October 2009

all med students are renaissance persons before med school crushes their soul and causes irreversible mind damage. my hobby was painting, and this is one of my amateur works that i like a lot.

one of my paintings that i like most

one of my paintings that i like most

It’s that time of the year, the time when we gather to worship Goddess Durga and ask her to protect us from evil. I’ve always admired Hinduism for its inclusion of feminine images of God. I also like that in Hinduism, the one powerful God is formless energy, or Nirguna Brahmana – no gender, no ethnicity. Though we might be tempted to refer to God as “he” the Sanskrit pronoun for God is “Tat” or “that.” It allows us to imagine God in any form we like – male, female, mother, or father.

For Bengalis, the form of Durga is particularly important. It is one of our biggest festivals. Come to think of it, majority of our festivals worship a female image of God. Perhaps that’s why growing up, I noticed a big disparity between the way we revere our Goddesses and the way we treat women everyday. The disparity between the social status of men and women in our country is nothing new. We hear about incidences, we read about them in newspapers, and social research is always coming up with the importance of educating girls in the economic development of a country.

Now lest any reader feels defensive about my writing, let me assure you that I know not all of us treat women unequally, and I know that a lot of progress has been made for women’s rights and we are still progressing. In this article, I’m not talking about satidaha, or discrimination against widows, or wife beating. I’m talking about more subtle things like the language we use, or what we teach kids. Countless times I’ve heard such things like “boys need to be strong,” or “don’t cry like a girl.” Boys are not born tough, we just make them tough by repressing their feelings whenever they show emotion. Because emotion is somehow supposed to be feminine and the feminine is somehow supposed to be weak. One Bengali insult I’ve heard often is meyelokero adham. Excuse me, but why is being a female the lowest thing you could be? Conniving and gossiping are somehow feminine things to do even though we know that we all do it! Perhaps not all of us use such sexist language, though I have a hard time believing that. But even those of us who don’t use these comparisons don’t protest against them either. We either tacitly support it, or laugh it away.

However, is it not hypocritical to worship Devi Durga if we believe women are weaklings in real life? Is it not hypocritical to tell young boys not to be like girls all year and then in these one or two festivals have them bow down before the Goddess? How ironic, that we restrict the things girls can do in life in the name of “protection” when we gather in Durga Puja to ask a woman for protection! Some of us respect women only in the motherly form. But why should we restrict respect only for mothers? What about all the other roles a Goddess has in life? Saraswati is not just our mother, but also the daughter of Durga, sister of Ganesha, and consort of Brahma. Even when she’s in none of those roles, she’s the Goddess of Wisdom. Does Hinduism not teach us to respect the feminine and masculine energies equally, in any role?

I hope that in this Puja, all of us take a moment to contemplate on what implications Goddess worship has in our daily lives. Bengalis should be at the forefront of women’s rights, considering that we are such a Goddess worshipping community. I hope we’re at least conscious of the words we use against women everyday, or otherwise they might easily become our actions.

This was originally a reply I wrote to a post on Feministing.com. It became so long and elaborate that I re-wrote it as a post.

I think feminism and veganism in America are so closely associated with each other because of the extreme cultural significance of meat here. As Carol Adams showed in The Pornography of Meat, advertizing of meat is so sexist and so vile, as are advertisements using women, that it’s impossible for feminists not to see the connection. I don’t think it’s the same in many other cultures, and certainly not this extreme.

Many Hindus are vegetarian (not my family) and traditional Hindus are strict about widows being vegetarian, since they’re supposed to give up all pleasures of life. Growing up in that culture, it was kinda feministic for me to rebel against vegetarianism. I’ve realized later that this is not the way to be radical, as I was basically following a patriarchal model of appearing dominant by oppressing another group of beings. Now I usually never eat meat, milk or fish, or eggs, though I still remember the taste and give in at rare times. I have a lot of respect for feminists who maintain their veganism strictly.

I don’t think it’s universally wrong to consume meat, because in many parts of the world, vegetation is scarce, so people have a meat based diet. Meat consumption also makes sense for some climates and some nutritional reasons, when vegetables aren’t adequate. I think humans have always been a part of the food chain so it’s not “unnatural” to eat meat either. Besides, just as animals have lives, plants have lives and creating a hierarchy between organisms with sensation and organisms without apparent sensation (plants) is just as arbitrary as the hierarchy between humans and animals.

However, what’s wrong is the amount of meat we consume, and many people’s attitudes about meat consumption. Western countries, and countries that are westernizing fast are consuming wayyy too much meat and it shows in our health. Meat is not easy to digest and any food that stresses our digestive system out raises the level of inflammation in our body. If we have meat once in a while, the damage can be repaired, but if we have it so often then the damage can lead to inflammatory diseases, which can predispose someone to everything from arthritis to heart disease to cancer. The concept of factory farming of animals is also wrong to me. Meat is not supposed to be cheap, because we aren’t supposed it eat it as often! Factories grow animals under filthy, high stress environments, then give them antibiotics to promote rapid growth. This not only damages the meat but increases the number of antibiotic resistant microbes in the environment. Then there’s the obvious torture of animals in factory farming (fois gras anyone?), and who knows how it harms the health and psyche of the low-wage factory workers. As for hunting for animals for food, it isn’t wrong to me, but for sports it is.

So I support and admire vegan feminists in this context. Giving up animal products is a strong and effective political statement. There’s no way to defend consumption of factory farmed animal products for feminists who are informed about the issue.

Animal research is another thing I’m conflicted about. For sure it’s unethical from an egalitarian view. We haven’t used results from Nazi experiments on Jews because they were unethical, so it is wrong to not apply the same standard to animals, who in my view are equal to humans. Any experiment that deliberately causes pain is absolutely wrong. However, being a medical student, I can see how much knowledge has been obtained from animal experiments that don’t cause “direct” pain. Ultimately though it doesn’t really matter whether the experiment causes pain or not, because the concept of using an animal for our benefit is unethical. Switching to strictly human based clinical trials or observational studies should provide different, but equally important knowledge. I basically think there are many things we already do know about human medicine, if only Westernized scientists would try to understand other medical systems. I don’t mean in a randomized clinical trial way, that proves whether something is a placebo effect or not; that is evaluating other systems only from a Western medical view. I mean traditional Western medicine has to see other systems completely, and understand that a lot more factors are required in those systems. Substitution of an herb in place of a synthetic drug without making dietary or lifestyle changes is not so-called “alternative” medicine.

Where I disagree with most traditional vegans is the way they defend the ethics of not eating meat. Many vegans tend to think that meat eating is inherently wrong because we are hurting a being, and that is the end of that. I heard from one person that this was an “Utilitarian” argument, which I can understand. But being utilitarian is not being absolutely ethical. We judge the morality of an action by the amount of suffering we PERCEIVE. So let’s say we don’t understand how much suffering a group of people – poor/minority/women – go through, then we won’t see anything wrong with oppressing them. Or let’s say that a person isn’t outwardly expressing suffering, would we be able to judge their action properly and react appropriately?

What I’m saying is that the difference between the suffering of plants and animals is a matter of our perception. Of course there seems to be multiple differences, but it doesn’t mean that we won’t discover later that plants have other ways of showing “suffering.” Besides, if suffering is the main issue, is it okay to anesthetize an animal and then kill and eat it? There are a small number of people who are FRUITARIANS – they eat only fruits that don’t kill the plant while extracting, so no potatoes, cabbage, greens, wheat, etc. Are they at a moral higher ground than vegans? They might even be damaging their own health for the cause of not killing life.

I think this difference between sentient/non-sentient life forms is a weak theory to defend vegetarianism/veganism. For me a much stronger argument is environmental preservation, and health reasons. Environmental preservation includes includes eating very little meat and fish, and not growing mono-crops to make processed food that deplete the soil of nutrients. It also supports local foods, as growing genetecially engineered foods in unnatural habitats, or transporting vegetables from far away is very environmentally degrading. One person commented on this that should we stop sending food to poor countries because it’s environmentally harmful? Well, first of all, many of those countries are now in need of food because of our very agricultural practices. And many of those countries are suffering because of the pollution from industrialized countries causing global warming. The purpose of supporting local foods, vegetables and meat, is to reduce this pollution and make communities self-sustainable, so they’ll need less food aid. Heck, if Americans just ate healthy portions then we wouldn’t spend so much energy making huge amounts of low-grade food that we waste. It’s all about reducing our carbon foot print.

This brings me to another comment someone brought up – if people have all the necessary vegetarian foods, then is it wrong for them to consume meat? Not if those vegetables aren’t locally grown, so it harms the environment in transportation, but the meat is local. If the deer population in your area is high, and you can hunt a deer to feed your family for days, why would you buy more non-local fruits and veggies instead? You may be supporting evil Monsanto by doing that. Now of course in reality many of us don’t plan our diets so ethically and then we are in the wrong. I’m guilty of that too.

So again, I believe eating meat is not inherently wrong. Herbivores eat plats, carnivores eat meat, and omnivores have evolved to eat both. In some cases it may even be more wrong to eat highly processed vegetarian foods that damage the environment. eating meat is only wrong in certain contexts, like the current industrialization of meat. I admire people who’ve made the conscious decision to harm the environment less, and not take part in animal torture, but I see no basis for saying all meat eating is wrong.

This is not an argument against vegetarianism/veganism though. Along the same lines of evolution, humans have evolved to have a conscience, so we can make decisions that are above and beyond our survival. Hence, it’s wrong to eat animals in certain contexts, especially if we have other food options for adequate survival.

This is only my first article on the issue of marriage. As I started putting my thoughts together I realized I have so many that I ‘d have to do a series of articles rather than one. I don’t know when I’ll do the next ones, but at least this is a start. Before I go on, I’d like to post some other articles that have made me think:

1) AnjuGandhi, 2) Chrysalis, and 3) The Marriage-Go-Round

I don’t really care about a marriage legally or spiritually. I mean, I wish to find a partner in life, but there’s nothing specifically about the wedding/social declaration that entices me. Furthermore, I realize I’m basking in the glory of heterosexist privilege, while many people don’t have the right yet to the economic and communal benefits of marriage that straight people take for granted. I hope to mitigate that by supporting gay marriage, or really any kind of marriage.

Going back to why I bother with marriage when I don’t care for it individually – I have a big fat South Asian family that is my social support. It’s not worth it to alienate them with a radical move they won’t even care for. Perhaps it’s more “radical” to create a different kind of marriage for myself, one that challenges harmful traditions and presents a happy alternative.

One day while lamenting about the patriarchy-drenched Bengali Hindu weddings and whether I’d be a hypocrite for taking part in it, my good friend told me the solution was Arya Samaj wedding. Apparently these weddings are spiritual, egalitarian and simple. When I googled Arya Samaj weddings though, I read otherwise. The Kanyadaan ritual, the one I most object to, is an important part of not only Arya Samaj weddings, but Vedic weddings in general. Was Hinduism at its very core is so sexist??? So much for all those times that Hinduism defenders told me sexism was in the “culture” not the “religion.” I used to think naively that the Vedas were above the nasty patriarchy of its times.

Next, I googled whether Hindu weddings could take place without Kanyadaan. Only one relevant post came up, and it was Anju’s. She, like me, exclaimed how unjust it was to donate your daughters as if they’re property. One blogger, Chrysalis, disagreed, and you can read her post on the link above. Basically, Chrysalis believes that “donation” is the wrong word for Kanyadaan, though she doesn’t provide an alternative. To her, Kanyadaan is not about inequality but valuing the woman even more than a man. Such a “gift” to a family is therefore spiritually magnanimous, not sexist. She seems to say women have an intrinsic ability to form communities, and she herself “took pity” upon her husband who wasn’t good with PR, and decided to move to his family to help him out. When someone pointed out that it’s different for women who are worse at PR than their husband, Chrysalis suggested reversing the roles to ghar jamai. Well, that sounds reasonable enough to me. In extended families, one spouse has to move in with another and if both have the equal opportunity to choose, that’s great! I disagree though that women are better equipped to do it than men. That’s simply a cultural construction, and we need to make both men and women good at community building rather than shoving the responsibility down women’s throats.

What I don’t get then, is why isn’t Putradaan a part of Vedic weddings? It seems like even when taking a ghar jamai the bride is still donated to the groom first. It’s this ritual that I have a big problem with. Whether Hindu weddings are equal or not is irrelevant for now; I’m annoyed at the pervasiveness of daughter donation, especially as women are becoming more and more independent. I don’t agree with Chrysalis that “donation” is the wrong word for Kanyadaan. Daan is donation, or giving.  You could give money, land, food, animals, services, and women. When women are put in the same category as the others, but men aren’t, what else does it imply but that women are property, not human beings? Valuable property, perhaps, since women bear children and raise them, but property nonetheless. And if indeed Kanyadaan is about joining of families, rather than property donation, why does the woman have to take her husband’s family titles? Shouldn’t there be creation of a new joint family title?Donating daughters is supposed to be good karma for her parents. Why do the groom’s parents not get the same opportunity? And if as Chrysalis implies, women are inherently valuable, are we saying that men are not valuable???? Boy, some men are going to be offended!

This raising of women on a pedestal is just as sexist as treating women like sub-humans. Both of these ideas don’t recognize women as being HUMAN. I think this dichotomy is the basis of many mistreatment of women. We are told that we are Goddesses, intrinsically valuable or something, and therefore expected to live as Goddesses. When we inevitably fail to live as Goddesses, because we’re fully human, not less, not more, we’re treated as disposable property. If any woman feels empowered by having these beliefs, and uses such re-interpretations of Kanyadaan to promote women’s rights, more power to her. But for me, this ritual signifies something totally different, on top of the fact that I don’t see a spiritual necessity for it. I don’t think this was a ritual God created. I think this was a ritual men made, based on their views of women’s worth, not women’s own views. They were kind enough to emphasize equality and understanding between families, but it’s a man-made, patriarchal tradition nonetheless.

Kanyadaan as it is traditionally practiced, is a part of the Hindu patriarchal culture that denies women the right to inherit property. It entrusts a woman’s care on her husband, rather than herself. Maybe this system was still egalitarian in Satya Yuga, but that day is long gone, and it was a mythical utopia to begin with. We aren’t perfect. As many women know very well, no matter how noble and beautiful Kanyadaan seems, we simply can’t blindly trust a man to make us his equal partner in Dharma, Karma, Artha, and we simply can’t live up to this compassionate Godliness ourselves. Both men and women need practical recourse in marriage. In Hindu societies, Kanyadaan has led people to think that it’s not worth investing in daughters, as they’ll leave the family anyways. And who can blame them? As long as we don’t change this system of giving away daughters to a man’s family, parents won’t invest in their daughters. Some people may say that things equal out when parents give away their daughter and bring home a bride for their son. But what about parents without sons? They have no choice but to live alone? Most importantly, why can’t we think of a system beyond gender roles? Gender roles will inevitably lead to one gender’s inequality, and we have to think of a freer system that accepts each person’s uniqueness.

So what have I decided about my wedding rituals? Weddings are nothing more than a social affair, and if my family wants to fulfill their elaborate social roles in a Bengali wedding, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with most of the rituals, though I’m sure more would come up when I learn the significance of each. But, NO KANYADAAN. I’m a fully capable woman who takes care of herself. My parents don’t need to entrust me to another man, and frankly, no parent owns their kids. No person owns another. I just don’t believe in Kanyadaan, sindoor wearing, or shakha pala wearing all the time. I might wear it on a day when I feel like it, but other than that these things have no spiritual significance for me, so I shouldn’t be required to do them. I think it’s completely possible and realistic to have a spiritual wedding where the bride and groom give themselves to each other and their families, if spirituality is important to them, that is.

Coming up soon, a rant about sexist Hindu men!