Two of the most influential forces in one’s life are culture and religion. In some aspects they may intermix, but what happens when they are at odds? Taunalyn Rutherford joined us on campus last November as one of several speakers at the 2015 women’s studies conference, and addressed that question. Rutherford, an adjunct instructor in the religion department at Brigham Young University, took a semester off to spend time in India working on her dissertation. Her research focused on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in India. One of her chapters focuses on the women of the church specifically.
The Church in India
There are 12,257 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in India and 43 congregations, according to MormonNewsroom.org. The first stake was organized in Hyderabad in 2012, which is where Rutherford spent most of her time. Collectively, in her visits to India, she has interviewed over 150 people, mainly members of the the Church.
Women in India
Rutherford asked the women she interviewed to tell her about the position and status of women in India in general. “I often [got] the word patriarchy,” said Rutherford. “And it is never used in a positive light.” One woman she interviewed said,
I think it’s very patriarchal here. Men dominate a lot… It differs from person to person. If the man is a good man, respectful man, then the woman who married him is a happy woman, a lucky woman. But if you’re in the wrong place, wrong person – I’ve seen my cousins and they all have been dominated, hit … They say Indian women get abused, but in other countries too it’s the same. Women are being abused everywhere.
India, which was ranked 108th in the world in terms of economic opportunities and education for women by the World Economic Forum in 2015, has struggled in its development of equal opportunity for women.
Members of the Church in India
Though the Church has faced some scrutiny over issues of gender equality, their stance on the issue is clear: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny,” as stated in The Family, A Proclamation to the World.
Rutherford saw a difference when the same women who spoke of women’s status in India spoke of women’s status in the Church. There were still some comments regarding male dominion, but the language was much more positive and hopeful. One woman said, “In the church, I think the brethren have slowly understood the priesthood holders – that all of us are equal.”
One male member of the church demonstrated this understanding in an interview with Rutherford. “I am grateful for this gospel because it tells that they are both the same. Not one is superior or inferior. Both are equal and men, ‘without her, you can’t get exalted!’ That is one of the greatest truths because you break all the traditions and cultures in India.”
Through their membership in the Church, Rutherford has seen that some women have found more purpose in their role as a wife and mother. One woman said, “They have priesthood, so we have motherhood. And they have different roles and we have different roles.” Some women have discovered confidence. “Personally, for me, if it wasn’t for the church, I wouldn’t be sitting here like this, sitting here talking to you,” said another woman. “I would have just told you a few words and that’s it. But, it has changed me. It has changed my way of thinking about myself, about that I am not low, I am equal to men.”
Rutherford noted, “There is something in the message of the gospel, that is working counter to the patriarchy that they are naming.”
Rutherford will continue in her research and writing her dissertation. In the meantime, she said, “I have great hope for women and for the future of the church and in how we deal with issues of gender as I look and listen to women and men in the Church in India.” Watch the full lecture below.
How has religion influenced your cultural identity?
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