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. Continue reading
Condensed version originally posted on Coming of Faith
During my last semester of college, I took a Theology class with Father Whalen. One day, he asked us, “If I told you that God would be here tomorrow, ready to meet with anyone who would come, right in Marillac Hall, first floor, would you go?” The question spurred students to think about their faith or doubt, their relationship with God, their guilt or their love.
But I was struck by the image of God that came to my mind when he asked that question: an old White man in a suit, sitting awkwardly in one of our typical classroom desks. As a Hindu, who grew up with hundreds and hundreds of images from which I might visualize what God looks like, why did I end up thinking of an old White man? Perhaps because that is generally what American culture tells us God looks like (aside from the occasional Morgan Freeman). I thought again, conjuring up another image, and Krishna, the beloved raincloud-dark god, came to mind. Though the image was more familiar, felt closer to what moved my heart when I thought of “God,” why again did I think of a male form? After Krishna, I thought of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya, Ganesha, before any female forms like Durga or Kali came to mind. It seemed less because the image of keeping Kali pent up in a stuffy classroom would be a bad idea, and more because of something having to do with this word, “God.”
Is God an inherently gendered word?
People tend to have strong opinions about women and virginity. This piece was particularly hard to write for that reason. Within the past few months, as I was gathering research and materials for this article, I started meeting people who coincidentally wanted to speak to me about this very same topic. Some felt very strongly that virginity is an archaic construct. Sex, to them, is just another way of enjoying yourself, like eating ice cream or having a trip to the beach. How, when, and who it happens with is inconsequential, as long as there is mutual consent. The question of virginity being mediated by any other source, scriptural, cultural, or societal, seemed wrong and disempowering. I’ve met others who feel very strongly that virginity is part of a woman’s sexual currency. Until she has sex, she’s a more worthy mate or is more sought after by men. Waiting to have sex could mean increasing your value in the ‘marriage market.’ Others thought of virginity as a sacred thing, to be saved for a time and person whom you love dearly. Sexual chastity could also be seen as the only foolproof way of preventing the spread of STDs.
I was torn. I wanted to satisfy everyone with my writing, because the threat of overwhelming backlash is imminent when we engage in discussion on a topic like this, where people tend to have very strong and polarizing opinions. I feared how others might even view me, the author, for writing this. If I am a virgin, one might doubt that I have enough experience to write anything about virginity or sex, or I might just be dismissed as naïve or weird for being a virgin in my mid-twenties. On the other hand, if I am not a virgin, some people may judge me as being of “loose character,” that I am probably morally bereft, or may pity me for having made wrong decisions in life. Maybe I’m writing this to justify my sex life (or lack of one) in some way. Both ways, my voice might be dismissed due to a judgment made based on my status as virgin or non-virgin. Then I realized that speaking my truth was more important than what others might think of me.
Author’s Note: Thank you for your interesting feedback and comments on this article over the years! For related work, see this article by Garima Garg (The Hindu) where I was quoted on this subject, and listen to this podcast for Jac Digital where I was interviewed by Anna Levy.
One of the greatest confusions most Hindu women face is between hearing that women are highly regarded as embodiments of Shakti (‘the feminine principle’), but that women are also impure, unfit to perform puja, and in some cases, not allowed to interact with their own family during the period of menstruation. Women are often treated as if they are inauspicious and dirty during the time of menstruation. Manusmriti gives the instruction that until a woman’s menstruation has ceased to flow (some say this is after the third day, while others say after the fifth, seventh, or even ninth day), her body is impure. Women are discouraged to do puja or to pray. They usually are not allowed to enter temples, and in some cases, are not allowed to cook or are kept separately from those in the rest of the village.
Some have given the reasoning that this is so that women can rest during menstruation. This would seem to make sense for the day before or day of menstruation, when one’s energy might be low. But unless if you are anemic or have low blood pressure, you usually will not have problems past the first day. Some women do not experience fatigue at all. And with the advent of anti-pain medication and pills that even regulate menstrual flow, what place do these customs have, if they have any place at all?
Why would Hindu dharma, which seems to place women on a pedestal (in most cases), have these rules which seem to treat women unfairly?
These days, in the Hindu household, it seems like the way the young woman of the house dresses carries a lot of meaning for the entire family. Revealing a bit too much of her back in a blouse could nearly defame her father!
She should be beautiful, but should not be too revealing. She should look youthful, but not too free in dress. It’s a balancing act many young women face when dressing for religious events, in deciding whether armless shalwar-kameezes are okay (“What if my arms are covered with my dupatta the whole time? Or will that be too much work? But it’s so hot out…”), or if they should just opt for jeans and a t-shirt, to the disapproving tut-tutting of their elders complaining about how “westernized” our youth is getting these days.