Deity Controversy – An example of Social Injustice

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 Sravasti Lavanya:

Over the last few days, there has been a heated argument over the propriety of placing Hindu deities in the washroom mainly among the feminists of Bangladesh. In this argument, some opined that it is okay to place any sacred object be it Quran or Hindu deities in the washroom, some opined that it is okay to place the deities in the washroom, but not the Quran while some opined that it is not acceptable to place any religious object or any object that has any religious sentiment associated with should be placed in the washroom.

It is the third category that I fall under. In my opinion, it is egregious, insensitive and extremely disrespectful to place any sacred object in the washroom. It isn’t only Hindu deities that I am speaking of.

My article addresses the first two groups i.e. those who opine that it is acceptable to place any sacred object be it Quran or Hindu deities in the washroom, and those who opine that it is acceptable to use deities as decorations in the washroom as they are beautiful, but not the Quran as it is a book.

In the context of any country, it would be extremely patronizing if a religious object that has religious sentiments of the minority community associated with it is placed in the washroom by a representative of the majority community (even if she/he considers herself/himself as an atheist, an agnostic or a secular) with disregard for what the members of the minority community may feel given the implicit structural imbalance of power. I would take this action as an example of religious appropriation. I am describing this action as religious appropriation because it shares similarities with cultural appropriation, although, it is slightly different from cultural appropriation in that it does not entail two different cultures.

However, before I go onto explaining what I mean by religious appropriation, I must define what cultural appropriation is. By definition, cultural appropriation is the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.

Now, let’s come to what I mean by religious appropriation here. Although, this situation does not involve two different cultures, it does involve two different religions – one being the state religion and the other being the minority religion. While practicing Hindus do not have collective intellectual property rights over these artifacts (deities) as they belong to South – Asian culture as a whole, they do have religious sentiments associated with them. As far as I am aware, any practicing Hindu would highly object to placing the deities in the washroom. They preserve deities with utmost care in the altar. Therefore in Bangladesh where Muslims constitute the majority of the population, if a person coming from an Islamic background uses deities as decorations for her/his washroom going against the expressly stated wishes of the Hindus who have historically been oppressed in Bangladesh, it seems as nothing but religious appropriation to me.

A bigger number within any population automatically grants the respective community greater power and privileges. While power can be used as a medium of oppression, it can also be used for ally ship – a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people – just as a particular segment of Muslims in Bangladesh sets houses of Hindus on fire while the rest persistently advocate for the rights of Hindus. I have numerous devout Muslim friends who have consistently advocated and continue to advocate for the rights of Hindus.

Those of you who are arguing that it is acceptable to use deities as decorations in the washrooms are ignoring the existing structural imbalance of power within our society between the Hindus and the Muslims. If you carefully evaluate this situation, you would notice that this situation is more about social injustice than anything else.

Logically speaking, given that Hindus do not have collective intellectual property rights over deities, you can use them in any way you want to irrespective of your religious background even if that means using them as washroom decorations. However, in doing so, you would be offending their religious sensibilities; you would be ignoring the existing structural imbalance of power and institutional oppression within our society; you would be ignoring the power and privileges that you have implicitly been granted with due to coming from the majority background and you would be abusing your power.

As far as I am aware, even practicing Hindus would not get offended if you use the deities as decorations anywhere else except the washroom. Although, Hindus do not have collective intellectual property rights over the deities, it does not hurt to treat the objects they worship with respect.

Sometimes, it isn’t wise to resort to logic to seek solution to a particular problem. Perhaps, it is time that we resort to our conscience and compassion to seek a solution to this problem. No one is ever going to stop you from using deities as decorations in your washrooms in Bangladesh. All one can do is speak against it. Now whether you choose to use deities as decorations in your washrooms or not; whether you choose to offend the religious sensibilities of the minority religious community or not; whether you choose to think that you can abuse your power to decide for the minority community as to what they should be offended with and what they should not be offended with or not, I leave that upon your conscience. The choice is yours!

The writer has recently completed her Bachelor degree in Political Science and Economics from Smith College, Massachusetts, USA . Her hobbies, apart from writing, includes listening to music, dancing, watching movies and reading.

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