On Faith: Gender Discrimination a Cultural Bias, not Religious Truth

Fremont, CA (April 14, 2010) - This week, HAF Executive Council member, Pooja Deopura, guest blogged on behalf of Dr. Aseem Shukla.  Below is Ms. Deopura's first guest blog. Please post your comments directly on the "On Faith" site by clicking here.
"You don't have cooties!” I exclaimed, trying to hold back laughter whilst attempting to give my cousin a big bear hug as she squirmed away before her mother saw.
I was about 14 years old when I went to India to visit family after a good two years. I hadn’t seen my grandma (or naniji as I call her) or my favorite uncles or cousins for a very long time, and I missed them! In front of the adults, my cousin Urvashi and I retained proper composure, but as soon as we left the room - and after the initial awkward five minutes of not knowing what to say - it was just like old times. We were laughing about the pranks we used to play, who the best Bollywood actor was at that time... you know, the usual. But any time I came close enough to touch her, she would back away. Confused, when I asked her why, she said that she was on her monthly cycle and that if I touched her, I too would be considered unclean.
In India, when a Hindu woman is menstruating, in many traditional households, she is considered to be unclean or impure. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen, the temple or any prayer room, and is often not allowed to shower and is secluded to one room to minimize interaction with others. It is only at the end of her cycle when she has completed her ritusnana, or bath, is she considered “cleansed.” It saddens me to think that in a predominantly Hindu society, where on one hand, women are exalted through the reverence of goddesses, on the other, they are ostracized simply due to their gender.
The Sruti Hindu scriptures - scriptures of divine origin, like the Upanishads, for example - see no difference in gender as the eternal soul wears no gender. It speaks of one truth and preaches both the masculine and feminine forms of absolute divinity. And it is this absolute divinity that gives light to an array of manifestations that include feminine deities such as Parvati (the Divine Mother of Power), Saraswati (the Goddess of Knowledge), Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth), and many others. They also describe masculine forms to carry feminine qualities, and imply that some masculine deities are in fact incarnations of the feminine. In pure essence, absolute divinity in Hinduism takes no form or gender because it simply is a celestial amalgamation of both.
Despite what is written in the Srutis, parts of India still struggle with upholding this virtuous sense of gender equality. And while some verses in the Smriti scriptures - not divine, but “remembered” wisdom passed down from generation to generation - exalt women as the moral pillar of the home, other portions are a bit contradictory and unfortunately do reflect the existing patriarchal society.
But the source of this gender bias is not necessarily religious; it is a cultural phenomenon that is regrettably promoted under the guise of religion. The bad news is that this is a reality that exists not only in rural parts of India, but also in modern, urban homes. Fetal ultrasound probes in too many shopfronts spell female foeticide; when domestic violence is an issue, the woman is blamed; when a woman is raped, it is still she that suffers the societal consequences. Examples like these exist worldwide, and I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that religion has a part to play in these atrocities.
With that said, the good news however, is that we, as a society, are slowly moving away from that way of thinking. Even though some families may see their daughters as a burden, many more consider them to be an incarnation of the Divine - “Ghar ki Lakshmi, betiyaan,” they say, or “the wealth of the home, resides in the daughter.”
Regardless of the cultural resistance that’s ever so present, Hindu women today are given an equal say and equal opportunities in the religious community. In Pune, India, women can enter priesthood through the Shankar Seva Smiti and Jnana Prabodhini, schools specializing in training female priests - and this is not a revolutionary concept. During the Vedic times, it was common for both men and women to wear the sacred thread that symbolized their priestly title. But over time, this sacred thread became the rightful property of man alone as the idea of a woman in menses conducting pujas or ceremonies tainted the purity of holy rituals. The logic behind this was quite legitimate as it had to do with cleanliness and sanitation issues; however, with the technology and tools we have today, it should no longer be a concern nor is there place for such reasoning.
It is ridiculous to think that if God created us and divinity resides in each one of us, that one can even be considered impure or inferior. Moreover, it is unfortunate that issues such as gender bias still exist today in an age where women have stood and excelled alongside men in all aspects of life - be it in religious, political, work or familial matters. The fact that these issues still exist in India shows how the Indian culture is slowly evolving towads eternal Hindu teachings of equality and mutual respect, irrespective of race, color, faith and yes, gender. It is time we stop and reevaluate what is right rather than blindly follow what society believes to be true. As a Hindu, and on behalf of other Hindus of my generation (both male and female), I can confidently say that we are committed to developing our Hindu identity by being more true to the teachings of our tradition. As the embodiment of the future of Hinduism, issues such as gender discrimination will no longer be in effect as we will simply not allow it to be. Period.