Walls in the Cathedral

Womens Hockey Team

As I write this piece ,what lingers in my mind is the picture of the Indian women’s hockey team entering the women’s hockey semi finals for the first time in history even though they eventually lost there. It is interesting turn of events in a country where women are generally denied as many opportunities as men that so many women have captured attention. The composition of the hockey team is also telling as it has a fair representation of tribals and equally interestingly a large number of players from Haryana. Haryana is considered among the most regressive and patriarchal among Indian states with its abysmal sex ratio, the subject of global discussion and even the impetus for a law that bans the pre natal determination of there sex of the foetus through ultra sound, something that was very common in the state.

But all is not well in the church either , though theBible unambiguously teach that both men and women are created in the image of God and imbued with his character. But it is not these passages of scripture that are cited in the day to day life of the church. Rather it is the other passages that cite that Jesus only had male apostles, Paul had only male companions and so on. But then Jesus mostly traveled on foot and in a short radius of distance and Paul only used ships to travel.

Neither used the phone or the internet or any mother convenience that anyone will take for granted today. But this piece is not about the hierarchy of the church and how it is set up and how it is set up and all of that. There are institutions within the Church that are staying these issues who are more competent to look into these matters. My concern is about the brick and mortar christian who fill up the churches and parishes Sunday after Sunday – how is it among them ?

Sometimes churches can be so theological in their reflections that we forget that the church is a human institution as much as divine. All its members are human beings and therefore the church is as patriarchal as the society in which it exists. Obviously therefore gender disparity exists in all faiths and is not unique to Christianity. The emergence of new movements like the #MeToo campaign, the temple entry moves, the triple talaq debate and the many are creating platforms for a collective assertion of rights of women. Although instances of collective gender disparities in the church have not yet reached the courts, individual instances of specific women allegedly having faced abuse of one kind or the other have already made the news.

Dowry , property inheritance, patriarchy that are part of society are also part of the church. A friend from Meghalaya , a tribal girl from a matrilineal society ( not matriarchal) finds herself in an impasse as she wants to marry a man from another part of the country. Her tribal customs dictate that the man come and live with her in her village. Even assuming that the man, a progressive thinking man were to do so, in a pre dominantly tribal community, her husband would be made very unwelcome and out of place. If she were to move out to live with her husband , the family left behind in the village would face social ostracism. Although ostensibly the same customs also apply to men, as many men are out migrating any way for jobs and the tribal elders do not think it desirable and necessary to track who the males are marrying.

In Bodoland , Assam , the church leaders believe that their role and vocation is to deliver sermons on Sundays and conduct ceremonies like baptism, weddings and funerals and generally speaking, attend to the spiritual life of their churches. When pointed out that large numbers of teenaged girls were being trafficked to the cities from under their very noses, they first feigned ignorance and then claimed that it was not the church’s responsibility to get involved in tackling “social isssues”. There were NGOs for that job.

From the south of the country, there are stories of domestic violence in church congregations which are hushed up or addressed through “spiritual” tools like prayer and chats with grey haired elders if not the priest or the pastor. Legal remedies are not even glanced at, let alone invoked, no matter how severe the abuse. A church recently set up an Internal Complaints Committee to look into work place harassment (The church considered all priests, pastors and elders having public interaction with women as holding positions of power – whether paid or unpaid as workers under the POSH law. There was a hue and cry from conservatives about the relevance of such a committee in a hallowed institution like the church and how there were other mediums to address the issue. However eventually there was a consensus that the church was a work place for those who served there and the law would be enforced. To the surprise of all , after the initial orientation regarding the ICC and its functioning, complaints began coming in. Clearly the “alternate mechanisms weren’t always working.

A part of the problem ,possibly a major part of it is that conversations around gender have been out sourced to the gender activists. The church itself is able to conveniently dodge the conversation by pointing to the experts who are competent to speak on the subject and the activists too are happy to occupy that space advocating extreme positions forgetting that the typical church goer is neither a feminist nor a scholar and getting them to even a moderately accommodating position will be an uphill battle. Unless the church leaders – priests, pastors, bishops begin injecting gender conversations into the day to day life of the church and not leave this to professional social workers, little change can be expected.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.

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