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.
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.