways as well. Men who have sexuallly harassed women and children often never face allegations, and continue to hold positions of power in their communities. This applies to laypeople in our religious communities as much as it applies to religious leaders. Women are discouraged by their own families from revealing the truth of abuses they may have faced at the hands of men in power because it will be ‘bad for the community/temple,’ they should leave their past in the past, or frankly, because the family is too embarrassed to talk. And so, women are left hearing lectures about dharma and bowing in ‘namaste’ to men who have abused them or their peers.
These things absolutely do happen in the Hindu community. I have heard from people close to me their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse by prominent members of the Hindu community, and stories of violent domestic and child abuse. Women in our communities are aware of the priests, young and old, who use their power and influence to make sexual passes at women, both in person and through private messaging them on social media after women have followed their pages. Women are often unsure of how to respond to these men, because they are afraid of what might happen if they say no.
This can even happen in temples known as ‘ritual centers,’ where few community activities are offered, and people have minimal contact with priests and temple personnel: Once, I was praying at a temple in New Jersey. I caught a young priest staring at me. I brushed it off. Later, while standing with others to receive prasadam from him, he slowly stroked my palm with his finger, making eye contact with a decidedly predatory gaze. I walked away quickly, looking down. My stomach suddenly felt too sick to swallow the almonds and sugar in my palm. Later, my Mom joked about seeing a young priest looking at me, and that I looked beautiful today. I did not feel beautiful. I felt that I had been violated in one of the places I had assumed I would always be safe.
What should be done? In cases where a man has wronged you or a loved one, talk about it. If you feel unsafe calling them out publicly (which is completely understandable), call them out privately with your peers. Let other women know to stay away. You don’t have to give any details you don’t want to.
When another woman tells you something happened to her, believe her. When she shares her story, ask if she is okay, and ask what you can do to help. Do not question her on her story. It is hard enough to share, and from experience, women do not gain status from sharing how they were harmed by men.
Hold our patriarchs accountable publicly when they express any ignorant opinions. Ask them blatantly, publicly, what their opinions on LGBTQ+ issues are. Ask them publicly to explain further what they meant when they say sexist, racist, or homophobic things. If they can explain themselves, or are open to self-criticism and apology, they should be aware that the community will welcome them and help them become better leaders (except in cases where they have caused great harm).
If they continue to say and do harmful things, understand that taking a man like that out of power is not a loss for the community, it is a success. When our leaders change for the better, we all can change for the better. We hold the power in these spaces, no matter what our leaders would like us to think. If we do not attend their pujas and satsangs, and if we do not continue to invite them to our homes, they will no longer remain relevant. Our leaders are replaceable, but our values are not.
Thank you to Jenn, Khamini, Camelia, Amrita, and Shahana for their invaluable contributions during the drafting and writing process!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to continue supporting my writing, you can do so by sharing my work and/or donating.