A Quill Pen


Dharma's Daughters

by Sara S. Mitter

I think the most puzzling new concept for me in this week's reading was the often-mentioned but never explained need for women to marry. Why was it so necessary for 17 year old Gouri to marry - and yet she then promptly left her husband? Why was 21 year old Tanya still unmarried? What do the married women fear from unmarried women? Do the men fear unmarried women too?

Also, I'd be interested in discovering both how upper class Indian women can simply not see lower class women (as shown by Vimla on the train)... and in exploring what it is that I, as a comfortable middle class woman, do not see in my own culture. Furthermore, I'd be curious to see if that selective blindness is tied to a particular chronological age (since Kamla saw the lower class women), or perhaps to a different cultural viewpoint. Is that part of what "westernization" does, or was it merely the curiosity of youth? Will Kamla eventually lose the ability to "see" lower class women?

I found the inability to "connect" between the upper and lower class women rather sad. It is disheartening to see women being the instruments of their own continued suppression, when if they worked together they could accomplish so much more. This situation is not confined just to India, either - the same problem exists in America too, between women of color and white women. Unfortunately I'm not really sure how this could be remedied. However, I'm quite interested to see if religion could be used to accomplish this goal. After all, it's certainly been used frequently to keep barriers between women up.


From the Margins of Hindu Marriages: Essays on Gender, Religion, and Culture

edited by Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright [paper I]

This week's reading was the first 4 chapters of From the Margins of Hindu Marriages. I understand the concept of reviewing the hegemonic norm by approaching it through the discourse of marginality. However, for all that the varieties of marginal discourse presented a wide spectrum of voices, I still found myself depressedly wondering what the point was - the hegemonic ideal being reviewed seemed just too big and too immovable for it to be understood on any terms but its own. Are these voices from the margin really contributing to the understanding of the hegemonic concept of Hindu marriage? Or are they merely sad little wails from the tiny and un-developed 'wilderness' of counter-hegemonic thought, doomed to be crushed and ignored by the culture's powerful and overwhelming concept of what marriage should be?

Indeed, the strongest impression I received from these readings was the hopelessness of attempting to defy or thwart the inward-turned, closed, self-supporting structure of Indian culture. Is it really possible to only re-interpret part of it, as the bhakti all attempted to do -- and all failed to accomplish? Or in order to re-define one's self, must one defy all of it? Must one deny one's birthright and heritage and life-long training? How is lasting social change to be accomplished here? Changing the laws certainly isn't doing it. Obviously some social change is desired by some subsets of the people, or we wouldn't have the examples delineated in the book.

I think what impressed me the most about these readings was the lack of agency most women seem to have today. True, they individually negotiate for small triumphs. However, ultimately most of these triumphs are inter-personal, and of limited duration.

From the Margins of Hindu Marriages: Essays on Gender, Religion, and Culture

edited by Lindsey Harlan and Paul B. Courtright [paper II]

For me, the most puzzling new concept in this week's reading (the remaining chapters of this book) concerned the ubiquity and totality of marriage as the sum total and ultimate goal for women. I realize this may seem judgmental, as if I am trying to create the Other through personal distancing, but I'd like to think that is not the case. I'm trying to understand a point of view, a mind set so all encompassing that I despair sometimes of ever being able to mentally encompass it.

Consider: the chapters concern women on the margin -- the "jungli rani," the satimata, Mira Bai, and speculations on how divorce and adultery are managed within the culture. All of these discourses reflect resistance to the classic 'women's roles' in Indian society... and yet in some fashion, all of them seem unable to move beyond the role of wife as a woman's ultimate goal.

None of the women in these readings really changes the perceptions of what a woman should be or want. The marginal woman still finds her location within the samskara of marriage. Frequently they are the breadwinners of the family. Yet none of them have moved beyond the marriage ritual. The ability to do so, the path to take, to be more than just a married person is there in the culture before them. Why are none of these women interested in emulating men, for example, in order to gain for themselves, both as individuals and as a group, more autonomy?

I realize the society itself has many barriers to such an act of resistance. Hegemonic thought is massively difficult to counter, precisely because it is believed to be everyday 'common sense.' Yet surely somewhere someone has tried this path, the path of self-autonomy? Or has this already happened, and been carefully suppressed? I find this a difficult and disturbing question, and I'd love to discuss it more in class in an effort to understand why this is so.

Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics

by Carol Lee Flinders

This week's readings covered Enduring Grace. Unfortunately (in a fashion) it was clearly and carefully written, and after reading it I was not left with any outstanding questions or puzzlement. The need to become closer to god, the need to find one's inner voice, and the need to see god as ungendered love all make very good sense to me.

If I had to compose a question or discussion topic from this week's reading I'd probably check to see if everyone understood that for these women, physical enclosure meant freedom.

Alternatively, if I were going to cover previous readings also, I'd probably try relating the themes covered in Enduring Grace back upon the two previous books we'd read. For example, each of the Christian mystics seemed to feel that god was approachable only when they could dedicate themselves entirely to that quest. There did not seem to be an equivalent of "doing one's duty" as a wife and mother, as an acceptable way of becoming one with god.

It might be interesting to compare and contrast Hinduism and Christianity to review what caused this difference in attitude amongst the women we've read about. Hinduism, for example, allows for multiple lives and multiple efforts at increasing one's dharma. With Christianity, however, one seems to have only one chance to make it to heaven. The impression one occasionally gets is one shouldn't waste that one shot at eternal bliss.

Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretations

by Barbara Freyer Stowasser [paper I]

I found this week's readings (the initial chapters of the book) fascinating. However, I was ultimately left with a feeling of dismay, due to perceiving the same pattern repeated again and again in the religions we are (admittedly somewhat cursorily) exploring.

The pattern seems to go as follows: religious texts are written, where men and women are seen as, if not equals, at least as partners or as complementary individuals. However, somewhere along the line, women become the despised and abused scapegoat for all man's inequities and perceived injustices, and as a consequence are re-situated into the category of dependent, subordinate, or even simply property.

Thus we have Hinduism with its view of women as baby-making dependents of men, who are considered their lords and gods; Judaism with its view of women as the objects through which a man has a large and prosperous family, with (initially) as many women as he can marry, much the same way his rams and bulls do within his flocks; Christianity with women as the architects of man's fall from grace, as well as the guilty agents of original sin; and Islam with its view of women as deceitful partners of Iblis, or Satan, and cursed by god with moral, mental, and physical deficiency.

I guess if I had to ask a question in class it would run something like this: Why does this horrible metamorphosis happen? Why do men do this to women? Why did men have to work so hard, to create so many institutions, that were partially dedicated to justifying and enforcing this crushing burden on women? What is so terrible, what do they so fear, that women -- and by extension sometimes sexuality and even genitalia -- are viewed with such horror and loathing?

To my experience, sex has been mostly a pleasurable experience. How has this pleasure been so subverted? Why are women so firmly tied in the male mind to both sexuality and evil? It is men who are supposedly unable to contain or control themselves in response to women -- so how can they thus justify the oppression and obliteration of women and women's identities?

Unfortunately, this leads me to a final question, one for which (like the others) I do not yet have an answer. True, most religious texts seem to have some basis of belief in women as individual and worthwhile beings. But, considering the crushing weight of millennia of hateful and repugnant thought on the nature of women -- thought which frequently dominates religious exegesis more strongly than the original texts -- is there really any place for women in any of the larger and more institutionalized religions?

In fact, is there really any possibility of reclaiming anything of value to women from these antiquated and obsolete modes of thought? Or would it be healthier, in the long run, for women to simply and completely deny the applicability of institutionalized religion to their lives?


Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretations

by Barbara Freyer Stowasser [paper II]

This week's readings finished the last chapters of Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. In it, Stowasser notes the lack of women or naming of women in the Qur'an, but also notes the reverence that the few mentioned are frequently given. She then examines several (possibly all) the women the Qur'an mentions, both 'good' women as well as 'bad.'

What makes her book a fascinating read is her various interpretations of each woman's story. She gives a straightforward Qur'anic version of the tale, then adds both medieval and modern interpretations of the moralities and teachings each sura embodies for the Islamic community. Thus one can track a (heavily generalizing on my part) apparently chronologically linked trend towards conservatism in the teachings concerning women today.

The question I was left with, after reading this book, wasn't so much about the women of the suras so much as about the Qur'an itself, and the Qur'anic community which it informs. In order for teachings about women to change, to become more conservative and restrictive, there must be a privileged class of individuals who have some exclusivity in the reading and interpretation of the Qur'an. Yet there are inexpensive, mass-produced, printed versions of the Qur'an available in the world today, just as there are of the Bible.

Therefore I am left with a puzzling thought. Apparently there is access to the Qur'an available to all, through these mass-produced editions -- and yet many of the Qur'anic interpretations of proper behavior for women (like those of the Bible) seem to be growing steadily more conservative.

The only way I can see for this to happen is if people aren't actually reading the holy books, but are instead assuming as correct the interpretations of others... and my question becomes, 'Why do people let others think for them -- especially when it harms them to do so?'


Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory

by Fatima Mernissi

This week's readings covered Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory. Mernissi recognizes and clearly states some of the problems that today face the Islamic Arab nations in their attempts to become full, contributing members of the world community. She does so by reprinting various essays she's written over approximately a decade.

In the essays she does an excellent job of 'constructive' critique; she identifies the problem, as well as the historical reasoning behind its existence, then gives concrete, useful, and realizable suggestions to correct the problem. Unfortunately, although I looked, I did not find much in the way of her recognition of public (as opposed to personal) progress made. Thus, overall, I'd have to say this was a rather sad book.

I think, if I were to ask a question in class about this reading, I'd have to ask the same question Mernissi herself asks in her essay Women's Work, "Why do we remain limited to sex-role models that are heavily dependent upon our medieval past, instead of creating ones that would help us dynamize our perceptions of ourselves as sexual beings? (73)"

This is as pertinent a question for American women today as it is for Mernissi's countrywomen. Consider: like Islam, modern-day Christianity is based more upon medieval interpretations of women as second-class citizens (when they are even considered individuals rather than property) than the actual words and teachings of their main prophet.

When will women decide the medieval mindset is simply not applicable to modern-day politics? When will we refuse the concept of woman/sexuality as being synonymous with lawlessness/evil? And finally, when will all of us realize that a society based on the oppression of a portion of its members is a society where none are truly free?


Other Excellent, Recommended Books from this Course

Fundamentalism and Gender
edited by John Stratton Hawley

When Women Were Priests
by Karen Jo Torjesen