Women, Rights and Religion in India: Questioning the Tradition
Asha Mukherjee [+]
Visva-Bharati Central University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, India
It is often suggested that human rights and duties are two sides of the same coin. Yet in the Indian context, traditionally there is dharma discourse, which, with its rules of conduct, is obligation-based. As such, the issue of human rights has never been at the centre of discussion. Nor it has posed a ‘problem’ for the Indian masses. In modern India, human rights and women’s rights have been reconciled with, or made meaningful within Hinduism. At the same time, however, it is the caste system in India which necessarily generates tension and conflict, due to its complexity and multi-layered dimensions. Questions such as: ‘Who deserves what?’ and ‘Who decides this? are extremely important. I would argue that, in India today, the most difficult question to be addressed is: ‘How to include the excluded and how to exclude the included? At the core of the women’s rights debate there lies a need to interrogate the very being of an individual, person, self, or ‘other,’ in order to accommodate the claims and the counter-claims of rights. This is necessary in order to be creatively human, as the promise of humankind is often threatened by the destructive activities of the few who are in power, whether they be connected with political, social, economic, or religious matters. What is apparent in India today is more and more a division between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in the name of democracy and secularism. There is no automatic guarantee of success by the mere existence of democratic institutions. Democratic institutions, like those of all other institutions, depend on the interpretation and activities of human agents in utilizing opportunities for reasonable realization. Furthermore, Indian civilization, based on dharma, has often been claimed as creative and communicative. Dharma can be understood as recognizing human dignity and worth in terms of justice, unity, and benevolence, as a virtue of human fulfilment. It is accompanied by its theological insights and metaphysical doctrines. Dharma has both descriptive and prescriptive contents. It encompasses the way things are and the way things ought to be – involving the nature of human beings and their obligations or duties. The concern for gender justice and women’s rights, however, has also been an extremely important area in the Indian Constitution, right from the Independence Act of 1947. In examining the way that dharma is practiced in Indian society as part of gender justice, however, one finds a paradox in the urge to change and accept Western progressive and democratic values. This is because such a change also needs to be rooted in the past achievements of Indian society. This is highly problematic, particularly as the past has become interpreted by the contemporary Hindutva (Hindu right wing) advocates of social justice. This paradox, to a large extent, influences the way that women’s issues are being developed. There are two conflicting images of women in India, that of devī (goddess) or that of dāsi (servant). It is difficult for the middle class, educated, working women to be either one of these two roles. Each woman wants to be treated as a human being, as a dignified person who would have the power to decide what to be and to do. Yet to attain this, she would have constantly to face a struggle, which is often very difficult. In this paper, I will focus on the different layers of struggles that women in contemporary India have to face to negotiate both freedom and dignity. In this way, at the root of the feminist concern lies a critique of the traditions described above, and a search for ways that women can assert their own identity as human beings. One way, surely, would be the assertion of women’s rights. There may well be differences between Indian feminism and Western feminism, but the fundamental concern for both is a moral imperative to achieve well-being and dignity. Well-being, in this context, is to be understood as having real opportunities for individuals ‘to do and to be.’ The situation in a society becomes complicated when such opportunities are denied women by the patriarchal structure. Yet such discrimination is apparent in all religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, as well as in caste and tribe. In this paper, I will raise some fundamental questions regarding individual rights in relation to religion, such as: Does an individual have a right to interpret one’s own religion and tradition? Do individuals have the right to interpret other religious tradition(s)? If they do, to what extent, and who decides which interpretation is correct? These are the most important questions from a feminist perspective, specifically in the contemporary Indian context. Interpretation of religion, as living religion, is an essential part of everyday life of every woman and, for that matter, of every individual. In addition, tradition, culture, religion, and philosophy are inseparable in the everyday life of every individual in India (Mukherjee: 2015).