By Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
It was a pleasant surprise last week to come across a news report about the findings of a survey done by what was described as a ‘RSS think tank’ on the status of women in India.
Besides claiming that married women and women who seek spiritual help are happier than others, it also acknowledged that employment was found to be highest among Christian women, followed by Hindus, Muslims and Jains.
While the report appeared to have made no mention about women’s education, the 2011 Census data indicated a lower percentage of Christian women to be illiterate (28.03%) compared to Hindu women (44.02%) and Muslims (48.1%). Illiteracy among Buddhist women was higher at 34.4% than among Christians.
What the findings seem to suggest is that a religion that promotes gender equality and is more democratic even in the spiritual sphere, witnesses advancement of women more than religions which promote patriarchy.
Didn’t the western Christian world develop at a quicker pace after women and minorities like blacks got educated and entered the employment market competing with men?
Societies that did not confine their women in houses and trusted them and their sexuality, developed more rapidly. Societies which saw a woman’s body as a sexual object and a child-bearing machine, remained mostly backward.
The orthodox Hindu Varna phase (child marriage, Sati, ban on widow remarriage) and unreformed Muslim societies are examples of poor development because of unreasonable restrictions on women.
In India, most Christians are Dalits and Adivasis. Studies have also shown that most conversions to Christianity are initiated by women who want better education and better lives for their children.
It is remarkable, therefore, to find an admission that these Dalit/Adivasi women converted to Christianity are today better educated and better employed. These communities may not boast of as much wealth, land, property or capital, they appear to be leading lives that are better and more comfortable. Their congregations are also collectives that promote cooperation and distribution. The available resource distribution among Christian community is higher than in other communities. They are a collective, national resource.
The question is why then does the RSS oppose conversions to Christianity? Why doesn’t it accept religious freedom and people’s right to choose a faith of their choice? If one accepts the narrative that most Christians were converted forcibly, how does one explain better education and better employment among them, as even the RSS seems to admit now?
The question to ask is why Hindu and Muslim women are more backward and why Christian women are more advanced in terms of education and employment despite being historically the most oppressed in caste terms?
Significantly, even in China, a recent study on religion and economic development indicated higher Christian participation in development than others.
The reason, to my mind, is that Christianity is a spiritually more democratic religion that allows more social and economic democratic participation leading to better lives for Christians. That is why China is now looking the other way when conversions take place in that country, despite being a repressive state and to some extent a restrictive society.
Why are then anti-conversion laws still in place in a large number of states? Why are churches and Christian institutions still under attack for allegedly forced conversion?
A multi-cultural and multi-religious society should allow to compete and challenge many laws of religion that come in the way of their freedom. Religions need to adapt to those changes but not force women to conform to feudal laws.
Even Christianity has had to overcome the hurdles. Christian women too have had to fight against inequality, patriarchy and restrictions imposed by religion. They have become more free, less bound by rigid norms controlling their sexuality, more free to share public and private space with men of any religion.
The RSS should re-think its position on conversions and allow the poor Dalits/Adivasis the right of freedom of religion. It is time to abrogate all anti-conversion laws in India.
(Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. This article first appeared in nationalheraldindia.com on September 30, 2019)