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  • Writer's pictureMuneer Peerzada

Harmonizing gender equity within the tapestry of South Asian religious milieus

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Throughout history, religion and religious institutions have been implicated in the perpetuation of gender discrimination and sexism, prompting a critical analysis of their impact. These institutions have influenced the very fabric of the South Asian socio-cultural context and hence play a major role in upholding the norms of gender inequity.

Selective interpretations of religious texts have served to legitimize the subordination of women and reinforce patriarchal structures that limit their access to positions of leadership and authority. Consequently, systemic gender inequality has persisted, supported by practices such as forced marriages and the denial of reproductive rights. Additionally, religious institutions have exerted control over women’s bodies and sexuality, enforcing notions of purity while reinforcing male dominance. This exclusion and discrimination extend to transgender individuals and the LGBTQ+ community, exacerbating their marginalization and subjecting them to denial of rights, condemnation, and transphobic attitudes that contribute to mental health struggles.

In the context of South Asia, religious institutions perpetuate and reinforce traditional gender norms, reflecting male-dominated hierarchies present in various religious traditions. Positions of authority, such as priests, imams, gurus, and religious scholars, predominantly remain occupied by men, thereby reinforcing notions of male superiority and control over religious knowledge and practices.

The limited participation and representation of women within religious institutions contribute to the perpetuation of traditional gender norms. Women face barriers in accessing leadership roles, decision-making bodies, and positions of authority, which in turn reinforces the perception that their role in interpreting and transmitting religious teachings is of lesser importance.

The absence of women in leadership positions within religious institutions further perpetuates traditional gender norms and expectations, effectively devaluing women’s voices, perspectives, and contributions in the religious sphere. This reinforces gender hierarchies and stifles alternative interpretations and progressive approaches that challenge traditional gender roles.

Religious institutions hold significant influence over societal expectations regarding gender roles and behaviours, often functioning as moral authorities that shape community norms and values. When these institutions reinforce patriarchal structures, they perpetuate traditional gender roles on a broader social scale, impacting various aspects of people’s lives, including family dynamics, education, employment, and social interactions.

Nevertheless, resistance and advocacy for greater inclusion of women in religious institutions can be observed. Women’s movements and feminist theologians have emerged, calling for equal opportunities for participation, representation, and leadership within religious organizations. These initiatives aim to challenge patriarchal structures and promote a more inclusive interpretation of religious texts.

Within South Asian religious contexts, patriarchal norms intertwine with numerous religious traditions, shaping power dynamics and gender relations while significantly influencing women’s autonomy and agency. Traditional interpretations of religious teachings often reinforce and legitimize male authority, perpetuating gender inequality.

Despite these prevailing norms, efforts to challenge and subvert patriarchal power dynamics exist within religious traditions. Feminist theologians and activists critically interpret religious texts and teachings, presenting alternative narratives that advocate for gender equality, justice, and the intrinsic worth of every individual. Such reinterpretations seek to dismantle patriarchal structures and create spaces for women’s empowerment within religious contexts.

It is crucial to recognize that gender oppression intersects with other forms of oppression, particularly for women from marginalized communities who may face additional discrimination based on factors such as caste, class, ethnicity, and religious minority status. These intersections exacerbate power imbalances and necessitate an intersectional approach to comprehensively address the complexities of their lived realities.

In South Asian religious communities, the emergence of resistance and alternative narratives that challenge traditional gender roles signifies a significant development. It reflects the agency and activism of individuals and groups working towards gender equality, as they contest the rigid gender constructions dictated by religiously motivated and justified patriarchal norms.

Feminist movements in South Asia have played a crucial role in challenging patriarchal norms in religious contexts and advocating for women’s rights, autonomy, and equality.

These movements recognize the intersection of gender with other forms of oppression such as caste, class, and ethnicity, emphasizing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to promote gender justice. Their activism has led to legal reforms, policy changes, increased access to education and healthcare, and greater visibility and recognition of women’s rights.

Feminist organizations in South Asia address a wide range of issues to advance gender equality. They advocate for addressing violence against Dalit women in India, transgender rights in Pakistan, gender-based violence in conflict-affected areas, and women’s political participation in Bangladesh. These organizations work tirelessly to advocate for justice, protection, and empowerment while highlighting the intersectionality of various social factors.

Taliban rule in Afghanistan began on 15 August 2021 and has led to a series of human rights violations against women and girls, resulting in increasing marginalisation and gender inequality. Women are denied cabinet posts and the Ministry of Women's Affairs has been abolished, preventing women's political participation. The Taliban have imposed restrictive measures such as banning girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade and prohibiting women from working in most professions outside the home. These restrictions have intensified over time. Women are forced to cover their faces in public and to travel long distances without a male escort. (Human Rights Watch & UN Women, 2022)

Taliban policies in Ghazni province have created significant barriers to women and girls' access to health services and education. Since taking control of the city on 12 August 2021, the Taliban have restricted freedom of movement, expression, and assembly, further exacerbating the already difficult situation for Afghan women and girls. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has further exacerbated the challenges faced by women and girls through loss of income, rising prices, the suspension of aid deliveries and a liquidity crisis. (Human Rights Watch & UN Women, 2022)

The mental health consequences of Taliban rule are profound. People suffer from trauma, fear, insecurity, and a loss of identity. Social isolation and restricted activities have further contributed to their distress and sense of loss.

In Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) has been highly influential in advocating for women’s rights and gender equality. Through policy advocacy, capacity building, and community mobilization, AWN challenges discriminatory practices and empowers Afghan women. Their work has resulted in increased awareness of women’s issues, improved access to education and healthcare, enhanced political participation, and the overall empowerment of Afghan women.

The situation in Afghanistan under Taliban control poses significant challenges for organizations working on gender, education, and transgender rights. As the Taliban has a history of criminalizing basic human rights, it is highly probable that these organizations would be banned or hindered from functioning. Given the requirement for registration with the government, the Taliban's control may impede their operations. Moreover, international organizations face substantial security concerns in such a volatile environment. These circumstances create obstacles that can lead to the decline and discouragement of the important work undertaken by these organizations and activists.

The Bangladesh Women’s Health Coalition (BWHC) is another pioneering organization in South Asia. Established in 1980, BWHC focuses on Sexual and Reproductive Health Services and Rights (SRH&R) for underprivileged women and adolescents. They emphasize an inclusive gender approach, community participation, and collaboration with the government and other organizations. BWHC has achieved notable results in family planning, mother, and child healthcare, and addressing issues like obstetric fistula and safe abortion.

In Pakistan, Aware Girls is a young women-led organization dedicated to women’s empowerment, gender equality, and peace. Their mission is to empower young women, advocate for their rights, and build their capacity to drive women’s empowerment and social change. They work on a range of issues including sexual and reproductive health rights, gender equality in employment and governance, and promoting equity, justice, peace, non-violence, and tolerance.

In Sri Lanka, the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC) is a non-governmental organization that aims to achieve gender justice through education, research, consciousness raising, capacity building, and advocacy. They disseminate knowledge on gender issues, empower marginalized women, advocate for gender policies, and expand their collection of publications and research materials.

Activism by LGBTQ+ people in South Asian religious communities has made significant strides in challenging rigid gender norms. In India, for example, the LGBTQ+ community has actively campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and fought legal battles. The landmark case Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India in 2018 led to the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised consensual same-sex relationships.

In addition, LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies have organised pride parades and events in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, openly celebrating their identities and demanding recognition and acceptance in religious spaces.

These events serve as powerful platforms to challenge heteronormative assumptions and promote dialogue about different gender identities and sexual orientations.

In Nepal, the LGBTQ+ movement has achieved important milestones in the area of legal recognition and protection. The country’s 2015 constitution explicitly guarantees the rights of sexual and gender minorities, including the recognition of a third gender category. This recognition has paved the way for greater visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons in religious spaces, challenging traditional gender norms and promoting inclusivity.

In addition, various LGBTQ+ organisations in South Asia, such as the Naz Foundation in India and the Blue Diamond Society in Nepal, have been active in promoting LGBTQ+ rights in religious contexts and conducting awareness campaigns. They conduct workshops, seminars, and awareness programmes to combat prevailing prejudices and promote dialogue and understanding.

The above examples highlight the important role that LGBTQ+ activism plays in South Asian religious communities in challenging entrenched gender norms, advocating for acceptance and inclusion, and demanding the freedom to express different gender identities and sexual orientations in religious spaces. These efforts have sparked reflection and discussion within religious communities about the need to reinterpret religious teachings in ways that are affirming, and inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons.

In response to traditional patriarchal interpretations, progressive religious views have emerged as an alternative in South Asian religious traditions. Scholars, theologians, and religious leaders have critically examined and challenged oppressive and discriminatory interpretations of religious texts through feminist and critical readings. These alternative interpretations emphasise the principles of compassion, love and inclusivity within religious teachings and seek to create spaces where marginalised groups, including women and LGBTQ+ persons, are welcomed and empowered.

However, within religious communities, there is still resistance to alternative narratives that challenge established gender roles.

Conservative and traditionalist groups may see such movements as a threat to established religious authority and cultural traditions. As a result, there may be resistance to change and exclusion of individuals and groups working for gender equality. In some cases, religious institutions suppress dissenting voices or marginalise those who challenge patriarchal norms. This resistance highlights the complexity of the ongoing struggle for gender equality in religious contexts.

Moreover, the intersection of gender with caste, class and ethnicity shapes the resistance and narratives that prevail in religious communities. Marginalised groups face discrimination and exclusion within these intersecting structures. In South Asia, the link between religion and gender identity is influenced by factors such as caste, class, and ethnicity. Dalit women, transgender persons and ethnic or religious minorities face increased discrimination due to these intersections. The caste system has a significant impact on social and religious dynamics and hinders Dalit women's agency. Within religious communities, class differences intersect with gender and reinforce prevailing power structures. Ethnic and religious minority status poses further challenges to the agency and inclusion of marginalised people. To address gender inequality within religious communities, it is important to recognise the importance of intersectionality, as this requires an understanding of power dynamics and structural inequality.

In order to strive for gender justice, it is essential to challenge the deeply rooted beliefs and systems that perpetuate the eternal cycle of subjugation. It is no longer acceptable that we subscribe to a narrative that reduces the value and potential of women to mere extensions of male authority. It is time to free ourselves from the confines of a distorted notion of femininity that hinders self-actualisation and locates redemption outside of ourselves. Instead, let us forge a future where all people, regardless of gender, are equal and empowered to create their own destiny and realise themselves on their own terms.

In this transformative journey of emancipation, it is important to recognise that the true essence of our collective existence lies not in trying to understand each other, but in wholeheartedly accepting and honouring the profound diversity that enriches our world. By acknowledging the beauty of each person’s inherent uniqueness, we lay the foundation for a society where every voice is heard, every identity celebrated and every spirit valued. Let us set out together into a realm of inclusivity, compassion, and recognition, where the transformative power of acceptance paves the way for a more magnificent and harmonious existence.


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