Center for Conflict Studies Knowledge as Action, Action as Change

Panel I: Gender Empowerment and Religions of Asia

Friday, November 9, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

1. Annapurna PandeyCo-­‐existence of Tradition and Modern: An account of women weavers in Buddhist villages of Odisha

2. Joel Post: The Relation of Buddhism/Shintoism to Gender Roles in Japan

3. Manisha Sethi: Imagining an alternative model?: The case of Jain women renouncers

4. Abhilasha Sharma: Bel Bibaha among Newars of Nepal: A case for empowerment?

Annapurna Devi Pandey


Annapurna Devi Pandey is a trained sociologist and anthropologist who teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz as well as at San Jose State University. Her research interests include women’s issues, their political and religious lives and their representation in film, media and literature dealing with India and Indian diaspora. She has been doing research on women’s empowerment in Odisha and the Non Governmental Organization, which are helping women, marginalized by the state and society. Since 1995 she has shifted her research interests to film making on the experiences of the diasporic Odias in the greater bay area. She has produced a film titled, ‘Homeland in the Heart’ and is working on another film on ‘Giving Life to God: The Installation of Lord Jagannath in the Fremont Hindu Temple’. Currently, she is serving a two-year term as the president of the Orissa Society of the Americas.


Co-existence of Tradition and Modern: An account of women weavers in Buddhist villages of Odisha (Culture, Gender and Power)

Globalization has affected the Indian traditional ways of living and has empowered many people to remake, recreate and reshape themselves by participating in the new emerging economy. This has given a new twist to inter-generational conflict, domestic violence and women’s abuse. It corroborates with the widening gap in the sex ratio of 914 females to 1,000 males, according to the 2011 Census. My fieldwork in a Buddhist village of Odisha conducted during the summers of 2007 and 2011 presents a different picture – the villagers continue to follow their traditional way of life by living in a joint family, practicing their age old weaving of Maniabandhi saris combined with their non-violent Buddhist way of life.

Like their Hindu neighbors, these Buddhist weavers practice endogamy but unlike the Hindus they have not been affected by the practice of dowry, so common in Odisha and the rest of India. This consumerist mentality underlying the demands of dowry from the bride’s family has become so rampant in present day India that it may be one of the major causes of physical abuse and assault of women in their affinal families. I learned from talking with women in Maniabandha that they are not ostracized by their affinal kin and they do not face any obstacle in finding a marriage partner because of lack of money. In place of dowry, the families emphasize communal feasts and harmony in order to celebrate with their extended family and the community. Their Buddhist way of life helps them to take pride in their traditional profession and lead a peaceful life and empowers them not to compete to get a groom by paying any dowry.

In this paper, I propose to analyze the role of Buddhism in shaping women’s lives as producers of Maniabandhi saris and empowering themselves to participate in the new economy of India. Maniabandhi Sari, the symbol of traditional values, has become the means by which they are succeeding in the twenty-first century. In the rapidly changing modern India, they are maintaining their traditional occupation while catering to the growing demands of the Maniabandhi saris popularized by the forces of globalization. What I find remarkable about these weavers is that their way of life allows them to have best of both the worlds. They have an occupation tied to their religion that provides them with a meaning in their life and lets them incorporate markers of tradition as well as modernity. By welcoming the visit of His Holiness Dalai Lama - the living Buddha - to their village and sending their saris to the international market, they are participating in the global economy while maintaining their traditional occupation and Buddhist way of life. The women in Maniabandh, Odisha are incorporating the best of both the old and new world.

Joel Post


Joel Post received his undergraduate degree (B.S. Education) from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is now pursuing a Master`s degree in International Policy Studies with a focus in Conflict Resolution at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. His research interests include politics, education, immigration and conflict analysis/resolution in Asia. His experience includes five years as an education professional in Japan, volunteer work in India and Papua New Guinea, and conducting field research in Nepal. In summer of 2012 he interned at an economic research institute in Niigata, Japan. The experience allowed him the opportunity to conduct research into religion in Japanese society during his leisure time.


The Relation of Buddhism/Shintoism to Gender Roles in Japan

The religions of Shinto and Buddhism have played a prominent role in shaping Japanese society throughout its recorded history. Both have become entwined in ethics, the political system, and social structure in the past. Religion has played a lesser role in the lives of Japanese since WWII but still has a measurable manifestation in everyday activities, including how members of each gender interact in public, in the workplace, and at home.

Japan`s gender relations are considered by many countries around the world to be patriarchal and borderline misogynistic. Westerners often look at Japanese society today and are reminded of the United States of the 1950s when women were rarely promoted in the workplace and relegated to becoming housewives. Other countries believe Japan has allowed women too much freedom in both their careers and sex lives. Men are depicted as devolving from warrior samurai to hard-working salary men to the passive herbivores (men eschewing romantic relationships altogether) often mentioned in the news. In contrast, men openly read pornography on trains and images of Lolicon (a Japanese form of the Lolita complex) abound. In the case of either gender, what are the specific roles of both men and women in Japan today and how did these conceptions arise?

Discussions about religion`s influence concerning gender roles are occurring throughout the world, mostly in Christian and Islamic contexts, but seem to be conspicuously absent when examining Japan and its multi-religious national identity. The objectives of my research are to analyze how Buddhism and native Shintoism interacted to form gender roles, and how/if these roles are perpetuated today by religious institutions. Also desired is an examination of the extent that these overlapping religions are possibly reshaping gender roles in society after the devastating Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. My hypothesis is that these religions have little conscious effect on defining gender roles at present, but instead have been most influential historically in setting the underlying bedrock of cultural gender disparity that exists today.

Ethnographic interview and survey research will be conducted in July and August 2012 in Niigata, Japan. Interviews and surveys will both be done in Japanese but with some English as needed. Surveys will be given to all sectors of Japanese society (age, gender, income) while the researcher will select a few key people for in-depth interviews. Additional interviews and information will be solicited from religious organizations within Japan. This data will be integrated with additional secondary research to create a broader picture of gender role development in Japanese society.

Manisha Sethi


Manisha Sethi teaches at the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is interested in issues of gender and rleigion, communalism, and more recently law and terrorism. Sethi is the Associate Editor of India’s leading reviews magazine, Biblio: A Review of Books. She is involved in activist with the civil rights group, Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, a group of university tecahers who campaign for rule of law and against extra judicial killings. Her book, Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains has been published by Routledge.


Imagining an alternative model?: The case of Jain women renouncers

Typically, research on gender and religion in South Asia focus relentlessly on the traditional sexism inherent in religious ideologies. Anne Gold calls this Type I scholarship, which unfailingly highlights “endemic, systemic, unmitigated devaluation and consequent disempowerment of women at every level…” Against this enterprise, she lauds the Type II scholars who portray women’s multiple modes of living, negotiating and imagining gender identities. ‘Resistance’ and ‘subversion’ are terms that surface often in the writings of Type II authors. These spheres of power are mostly cultural ventures: women’s songs, stories and words, which are seen as repositories of female agency and deployed as ‘weapons of the weak’ by women. Most often, the interplay between gender and religion is explored in the lives of householders whose religiosity is rooted in their domestic roles, pativratadharma being the norm and model. Much less studied have been those women who have shunned marriage and domesticity in favor of their individual spiritual pursuits. These women renouncers offer a very different model of female religiosity, which is often at odds with normative gender roles.

Jainism has been almost unique among Indian religious traditions in its insistence upon women as legitimate soteriological agents. The acknowledgment of women’s ability to seek salvation through a life of monasticism is reflected in its recognition of female renouncers in its monastic codebooks and other literature. Indeed, historically, female renouncers—known variously as sadhvis, ariykas and bhramacharinis--have far outstripped the number of male mendicants.

This paper, drawing upon extensive ethnographic fieldwork in North Western India, looks at the narratives of women renouncers to try and understand why these women seek a lifetime of asceticism. It asks if we should decipher the attraction that mendicant orders hold for women in terms of traditional understanding that women are escaping unhappy familial and domestic situations or poverty; or in fact, if we should listen closely to what the nuns tell us. The narratives of these nuns, especially, those relating the events surrounding the familial resistance to their initiation into the renunciant order, foreground their own choice and agency in seeking such a life. The ascetic life is evoked as an idyllic world and the contrast between domesticity and renunciation is constantly highlighted. Renunciation is seen as a space of autonomy while domesticity and indeed, motherhood, are set up as sources of bondage. This paper explores whether the Jain nuns provide an alternative model of womanhood, one that erodes the normative model of a dutiful wife and mother, while also examining the limits of such a model.

Abhilasha Sharma


Abhilasha Sharma is a graduate student in Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She is currently pursing her Master’s Degree in Public Administration and International Policy Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution and Gender and Development. She finished her undergraduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2009 with a B.S. in International Studies and a minor in Women Studies. Her research interests include a variety of issues related with gender and development mainly in post conflict countries. She is very interested in looking at the role of culture and traditions in women’s empowerment and gender equality. She has experience working in nonprofit organization as a Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation Intern in Search for Common Ground and as a program coordinator and enrollment assistant in Middlebury Institute of International Studies.


Bel Biwaha among Newar women of Nepal: A case for empowerment

Nepal is a land of diversity and a home to many ethnic communities. There are more than 25 ethnic communities and of these, the Newars are a very prominent group. They are a mix of Indo- Aryan and Tibeto- Burman ethnicities. As an upwardly mobile community, the Newars have become a very economically important group in the Kathmandu Valley. There are also some traditions and customs that have made them prominent, politically and socially in the Valley. One such tradition is that of selecting a young girl from the Bajrachcarya – Shakya caste of valley’s Newar group as the living Goddess- Kumari, who is worshipped and believed to be the protector of the country.

Like Kumari, there are also other customs and traditions centered around women in this community, one of them is the Bel Biwaha. It is a ritual commonly practiced by Newar community, where a girl gets married with a fruit – Bel and it is believed that this fruit is the bride’s groom and is a representation of God. This belief of once she is married with a God she is never considered a widow even after the death of her human husband, plays a significant role in enhancing the social status of Newar women. Can it be considered as one of the means of empowerment and freedom to women in a male dominated Nepali society where widows are plagued by social and economical discrimination and are seen as a burden by their family and society as a whole?

Patriarchal structures govern every ethnic community in Nepal, but when we look at the Newar community, various religious customs and rituals practiced by them have, to some extent empowered and uplifted Newar women’s status. Focusing on the status of these women, this research paper looks into the role of religious customs and traditions practiced by this community. It looks into Newar women of Kathmandu Valley and their customs to explore how and how much it has empowered and liberated them. In order to get deeper understanding of this subject first hand information was gathered through interviewing Newari women.