Last few days saw the nation disturbed over the rape and eventual death of the 23 year old woman. I do not want to call her any name as names like Nirbhaya and Damini are result of a projection of a society who is guilty. I find the practice very patronizing and will dare to draw a parallel of Gandhiji’s attempt to call Dalits as Harijans. Well that is not my point. There have been response from various sections of the society and this collective contemplation has been useful. But what bothers me is the response of the so called religious fraternity which has been appalling to say the least.
Everyone knows where the problem lies. It is not rocket science to detect the problem. But the trouble is at the stage of suggesting a solution. One may disagree with me and I will respect that, but religion (in particular the one that I represent) with its deeply patriarchal moorings is struggling to overcome its inherent constructed notions of woman. The notion of purity, chastity, virginity has made its response to crimes related to women outdated and bizarre. This inherent tension I encounter everyday as a priest. So I would think that it is a starting point for religion and particularly the church is to get in dialogue about rape and other abuses. There is no point hushing about it. Solution to this problem is not telling woman how to dress or what time to move out of the house. These are reactions and the prevalent attitude to domesticate women. It is as bizarre as advising the drivers not to drive on highways to avoid accidents. (I know it is a bad analogy but nothing can beat the advices that are floating in the air for free.) For beginners I do not know what the solution is. So maybe that is the starting point where we are struggling together to find a solution where as a church we can counter the inherent contradictions that assumes the inferiority of women and externally the need to counter the trends of commodification of women in media and popular culture.
Right from the time I was a child I never asked a question that why women do not enter the Altar. Why women are not priests? It was assumed that they are not fit for it. Where did I get thismessage from? It was formed in my regular attendance of the Holy Communion that I observed and participated. I owe it to my friend Anil Varghese who made me realize this inherent contradiction. I was fortunate to have studied in seminary when Rev Dr Abraham Kuruvilla was the Principal. He is a role model who affirms the liturgy and at the same time has fought in many forums for the rights of women. I have studied from the seminary that theologically we have no problem for women to enter the Altar. But I have heard people say we are culturally not ready. This is escapism. My main concern is that keeping the women away from the main place of the community life is a strong message. We are also party to propound the theory of inferiority of women. Why I insist this so much is because of the centrality of worship in community and its symbolic significance. But I feel I lack the courage to do anything in this regard which makes my writing very hypocritical. But I have to accept this weakness of mine to grow from here.
Somewhere when I was a teen I heard many sermons that just disengaged with popular media and movies. It was something bad and not to be engaged with. But like any other teen I watched movies and ads and absorbed all the stereotypes and prejudices propounded by it. So when I went to college or interacted with my fellow friends all they seemed to know is that women can be easily convinced, her no is a yes, one needs to keep persisting. There was no tool for me to counter this. Luckily we are coming out of the disengagement position with media and culture. But there is also a trend to which I belong to, that professes of seeing just choice movies of intellectual genre. Ashis Nandy, a social psychologist helped me overcome this. In his writings he uses cricket and Bollywood movies to propound his theories. There are many who critique him for that. His explanation is very simple. If one just sees idealistic movies made by Satyajit Ray or Akira Kurusowa or Majid Majidi, one is in a zone devoid of popular stereotypes and labels found in popular cinema and soaps. The idea of masculinity ,virility, commodification of women and sexuality are in movies made for the masses. If you do not engage with such movies, you are not engaging with the popular cultural stereotypes. These stereotypes are easily consumed by all of us. Rev Sunil George Mathew is one among the clergy who urges us to engage with Social and Popular media. Taking a cue from him in a camp in Delhi we conducted a Gender sensitivity workshop where 4 popular ads of famous brand were shown. All these ads showed in a subtle way that women can be easily be convinced, her no is a yes, women and desire are closely connected, girl friends are demanding and behind money and so on. Helping the youths and children to overcome set stereotypes of gender roles by equipping them to identify it and critique it is a huge role of the religious institutions and for this one needs engagement and dialogue with the younger generation. One needs to take them very seriously. We are to engage in the process from being passive consumers to producers of meanings. Moreover there are many things you learn from them that compels you to change your attitude.
All the above musings were naïve and may be uninformed. But my teachers made me believe that my opinion, no matter how foolish, matters. I have written this out of deep conviction of being a Disciple of Jesus who had highest regard for the dignity of women and who easily transcended the cultural moorings about women of his times. He engaged with everyone and through engagement and relationship he transformed people. This writing is my form of engagement where one can agree with me, disagree with me and also transform me. Moreover this writing was also a note to me, a dialogue with myself that exposes my contradictions.
Let me quote Philip Yancey as a disclaimer
“As one who writes and speaks publicly about my faith, I have learned to accept that I am a ‘clay vessel’ whom God may use when i feel unworthy or hypocritical. I can give a speech or preach a sermon that was authentic and alive when i composed it, even though as I deliver it, my mind is replaying an argument I just had or nursing an injury I received from a friend. I can write what I believe to be true even while painfully aware of my own inability to attain what I urge others toward.”
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church