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Women who do not seem to be religious are universally considered “bad girls”. Can we not judge women on the basis of how religious or traditional they are?
Recently, I came across an article which spoke about a study which said that women are more religious than men, universally, across religions and cultures. I am always skeptical of how such studies are reported in the media, and I went looking for the original study.
This study, published by The Pew Research Center, found that, “globally, women are more devout than men by several standard measures of religious commitment. But the study also reveals a more complex relationship between religion and gender than has been commonly assumed. While women generally are more religious, men display higher levels of religious commitment in some countries and religious groups. And in other contexts, there are few, if any, discernable gender differences in religion.” The reasons for this gender gap are understood to be both biological (nature; men’s testosterone makes them more prone to taking risks, and less religious) and social (nurture; women are socialized into being more religious.)
For India (and Hindus), it showed that the differences between men and women when it came to being religious are negligible. Men and women are equally religious.
The entire report can be found here. It makes for an interesting read, and I encourage those who would like to know more, to go and read it.
However, this report is not what the article is about. Reading this report got me thinking about the intersection of gender and religion, and I realized that all my life I have experienced women being judged for their lack of religiosity, but not men!
For Indian women, especially Hindu women (I cannot comment on other religions because they are outside my sphere of experience), being religious is a “duty.” We must pray, fast and participate enthusiastically in religious festivals and ceremonies. Even little girls are expected to be more involved in religious ceremonies than little boys. We are told that the well-being of our loved ones literally depends upon our doing these things. Religion even invades our daily routine, with women being told to wake up earlier, or take a bath before entering the kitchen.
Men too, are encouraged to be religious and pray daily, but the pressure is nothing like what women have to face. Any woman who chooses to reject religion is a “bad girl.” Boys or men may receive a mild telling off; for women it becomes a character certificate.
In fact men are rewarded by religion. They have all the power, and they get to lead religious ceremonies, either as the head of the household or as priests. Female priests, on the other hand are the exception, rather than the rule, across religions. Most, if not all religions are inherently patriarchal, and used to “control” women. Women must be religious and perform religious duties, but within a narrow scope.
My own experience with religion has been complicated. I was born an atheist, and as a young girl, was not particularly happy with being dragged to temples. Over the years, I have become cautiously agnostic. Having grown up with a mother and grandmother who find great solace in religion, some of their religiousness has rubbed off on me.
I have unconventional ideas about Hinduism though, and I choose to keep what gives me peace, while rejecting parts of it that are against my social and political principles. However, what the world sees is enough for me to be a certified “good girl.”
Some of my friends, acquaintances and relatives however, definitely have the “bad girl” tag attached to them.
I know of women who have refused to attend haldi-kumkum ceremonies. Women who said that they don’t want to visit temples while on holiday. Women who do not see the point in getting up and cooking elaborate meals on festival days. Women who are atheists. And this makes them, in the eyes of many, “the vamp.”
What is worse is that this sort of policing is done usually by other women, especially the older women in the house – again, those who subscribe to patriarchy. Their attitude towards the younger bahus and betis who reject religion reminds me of a dialogue from the movie Khoobsurat, starring Rekha.
Rekha plays an easy-going woman in the film; a woman not too concerned with following rules or tradition. Dina Pathak, the mother of her romantic partner, pronounces her as being unfit to be her son’s bride because, “such girls can only take care of themselves. They cannot take care of the family.”
Women’s lack of religiosity and breaking from tradition is often seen as a threat. However, as Rekha’s character proves in the movie, being nontraditional does not equal incompetence. Sure, they may not do things the way they “must be done,” but they will get things done nevertheless.
Religion has nothing to do with ones “goodness.” There are atheists who are kind, compassionate and helpful. There are religious people who are cruel, rude and filled with hate.
So the next time a woman says that she does not want to be part of a certain religious function, or tries to reform a patriarchal tradition, can we be more understanding and not judge her?
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