Saath – Saath: An Interfaith Dialogue for Gender Equity from the Lens of Scriptures of Different Religions

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By Linda Soelberg, DanChurchAid and Side by Side Intern

The relationship between religion and gender equity is complex. Religion plays a vital role in shaping cultural, social, economic, and political norms around the world. The status of women and men in society are often rooted in the way religious scriptures have been interpreted by the people in positions of power – positions, that are predominately occupied by men. Religious scriptures  can be misinterpreted or translated inaccurately, which can result in discrimination within the society.

Faith-based organisations and institutions are among the biggest, most established, and well-resourced social networks around the world. Furthermore, faith leaders and faith actors are recognised as having strong and powerful voices in their communities. As these reach every corner of the world, they play a crucial role in challenging the patriarchal structures, beliefs and practices that perpetuate gender inequality and discrimination. Thus, faith actors when engaged in structural transformation can become agents of social change to achieve gender equity and justice.

The “Saath – Saath” webinar, was hosted by the National Council of Churches in India, to create an interfaith dialogue on gender equity from the lens of religious scriptures, by inviting nine panellists (listed below), each representing different religions in India. The purpose was to explore and understand different religious scriptures in India and bring together faith leaders to become co-partners in promoting gender equity within the country.

At the start of the webinar, Rev. Asir Ebenezer, General Secretary, National Council of Churches in India, shared how the purpose of the webinar was to: “seek to understand what each scripture says about gender equity and GBV. And how they speak about the entire spectrum of gender identities beyond binaries.”.

Concerning discrimination, he made it clear, that “No religion subscribes to discrimination. No religion subscribes to inequality. If there is a discrimination and inequality based on a religion, it is only the reading of the human persons into that religious tradition.”

The first panellist, Ms. D. Resmha, representing Jainism, started by introducing the main beliefs of the religion, and stated that the universal laws within Jainism work without any prejudges, bias, and favouritism. Furthermore, she explained how the concept of Jainism, builds on a belief of non-violence, kindness, compassion, and fearlessness. Concerning gender equity, she made it clear that the roles of women had been predominant in the Jain system. She concluded her presentation with the following:

The heart and soul of every religion is it’s spirituality. And the fact that we face such difficult times, being any kind of discrimination, being not only gender. All these are happening because it has moved away from its school of spirituality. If we can find the spirituality again and bring it into the religion again, all these biases and discrimination will automatically disappear, because spirituality is the purest form. And religion was introduced to deliver the spiritual life – the role of the religion.”

The need to re-interpret the religious scriptures and understand the concept of gender equity within these, was further underlined by the second panellist, Ms. Ashmeet Kaur Bilkhu, who represented Sikhism: “The binary that was viewed in the scriptures, was being evolved in the rehitnama [codes of conduct for Sikhs]. The concept of gender neutrality as before, was becoming more and more gendered in the rehitnamas. So, there is a conflict between the rehitnamas and the scriptures. There is a need for younger women to take a critical lens and understand the religious Sikhs texts.”.

The third panellist, Ms. Uzma Naheed, representing Islam, stated that within the Quran, women also have a clear appearance, and are not left behind, as it has sometimes been interpreted by society. Ending her presentation, she came up with a proposal for the other panellists to forming a board or a network “for all sisters of faith, to establish a national forum to work for women, against the discrimination women face.”

The fourth panellist, Dr A K Merchant, representing the Baha’i religion, stated that the equality of men and women is a fundamental bahá’í principal, which is explicit in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh (the founder of bahá’í faith): “Women and men are being and will always be equal in the sight of god.”. Merchant underlined, that in some countries where bahá’í is practiced, women are discriminated against, but he argued that, it is caused by the state and the local cultures and their interpretations of the religious scriptures. Thus, he made it clear that the discrimination has nothing to do with bahá’í religion, as bahá’í teachings state that women are not inferior to men and should not be subordinated to men. Merchant concluded his presentation, with some proposed lines of action, one being, to “develop a non-patriarchal multi-religious narrative, that can help combat the patriarchal narrative that currently dominates”.

The fifth panellist, Ms Sribala Mylavarapu, representing Hinduism, also highlighted that there is a tremendous dignity given to women and that gender equity is by nature inherent in Hinduism. Within the religion, some of the highest goddesses are feminine and in some parts of Hinduism, matriarchal theology is found. In her presentation, she stated that God is called (that one) and is thereby gender neutral, which transcends the barrier of gender. She also concluded on the need for re-interpreting the scriptures, to achieve gender equity within society: “changing the percolated mindset of the young minds on gender inequality by giving the right interpretation of the scriptures.”.

The sixth panellist, Mr Ankit Bhupati, presented gender justice in Hinduism, from a feminine lens. During his presentation, he questioned the gender roles, identities, and expressions within the religion. When presenting gender roles, he stated that: “Gender roles in Hinduism are what person(s) decides and can be versatile”. He agreed with the other panellists on, religion often being excused as the cause of discrimination and underlined the need to understand the religious scriptures correctly. His concluding remark was to make religion an ally rather than an enemy.

The seventh panellist, Dr Vihutoli Kinny, representing baptism, was not present at the webinar, but had recorded a video. When reflecting on gender equity, she referred to the primordial religion, and stated that: “The equality enjoyed by the women in the traditional society, can serve as a paradigm towards the long struggle for gender equality.”. She thereby agreed and shared the positive views of the other panellists, on religious scriptures perspectives on gender equity.

The eight panellist, Tashi Choedup, representing Buddhism, started his presentation by clarifying that within Buddhism, the principal is to see all creatures, including humans, as being equally without any discrimination. He underlined that: “This essentially means that there should not be bias, attachment and hatred.” Choedup furthermore stated that the religious scriptures are normally seen as a guide and not the ultimate authority and that there is a need to “Recognise, that religion as a manmade institution, has been discriminating at many levels, across history”.

He pointed out that this cannot be ignored, and that we need to accept that this is the reality. Thus, he agreed with the other panellists on religious scriptures being misinterpreted. He concluded by underlining the importance of distinguishing between faith and religion: “Religion needs faith and religion is founded on the bases of faith. But faith in itself does not need religion and is thereby free and independent of the religion.”

The ninth and last panellist, Rev. M Jyothi Sunder, representing Christianity, started by acknowledging all panellists for bringing out the positive perspectives of gender equity in their different religious scriptures. She made it clear, that within the biblical scriptures, human beings are all equal and that Adam is a generic term (inclusive of male and female), meaning all humankind. She underlined, that within the bible, Eve was created as a suitable helper to Adam, which is bringing in the aspect of gender equity. This understanding of Adam and Eve as being equals, has been left out in the societal interpretations of the bible and the misunderstanding has been accepted by large amounts of people. She concluded, underlining the importance to: “Bring out the truth behind these interpretations, as they need to be reclaimed and recovered, and that is what feminism is doing today. Bringing out the embedded gender equity in the bible.”.

The host of the webinar, Rev. Jyoti Singh Pillai, Executive Secretary, NCCI Women’s concerns concluded the webinar as follows; “Today we got an eye-opener that every scripture is proved to be full of quotes which are gender forming. (…) The scripts were showing equity, but the societal interpretations have created gender inequity.”. She proposed to meet again in another webinar, where there would be an open interfaith discussion on how to challenge the status quo and bring in the crucial role of religious actors and faith-based organisations in delivering the right interpretations of the different religious scriptures to the Indian society. The webinar ended with a mutual consensus on the idea of establishing an inter-religious network, where these issues can be further discussed.

The nine panellists:

  1. Ms D Reshma is working as an Assistant Professor at SSS, Shasun Jain College. She is a champion of the gender justice and has a special way on interacting with people of all ages.
  2. Ms Ashmeet Kaur Bilkhu has done her MPhil in “Women and Gender Studies”. She writes on issues of gender politics and culture.
  3. Ms Uzma Naheed is a member of Indian Muslim Personal Law Board and is a champion on Gender Justice. She has worked tirelessly for justice for women rights from the Islamic context.
  4. Dr A K Merchant is the national trustee Cum Secretary, Lotus Temple. A Doctor by Profession and a champion on topics like culture, religion and environment.
  5. Ms Sribala Mylavarapu is a teacher of Sanskrit. She is staff at HMI, Hyderabad. Her research topic is “the role of women in reconciliation in Faith Engagements”.
  6. Mr Ankit Bhupati is a human rights activist and founder of Queer Hindu Alliance. He is a devout Hindu who finds his soul in Bhakti.
  7. Dr Vihutoli Kinny is a lecturer, at the department of religion, at Nito Theological College, Nagaland. Her doctoral research was on: Social relevance of the religious thought of Swami Vivekananda today with special reference to practical Vedanta.
  8. Tashi Choedup is a Queer Buddhist, monastic Buddhist philosopher and volunteering in Bodhgaya, Bihar.
  9. Rev M Jyothi Sunder has been a minister in Medak Diocese, CSI for 20 years. She did her MA in women Studies and is also the President of the Association of Theological Trained Women in India (ATTWI).

The webinar was organised by: National Council of Churches in India, together with Act Church of Sweden.

Link to the webinar   |   Concept Note

Posted by: Side by Side | Monday, October 26th, 2020
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