On Faith & Feminism: Exploring Questions of Caste & Gender in Religion

Home / Sangat Blog / On Faith & Feminism: Exploring Questions of Caste & Gender in Religion

On Faith & Feminism: Exploring Questions of Caste & Gender in Religion

By Manmeet Kaur

The following is a reflection on Sangat network’s webinar on the issue with panelists Uma Chakravarty, Nalini Nayak and Sowjanya Tamalapakula held on July 25, 2020. The session can be watched here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1W6ryhItkaQRMhE78y4oo4orL4i-cL_0T/view?usp=sharing


We’re at a crossroads. Of course as a society, but as individuals too. There are multiple
threads which make up the complicated design that we put forth, and like all good labour, the
tapestry hides the effort. Feminist Multilogues, a Delhi based group, pulls these threads ever
so slightly to understand the layers which make these complicated, beautiful identities. 
One such uncovering was held on 25 July 2020. Faith and Feminism: Exploring Questions of
Caste and Gender was a second in a series of talks on religion and feminism. Perspectives
from Christianity and Navayana Buddhism from an intersectional feminist lens were shared
by Nalini Nayak and Sowjanya Tamalapakula. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Uma

Dr. Uma Chakravarty began the discussion with a short recap of Faith and Feminism, Session
1, and its focus on understanding the first generation Indian feminists’ engagement with
institutional religion, and building a feminist consciousness within patriarchal structures of
faith. What followed was a beautiful narrative description of Urmila Pawar’s writings on her
family’s renunciation of Hinduism, symbolic in the floating away of Hindu deities in the
river, and their subsequent conversion to Buddhism. Pawar is a leading Marathi Dalit writer,
and the family’s  conversion like many others’ came as a ripple effect of Babasaheb
Ambedkar’s conversion and rejection of the Hindu caste system. This narrative paved the
way for Nalini and Sowjanya to pick up on the overlapping questions of caste, gender, and
religion- discussing the tussle/cordial relationship amongst these identities through their
personal journeys and political engagements.

Nalini Nayak dwelled on the intersections of a religious, political, and feminist identity,
building it by layers in her exquisite storytelling of her personal journey. She discussed the
changes in institutional Christianity which came with the Vatican Council, and the evolution
of the Theology of Liberation in the Brazilian context in the latter half of the twentieth
century. The simultaneous development of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
lent a rigour to critical interpretations of the Bible, the energy rubbed off and how! Multiple
tracts of the movement took shape in South India giving way to two critical approaches- the
methodology of education as reflection, and the participation of people in their own well
being. Her personal journey of encountering first Marxism, and then Feminism found
meaning in the application of these concepts to her work with the fishing communities. This
brought home a ‘materialist reading of the Bible’ and ‘Marxist social analysis’; cross cutting
it all, was of course, a feminist lens. What awed her, was how the meaning of texts can
transform completely by its interpretation and by extension, the interpreter. The
understanding of casteism layered it all, lending a new understanding of the bodily smells of
the fishing business, and the political organisation of the communities around that.
Sowjanya Tamalapakula took the threads forward with her discussion of the understanding of
caste in Hindiusm, and the possibilities of equitable realisation which Navayana Buddhism
offers. She started her narrative by giving the example of the Jogini system organised on the
basis of caste, which lies at the other end of the Devadasi system, leaving the Jogini devoid of
a livelihood. She also offered compelling thought work to the audience by explaining the
applicability of Brahmanical norms of sexuality, purity, and morality, on Dalit women, who
fall prey to upper caste patriarchal violence. Interesting also was her description of the
pervasiveness of Brahmanical marriage sanctity on all castes’ marriages. She underscored the
relationship between gender and caste by discussion the possibilities of dismantling

endogamy through queer engagements. Next in line in the discussion was the nature of
Buddhism itself. Sowjanya described Buddhism as the religion of ideals and the soul, instead
of ritual and sacrifice. Dhamma being open to all, and good and bad acts being a internal
function in Buddhism, Sowjanya discussed how this could offer a way of thinking of
patriarchal, sexual blame differently. She also illustrated this with the stories of Amrapali,
Angulimala, and Prakriti. 

The discussion was tied in beautifully by Dr. Chakravarty, and the audience questions. Dr
Chakravarty brought in pertinent questions regarding a woman’s religious choices, and the
extent to which a complete renunciation of a religion is even possible, given the community
of beliefs religious patriarchy functions with. While the speakers agreed and advocated
personal spiritual paths, there was a deep understanding of the multiple structures which may
and indeed, do hinder this fluidity. In fact, aside from differences in religious belief systems,
communities created by religious affiliation may be desirable as a support system for women.
She also questioned the distance there is to travel between the ideals of equitable religious
beliefs, and their manifestation in everyday lives governed by existing structures of inequity. 
In this section, Sowjanya shared that the Bible expresses contradictory views on women as it
was a compilation of several writings, she condemned the claims of absence of patriarchy in
Dalits by the Male-centric Dalit movement, and also discussed the perpetration of rituals and
institutions in Buddhism. Introducing Ramabai into the discussion, Dr Chakravarty also
brought in the movement of a feminist consciousness from one religion to another, talking
about the fight against inequality as a struggle against institutional authority rather than a
particular religious belief.

Some of the interesting themes that came of the Q&A session were: the politics and
possibilities of religious conversion for a woman, the translation of a feminist consciousness
to a religious one within and across religions, and the difference between the institution of
religion, and the community it offers. A thought that Nalini Nayak left us all with is worth a
mention: how are these overlapping ideas communicated to the next generation? How does
feminist practice of religion in a stratified context pass from one generation to the next? 
These discussions do not by any means offer all the answers, but they do take a step forward
in unfolding multiple tapestries, and finding similar threads across persons, communities, and




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.