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I was born and raised following a different religion than the one I follow today. But how does not following your religion make a bad woman?
You may have heard of women being body shamed and slut shamed but have you heard of them being religion shamed too?
No? Well let’s begin then.
A woman in India must be religious. She ought to be. And if she’s married in a Hindu household, she must comply to all the rituals and traditions of that home. This might sound completely normal to a lot of us, but for some, it becomes a matter of life and death.
In India, religion does become a life and death situation. God forbid, if you are not a religious person or are inclined towards being spiritual rather than following one of many gods and goddesses that exist.
Your typical Indian bahu or girl should be interested in visiting temples. She must fast for the sake of her husband, son or any of the patriarchal heads of the family. And she must participate in all religious affairs of the house.
She should be ready to take the baton from her mother or more often, the mother-in-law, when it comes to morning and evening prayers. And she may be allowed to meditate and be spiritual in her free time but she just cannot not pray to the gods. Okay?
But hey, what happens when she doesn’t want to? What happens when she follows another religion? Or if she relies on something different from praying to a deity to gain mental peace or strength?
Well, things get uncomfortable. For there are households where being atheist (or just uninterested) or not following the religion of the house results in physical violence.
Even in the virtual world, a woman cannot come out as criticising the religion she’s born into, because that means ‘Hey Ram!’ ‘OMG’ and what not! I have personally faced pushback from a journalist friend who found it offensive that I called out a wrong about to the religion most of us practice in this country.
Mine was a Hindu household where my mom followed the religious practices her MIL did. Meanwhile, my dad was intrigued (but not enough) by religions, other than his own.
Today I can look back and say that I was encouraged by both of them to never follow any faith blindly. However, they told me to be more open minded in my search for a philosophy that I could take roots in. I found that philosophy to be Nichiren Buddhism, after I realised that most of my logical questions about Hinduism remained unanswered.
(Now, I might offend some people here. But, sorry I am not sorry)
To always question the norm and not indulge in blind faith is what I came to believe in, thanks to my spiritual interests and my love for reading. I also realised it pretty quickly how deeply personal faith is and should be. One can have faith in the universe, a stone or one’s own inherent mystic powers.
If I follow a certain philosophy and find it brilliant, it doesn’t give me any right to question what someone else is following. I might want to share the joy I derive from my faith with others but I need to have a strong sense of compassion while doing so.
So when it was time for me to settle down with a partner, I was certain that I’ll be straightforward about my spiritual leanings and also my interest in Buddhism.
My partner was pretty cool about it, but not a lot of those around us, once we got married. The relatives wanted an ‘adarsh’ daughter-in-law who could follow all rituals to the T.
It also occurred to me that there may be so many women like me, who may be following rituals and traditions just to keep those around them happy.
In our culture, we call it respect and therefore, the need to please all around us by not saying no. We are afraid of being judged, of being bitched about. And we are afraid of the ‘religion shaming’ that so many women in our country deal with, every single day.
A friend once told me how she didn’t want to keep a particular fast for her husband. However, she had to in order to keep the in laws happy and also to not encourage neighbours to gossip about her.
Another sister told me that she’s been humiliated for the philosophy she believes in. Her husband often takes a dig at her for not being Hindu ‘enough.’ It’s a separate issue that he, himself, often indulges in wife beating while praying to Ma Durga and Laxmi once a week.
There are households where a woman is not ‘allowed’ to practice what she personally believes in. Simply because it’s not in line with what the family members believe in. Their faith or religion is mocked and ridiculed for not being one of the majority.
Women have been and are being demeaned for not being religious enough. That makes me wonder about the atheists who cannot come out to anyone around them for the fear of being insulted and assaulted, both verbally and physically.
A lot of women I know follow the religion they are born into, without understanding the whys and whats of what they actively practice in. I also know those who want to break free but either don’t have the time or the will to engage in dialogue with those around them. They believe in something just because they’ve been trained to do so.
Coming back to my own life, I am glad that my religious mother-in-law never really forced me to take up her faith. She understood that my weak interest in the religious practices she indulges in, doesn’t translate into me being a bad person or woman.
There’s nothing wrong in following any religion or take up any faith one wants to, but ‘wants to’ is the key here. It’s time we stop partaking in religion shaming of women and being more human towards those who have choices different than ours.
I hope and ‘pray’ that more of us gain the freedom to inquire and question without fear and follow what truly speaks to us as human beings.
Picture credits: Still from Marathi TV series Mazhya Navraychi Bayko
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A former journalist, a freelance content creator and a mom blogger who can be found
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