An Interview with a Scholar

The Learning Tea recently did an interview with Dr. Mari Jyvasjarvi Stuart, a professor in Hindu Studies and South Asian Traditions at the University of South Carolina. Mari's work focuses on the history of South Asian ascetic and monastic traditions, specifically women’s participation in these traditions and the implications of gender for religious authority and spiritual capacity more broadly. Prior to teaching at the University of South Carolina, she taught South Asian traditions and religion and gender in India at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. At Reed, she taught our social media intern Tarek Abdel-Nabi and is largely responsible for inspiring his passion for, interest in and knowledge of gender issues in Indian society. Tarek recently caught up with her in the interview that follows.

T: In my request for an interview you called the work The Learning Tea does "necessary", why do you feel a foundation like the learning tea is necessary?

M: Because for people who are affected by poverty and have few alternatives available to them, a safe environment and access to education are often the absolutely necessary first step that can then open up other alternative paths and opportunities. This is true for everyone, but especially for women and girls in situations where they lack community or family support, and the lack of alternatives makes them vulnerable to human trafficking and prostitution.  

T: Before we dive into the next question, can you give us your background not only in regards to your education and research, but your connection to the fight for women's empowerment in India?

M: My graduate studies and research on South Asian religions has always had a strong focus on issues of gender, In 2002-03, I spent a year in North India studying Hindi and interviewing ascetic women who lived celibate lives dedicated to spiritual cultivation, and my dissertation and recent book project examined the more historical dimension of women’s monastic traditions in Buddhism and Jainism. A theme that connects both the contemporary and the historical situation is the way that gender stereotypes, and social gender power differentials, impact women’s ability to choose alternative life paths and pursue the highest spiritual ideals of their religious tradition. And I see the same patterns come into play for women in contemporary India, regardless of their life situation, region, or social or marital status.

T: Can you summarize the current political and cultural climate surrounding women's empowerment in India? 

M: This question is more visible in the media – both in India and internationally – than I have ever seen before. It is largely due to the outrage provoked by the horrific gang rape and murder of a Delhi student in 2012, and the massive anti-rape movement that grew out of that outrage. Now, sexual violence and the question of women’s safety is being discussed much more openly, and those in positions of political power are hopefully beginning to feel more pressure to actually address these questions, and women’s empowerment more broadly. Yet, change is going to happen slowly, because the fundamental causes of women’s lack of empowerment and violence towards women lie in systemic problems such as poverty, cultural attitudes, media that portrays women as sex objects, and so on. 

T: In relation to the last question, how do you feel about and do you support the attention Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been drawing to women's issues?

M: I don’t wish to comment on Modi specifically, but I would say that with any politician, such attention has to go beyond words to concrete actions and a consideration of gender equity in all that they do. Otherwise, it’s just another instance of lofty talk for the purpose of securing votes.

T: What are the biggest challenges foundations that actively promote women's education and empowerment face in India currently?

M: Your foundation probably knows better than I do! But my guess would be that the biggest problem is that women’s education and empowerment is so inextricably connected to other large social, political and economic challenges, above all poverty and lack of access to education more broadly. Those, as we all know, cannot be changed overnight. Yet as long as women AND men don’t have their basic livelihood secured, as long as they don’t have access to education and proper health care and health education (including sex education), the struggle for women’s empowerment can only proceed in small steps. 

T: Can you talk about the certain cultural traditions that you believe are most beneficial and harmful to our cause?

M: Representations of women in India almost always focus on the negatives – the oppression of women, the ideal of wifely submissiveness, problems such as female infanticide and child marriage. These are, of course, real issues and stem from cultural patterns of gender inequity that are indeed hard to uproot and take a long time to change. They do pose challenges to organizations such as the Learning Tea. At the same time, there is the other side of the coin that usually doesn’t receive such attention: alternative voices, both historically and in more recent times, have recognized the tremendous strength and capacity for virtue and achievement that women can possess. Even the earliest epics contain examples of very strong women, and later in the devotional bhakti traditions we see remarkable, independent-spirited female poets emerge. In modern India, examples of powerful female political leaders, authors, and activists are too many to name. But even if we leave famous female leaders aside, there’s a way in which even ordinary women can wield tremendous influence and receive honor and respect in their homes and communities. This often happens in ways that doesn’t directly threaten or challenge male authority, but works in subtler ways and therefore is not always even noticed. Women are highly respected in their nurturing roles as mothers, and more recently there’s also been greater advocacy for the girl child and her rights. So I would say, alongside with the stereotype of the submissive, oppressed woman, men and women in all regions of India also recognize that women are strong, capable, and important contributors to their society.

T: What about challenges women face in their daily lives? How do these cultural traditions relate to that?

M: When it comes to individual women, I find it hard to generalize because although there are cultural patterns, the challenges each woman faces are different. Life for educated, middle or upper middle class professional women in cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai, and life for less educated rural women are worlds apart. A single professional woman in her thirties in Delhi might experience pressure due to the cultural norm that a woman should marry and have children. Some women are married to husbands they are not compatible with, or are not treated well by their in-laws, but divorce is not an option for many because there’s still a huge stigma attached to it. Yet another woman down the street can have a happy, harmonious marriage, but not have the funds to give all her children good education. And so forth. The cultural patterns I discussed above affect different women in different ways.

T: Now, your research focuses on how religious traditions limit gender roles through enforcing male authority in spiritual traditions, can you tell us a little about that?

M: The main challenge for a historian of South Asian religions who is interested in issues of gender is that there is so little textual material from premodern India that has been authored by women or in any way voices their point of view. Instead, I had to make use of male-authored texts and examine how monastic women (that is, Buddhist and Jain nuns) are represented in those texts. And yes, the representations of women often do serve to perpetuate negative stereotypes about women and enforce male religious authority. But I work from the basic understanding that gender is a relational concept, involving both men and women – or, to be more accurate, people across the gender spectrum. So my work focuses equally on men who authored these texts and the men in their communities: what social pressures are they facing, how are they negotiating their own challenges to live up to a certain norm of being a man, and how does this affect how they represent women? So I try to look at the dynamic between genders, rather than just focus on women.

T: Do you see a comparison anywhere between how religious traditions limit gender roles in India and in Western traditions?

M: Not just a comparison; these are pervasive issues in all traditions. I see the same kind of rhetoric – that men are the norm and women are somehow secondary, weaker, less spiritually capable – in virtually every religious tradition. 

T: What do you think is the most crucial aspect of a foundation like The Learning Tea in it's efforts to change the status of women in India?

M: Giving the women you work with the tools to manage and thrive in their lives on their own, so that at a certain point they no longer rely on the support and assistance of your program. 

T: And last, tell us about your experiences in India, why is it special to you?

M: I first traveled to India at the formative age of 21, and it became one of those transformative life experiences many people have at that point in their lives. India is also where I first met my husband, so it’s special for that reason as well. But the main reason why I keep going back to India is that it’s unlike any other place I know – so intense, colorful, pulsating with life, its beauty and dirt and noise and serenity all wrapped up in one.