I come from strong women. Before I could hold up my head, my mom and her friend were dressing me in a “Ms.” onesie to mark me as an ardent feminist. Their empowerment left indelible marks on my life. At church, I still sip tea from a mug that says, “God is not a boy’s name.”
A recent trip to India reminded me how much I have taken these roots for granted. We spent time with two different sects of Swaminarayan Hinduism, where I felt the confines of female disempowerment in ways I’ve never experienced before. Women in the main temples are totally separate from men. They remain behind a rail and cannot perform darshan, gazing on the deities, with the men. They cannot serve as leaders, speak in assemblies where men are present, or hold positions on committees.
While these restrictions are present in many Christian groups as well, there is an added twist for the Swaminarayans: Women do not receive the same religious instruction as men. They are forbidden from approaching male religious leaders, who hold the knowledge and power, and are only allowed to receive the highest spiritual blessings as an afterthought.
Women worship among themselves in the haveli, a separate part of the temple where nuns live. It was there we spent time with our hostess Moto Gadiwala, the retired female religious leader who received her position 40 years ago through an arranged marriage to the acharya, the male leader of this sect. Through marriage, Gadiwala is also considered divine, and so her female followers constantly try to touch her, receive a blessing, kiss her feet, or sweep up the dust from the ground where she walks.
While we were asked to keep the details of our time together confidential, it is common knowledge that Gadiwala lives in purdah, meaning that she cannot be seen by males outside of her home, a sprawling compound surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire. She cannot go shopping at the mall or strolling down the street. Her main outing is to the temple each day, where she travels in an SUV with tinted windows lined with a curtain. When she leaves the vehicle to perform darshan, she is covered by a huge Mary-Poppins style umbrella and a flowered sheet. The women push and shove their way through the crowd to try to get near her, to receive the blessing that flows from her touch.
This is the only life Gadiwala has ever known, and she faces it with remarkable dignity and grace. She offers impeccable hospitality and genuine warmth to her guests. Yet after a week of being around her, I would sense my chest tighten every time I walked in the home or the temple. I couldn’t breathe. I felt suffocated by the powerlessness of Gadiwala and these women.
Their powerlessness is deeply ironic, especially when you consider that Swaminarayan himself was a 19th-century reformer who actually helped the status of women by forbidding widow suicide and female infanticide. Currently India has gone beyond the United States by swearing in their first female president in 2007. The Indian parliament also has guaranteed seats for women.
I’m not sure what to do with this irony, other than to live with it and to recognize the irony of gender gaps around me in my own community. But there remains a part of me that wishes I had enough money to buy a half-billion “Ms.” T-shirts. I'd send them all to India for the women to wear as tops under their saris.