South Asia: are women unequal in God’s eyes?


Kung Fu nuns in the Himalayas, upper-class professional women in Pakistan and female ascetics in India, they all have something in common. Faith? That’s just one side of the story. An investigation into the gender gap inherent in the top three religions of South Asia:  Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

South Asian societies rank among the worsts in terms of gender equality. Relative gaps between women and men across the areas of health, education, economy and politics continue to persist. Less known perhaps, is that divisions extend to the spiritual realm as well. Buddhist nuns continue to be subordinated to monks; Muslim women are labeled as oppressed, and Hindu female ascetics survive within the framework of systems that are essentially male-oriented. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, the Baltic Review traveled to South Asia, interviewing religious figures and experts across the region, to understand how gender equality is being promoted in religious institutions and beyond.


They shave their heads, wear simple maroon robes, and renounce worldly desires. But the women seeking enlightenment in Buddhist nunneries find themselves subject to “an enduring gender hierarchy in which monks bless and purify the fields and houses where nuns toil”.

This is what Kim Gutschow concluded after living for more than three years among these women high in the folds of Himalayan Kashmir.

Author of the book, ‘Being a Budddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas’, Gutschow penetrated the contradictions between Buddhist practice and doctrine, providing valuable insight into the relationship between women and religion in South Asia today.

Photo by Pratap Thapa.

Photo by Pratap Thapa.

Overall, the number of Buddhist monks in the region, appears to have leveled off due to changing economic conditions and shifting inheritance patterns. Younger sons have less incentive to become monks now that they can “claim their share of the family land and pursue salaried jobs or wage labor in the growing cash economy,” Gutschow explained. Yet for daughters – because of difficulties in entering the labor market and claiming their rightful share of family property – nunneries remain a “desirable career option”.

For the German anthropologist gender continues to influence ritual and social power in the context of Buddhism monasticism. “While Buddhist doctrine offers the appealing argument that gender has no bearing on the potential of enlightenment, its monastic practices both legitimate and extend gender disparities. In closing, Buddhist monasticism has proven somewhat less enlightened than expected,” Gutschow said.

Photo by Pratap Thapa.

Palden Lhamo practicing Kung Fu. Photo by Pratap Thapa.

If Buddhist monasticism seems to reflect the very world it was supposed to renounce, a group of nuns in South Asia is breaking gender stereotypes in a rather unconventional way.

It is early in the morning at the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery on a hillside on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and a group of nuns looks like it has just come straight out of a Bruce Lee movie.

If Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas have traditionally been seen as inferior to monks, the 800-year-old Drukpa – or dragon – sect is changing all that by mixing meditation with Kong Fu as a means of empowering its women.

Practicing the martial art strengthens their body while boosting their self-esteem, the nuns explained. Here, fists coexist with meditation. 

Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader of the order, shared that as a boy growing up in the region, he observed how nuns were considered “second-class” with most of the benefits going to monks. By introducing martial arts to the nunnery almost 6 years ago, he hopes to advance the rights of women and trigger a movement towards gender equality.

Nuns such as Palden Lhamo, 23, practice up to two hours a day.

“Kung Fu is helping me staying in shape both physically and mentally; to develop a strong body and mind,” she told the Baltic Review. As she trains, high kicks are executed in total unison with the rest of the nuns. Each routine uses different broadswords, flags and spears.

Jigmey Zeskit, a petite 20-year-old nun, has trained for less than six years, but she is gradually turning into an expert of the sword-wielding forms of the ancient art of Kung Fu.

Young women now come to the nunnery from as far as Bhutan, Tibet and India, united by the hope of achieving deeper gender equality in the realm of religion and beyond.

Photo by Pratap Thapa.

Photo by Pratap Thapa.


In the attempt to change the popular Western picture of Muslim women, what if we were to focus on professional figures?

Shahla Haeri studied for more than a decade, upper-middle class Pakistani women, who chose to struggle against family and community pressures and develop outstanding careers.

At the time of her research and publication of the book ‘No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women’, “the dominant media’s attention in the West was focused on the urban poor and impoverished communities, highlighting the presumable harsh lives of Muslim women,” Haeri told the Baltic Review.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

“While it is true that many women in the Muslim world may be suffering from various forms of injustice within their families and society, as it is the case in many Western societies, many others are thriving, engaged and active, and are influential. But this was – and still is, though less so – the category that had gone unnoticed or remained ‘invisible’ in the West,” she explained.

According to the Iran-born and America-trained anthropologist, social media and greater willingness on the part of society at large to learn and ‘see’ for itself are gradually changing the public perception of Muslim women.

“Having said that though, the tragic events such as what happened in France earlier on this year [Charlie Hebdo attack], almost immediately trigger feelings of Islamophobia and accusations of guilt by association. So, yes, while some of the stereotypes have changed, others – more entrenched – seem to have replaced them”.

Haeri believes that what is problematic is the singling out of Islam as “the champion of world oppression of women.” Religion, in fact, continues to be represented as the major – if not the only – cause of the oppression and victimization of Muslim women, she argued.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

According to renowned Sufi feminist Nilofar Ahmed, whom Haeri interviewed for her book, if Muslim women reinterpret scriptures for themselves, religion is empowering rather than destructive.

“Many educated women like Nilofar Ahmed are unwilling to relinquish their religiosity and spirituality to the age old patriarchal traditions and are interested in giving the scripture a fresh and women friendly reading. They intend to reclaim the important rights Islam has given women, such as having an autonomous voice in their marriage and divorce, inheritance and the like,” Haeri said.

While a more woman friendly interpretation and rereading of the scripture may have universal significance, its application will depend very much on the on-the-ground sociopolitical structure of a particular society.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Muslim women, the Associate Professor of Anthropology at Boston University opinionated, do not constitute “one mega category”; they live in many different societies with highly different histories and cultural traditions.

Photo by Tina Miedtank.

Photo by Tina Miedtank.

“Think of the differences between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia or Turkey, for instance. Also, remember that the centuries old masculine monopoly of sacred scripture is not something that many patriarchal regimes are willing to leave unchallenged – neither in the East nor in the West,” Haeri said.        

In a country fighting to preserve patriarchal and tribal traditions, Pakistan’s women remain a powerful agent of change. The Amn-o-Nisa coalition, for instance, is fighting against religious extremism in the country by reaching out to the mothers of potential suicide bombers. Women are seen as able to initiate a process of negotiations and transformation with their children.

“Women have almost always been agents of social change, though not always overtly and dramatically. But what is nice to hear [in the case of the Amn-o-Nisa coalition], is that they are taking publicly, a visible and active role”.


Dressed in saffron colored tunics, reciting mantras and blessing devotees, Hindu holy women – or sadhvis – renounce the orthodox values of family life and domestic obligations in order to pursue the path of spiritual liberation. Whilst there is a common refrain that to be a renouncer is to be indifferent to matters of gender, ambiguities and ambivalences persist.

“Women ascetics face additional burdens to those that men face: there are less of them, and they are further marginalized,” Sondra Hausner, Associate Professor in Study of Religion at the University of Oxford, told the Baltic Review.

Sadhvi. Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Sadhvi. Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Hindu women are a minority in the ascetic movement. The ratio of one woman for every ten to twelve men is suggestive of the proportions. In her book ‘Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas’, Hausner explains that more often, women have to survive within the framework of systems that are essentially male-oriented – designed “by males for males”.

“Ascetic communities tend to be very sex-segregated,” Hausner explained, “everyone still faces a gendered social reality”.

Hindu ascetics follow essentially two modes of life. One is to keep moving, travelling from one pilgrimage site to another, and practicing begging for one’s survival. The other is to settle for a more or less long period, living independently or belonging to a monastic community.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

“Although they [women ascetics] form part of an alternative social community of renouncers, the women’s community is a subset of that, and tends to be ranked lower than that of men.  There are a few unique individual women renouncers who are well-known and much respected, but by and large, women sadhvis face a double burden,” Hausner said.

The reasons pushing Hindu women to choose a life of renunciation are diverse: if some follow their spiritual predestination, others do it to avoid the infamy of widowhood.

“I became an ascetic after my husband died. Without money; facing constant discrimination and harassment, it was impossible for me to stay in the village,” Radap Poriyar, a female ascetic from India, told the Baltic Review.

Every year she travels to Nepal on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri. For the festival which fell on February 17 this year, over 700,000 Hindu devouts and 5,000 ascetics from Nepal, India and other South Asian countries, thronged the fifth-century historic Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu offering prayers to Lord Shiva.

Ganga Giri. Photo by Dinesh Golay.

Ganga Giri. Photo by Dinesh Golay.

“When my husband passed away I was left with nothing,” Ganga Giri, an 88-year-old ascetic who lives in Pashupatinath said. “I started traveling thinking that I would no longer have a roof over my head but everything was better than staying with my family. I wasn’t welcomed there”. Giri spends most of her days in her room engaging in devotional worship and meditation. “I am too old to walk,” she explained.

For many women like Ganga, widowhood brought with it not just the shock of losing one’s husband but also being abandoned by family members and having to endure discriminatory practices as a result of religious and cultural values.  

For centuries, Hindu widows would throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, reflecting the belief that they were of little social worth without their “protector and breadwinner”.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Photo by Bibbi Abruzzini.

Outlawed in India since 1829, ‘widow-burning’, or Sati, was a widespread practice among some Hindu communities, by which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of coercion committed suicide as a result of her husband’s death.

Sati incidents are increasingly rare with the last one reported in 2006, yet widows are still traditionally considered inauspicious. Ostracized in their villages, sent away by their husbands’ families who want to prevent them inheriting money or property; many widows flee their homes voluntarily, fearing they will be abused if they stay back.

Maitri India.

Maitri India.

Vrindavan, a small town in northern India, shelters in its ashrams – a form of spiritual commune – more than 15,000 Hindu widowsJamuna Dassi, 70, was just 7 when she was married to a man fifteen years older than her. He died only a few years after the marriage.

“I was so young and was already a shame to my family and myself. I felt humiliated living at my parental home with a shaven head, and was often compelled to beg for my food”.

As a child widow, Jamuna left her home to find a place where she could regain some of her dignity in religious service. She is now being supported by Maitri, an organization working with more than 500 widows in the city of Vrindavan, providing them with nutrition, health care, education and access to citizenship rights. 

Breaking a centuries-old custom, over 1,000 widows in Vrindavan this year celebrated Holi, the festival of colours, one of the biggest Hindu holidays fêted across South Asia. If orthodox traditions forbid them from taking part in the celebrations, many of them broke away from the societal pressures and showed that the future can be a little brighter indeed.


All around the world, International Women’s Day represents an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality. Make It Happen is the 2015 theme for our global hub, encouraging effective action for advancing and recognising women. Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8. The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911. Thousands of events occur to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. Organisations, governments, charities, educational institutions, women’s groups, corporations and the media celebrate the day.



Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US - writing largely about social and development issues.

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