No discussion about women’s empowerment is complete without an examination of the role that religion has played in enforcing gender hierarchies. That complex interconnection goes back centuries, spans continents, and has proved stubbornly difficult to weed out. So when 29-year-old Disha Arora decided to make her first film, this was precisely the place she wanted to start. Her documentary Women and Religion in India was premiered by the Kriti Film Club in Delhi on June 15, after a couple of public screenings in the United States of America.

The idea for the film came to Arora when she had taken a sabbatical from her job – she works in the development sector and has been associated with several non-profits over the years. “I wanted to explore this topic for two important reasons. One, I have always been a feminist, even before I knew the term and two, I had my love-hate relationship with religion,” she told Scroll.in. “I was a fairly religious child and as I grew up, I saw how religion is used as a tool for discrimination. That was something that motivated me to explore how different religions in our country affect the human rights of women.”

Her experience in the non-profit sector had also showed her that when it comes to women’s rights, no real change is possible without examining the role of religion in society. “We always talk about changing the mindset of people and I think we definitely cannot ignore the dynamics of structures like religion and caste when we are trying to do that,” she said. “Religion is something which in India you just can’t escape.”

The documentary features a range of voices – a grassroots activist in Uttar Pradesh, a professor in Rajasthan, a Christian nun in Kerala, scholars in Jammu and Kashmir, a housewife in Pune – belonging to all major Indian religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Sikkhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Two lessons emerge. One is that no religion, no matter how liberal its antecedents, is free from discrimination. The second is that while the lived experience of religion may differ from one faith, region, and social class to another, the core – that women are kept out of positions of power – stays the same.

Women and Religion in India (2018).
Women and Religion in India (2018).

Arora spoke to at least 200 women over 10 months of travel across 14 states. “I have majorly interviewed women, deliberately,” Arora said. “Because religion, in other domains of our society, is led by men. I want to use this documentary as a space to add diverse voices of women to discussions on religion. To know, what do women think of religion? How do they feel that religion is affecting them, and how can it be used as a tool to better their situation?”

One of the interviewees, a housewife from Maharashtra, best captures this tenuous relationship: “Religion and women are like a game of seesaw. One goes up, the other goes down – when religion wins, women lose.”

All the women have been identified only by their first names, even well-known ones such as Trupti Desai, the activist from Maharashtra who fought for years to demand entry for women to the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar. The restriction was finally lifted in April 2016. The choice to leave out surnames was deliberate, Arora said, because as far as possible, she wanted no markers of class, caste, or religion in the names of her interviewees.

The documentary also shows how relatively progressive religions have adopted exclusionary ideas over the years. Lajwanti, a student of Buddhism in Jammu and Kashmir, talks about being told she could not enter a monastery in Nubra, Ladakh, as she was impure – a concept that has no mention in Buddhist texts.

Arora too maintained that it’s not religion by itself as much as its interpretation that has led to discrimination. “In most of the religions, on paper, there is some discrimination. But the interpretation makes it worse,” she said. “Because it is majorly men who are interpreting it, historically and they have taken away the good things, the part that talks about women’s rights, for instance, and stressed on the negative aspects.”

Women and Religion in India (2018).
Women and Religion in India (2018).

Arora part crowd-funded her project, but most of the financing was out of her pocket. Travelling alone across the country, she said, made the journey as satisifying as the end result. “The highlight was the kind of women and girls I met, because they challenged a lot of my preconceived notions and stereotypes,” Arora elaborated. “For example, we have certain preconceived notions about rural women, Hindu women, Muslim women etc. The people who I met challenged a lot of these notions.”

Most eye-opening was the exposure to the multiple dimensions of feminism, she said. “Being born and raised in an urban environment, my feminism was very urban,” she said. “But here I saw what grassroots activists are doing…or women who have covered their head [following patriarchal norms in one way] – they are talking about abortion, reproductive rights. This broke a lot of my notions.”

After the premiere in Delhi, Arora is talking to non-profits for screenings in other cities. Plans about additional screenings will be shared on Women and Religion in India’s Facebook page, she said.