Scholars shared stories about the empowerment of women within religious contexts Friday at a conference hosted by the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The three-day conference, "Religion and Gender: Identity, Conflict, and Power," ends Saturday. It is sponsored by the Institute's recently founded Center for Conflict Studies.
Each of the members on Friday's gender empowerment panel, which included two Institute students, told conference attendees about first-hand observations of religious traditions in communities that embrace the importance of women.
Annapurna Devi Pandey, professor of cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, discussed her encounters with small communities of Buddhists in the traditionally Hindu-dominated East Indian state of Odisha.
Women are at the heart of these communities' weaving industries, engaging in everything from production to selling to transport. Their important place within this industry gives women in these communities more freedom than other women in their region. Because women are producers, dowries are not exchanged when couples marry.
"Because there is no dowry, women can decide their own marriages," said Pandey.
The weaving also plays a role in community integration, with the majority of the saris made by the Buddhists being purchased by the Hindus, who offer the garments by the thousands to their god Jagannath.
"It is not impossible to have co-existence," said Pandey.
Abhilasha Sharma, an Institute graduate student, told attendees about the Bel Biwaha tradition of the Newar women in Nepal. Newar women get married three times. As pre-pubescent girls, they marry a piece of wood apple fruit — bel means "fruit" and biwaha means "marriage." At 12, they marry the sun. The last marriage is to a man.
The marriage to the piece of fruit, which is a representation of god, empowers the women for the rest of their lives. The marriage ensures that they are never considered a widow, even when their human husband dies. This is important in Nepal, where society stigmatizes widows. It also means that women can remarry and divorce and they are not married off as young girls, rights not shared by many Nepali women.
"I never thought such a simple tradition can be so meaningful," said Sharma.
Manisha Sethi, a scholar from New Dehli, explored the reasons why Jain women in northwest India become nuns at a rate three times higher than men in the region become monks.
Many reasons are offered for the phenomenon, including families trying to avoid dowries and women being anxious about not finding a man to marry.
"It is not that they are anxious about getting married, it is anxiety about what kind of marriage it would be," said Sethi, who went on to describe the repressive role of women in marriages that are common in the society.
"Women are discriminated against in all walks of life," she added. "A woman wishes to go somewhere she can live as an individual. This can be found in religion alone."
The conference is the first sponsored by Institute's Center for Conflict Studies. The center was founded in 2011 by Pushpa Iyer, an assistant professor at the Institute. Iyer spent years as an activist in her home country of India before deciding to pursue conflict resolution as an academic.
Iyer said she hopes the center can mirror her diverse background. "I want the center to be a place where there are scholars, where there are practitioners, where there are researchers, where there are policy makers," she said.
The center's dozen or so students work with Iyer to affect residents of Monterey County in a variety of ways. Iyer oversees weekly conflict resolution classes taught by three of her students at a Castroville middle school. Other students work with organizations to reduce gang violence in Salinas. Reintegration of veterans into the community of Monterey is another focus of the center's outreach.
The conference ends Saturday with panel discussions about how politics and the law intersect with gender and religion. All sessions will be held at the Monterey Marriott and are free.