15 thoughts on ““Wedding volunteers”

  1. I’m also a bit lost. I’m certainly very unenthusiastic about the implication that these women need to be “saved” through marriage. On the other hand, this does seem to be an attempt to resist the idea that these women are worthless, and perhaps also to undermine the destructive dowry tradition. So I guess I want to know what someone more informed thinks about what looks to me like a complicated situation, and am posting only so I can check the “notify me of follow-up comments” box.

  2. As Aaron suggested, there are various interpretations one could offer to the aforementioned event. And, there certainly are many layers to it. Perhaps, I could jot down a few while always running the risk of forgetting to mention (or even not being aware!) of several others.

    First, prostitution is a flourishing (illegal) trade in India (as elsewhere) and it goes without saying that men control every aspect of it. Of course, it also is looked down upon by almost every member of the “society” – for the sake of this discussion, I am assuming there is one Indian society, which isn’t the case, of course. Since prostitution is shunned by a society, which is overwhelmingly religious and conservative in its views, sex workers are really at the bottom (read “outside”) of the social hierarchy. (Maybe there are other groups at the bottom, too, but that’s beside the point.) One of the ramifications of this is that children of sex workers face the almost impossible task of reintegrating into mainstream society. They are eschewed as much as their mothers by almost everyone. In the light of this bleak picture (that I barely painted), it is nothing short of revolutionary on the part of the religious leader of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) to exhort his followers to marry prostitutes provided they give up their trade. In a Christian religious setting, we have the image of Jesus offering forgiveness to a prostitute (who supposedly was Mary Magdalene according to the Catholic Church) provided she repent for her sins. Except that in the case of the DSS, there really is no sin to be forgiven, only that marrying prostitutes will enable them to be reintegrated into society. Such a reintegration may not necessarily be smooth but, at least, there exists a genuine possibility. Personally, I don’t like the idea that these women need to be “saved” through marriage, but given the circumstances under which they live, marriage is arguably their best chance leading to a decent life. Of course, their children in turn will have a much brighter future.

    Second, one must bear in mind that the DSS followers run the risk (which must not be discounted) of being up against (crime) syndicates that run brothels or control the lives of sex workers. In view of this, their “offer” is highly commendable and also risky.

    Third, as the BBC reports, the DSS leader and his followers have been involved in several confrontations in recent times with mainstream Sikh leaders and their followers. Those showdowns often have resulted in violence and deaths. Since the DSS is a new cult/sect/religion, there is bound to be face-offs between its members and those of established mainstream religions. Anyway, keeping in mind that most religions during their formative years espouse social justice (among other causes), it seems that the DSS is following a familiar route albeit somewhat a radical/revolutionary one.

    The BBC article also reports the following:

    Business graduate Ashish Sachdeva, 22, is in the garments trade in the town of Sirsa. He believes that marrying a sex worker could be his chance to repay his debt to humanity and society.

    “I am very well settled and it will be the greatest honour for me to respond to Guru-ji’s call.”

    Two things to notice in the above. First, Ashish believes/thinks “that marrying a sex worker could be his chance to repay his debt to humanity and society.” His conviction is borne of the belief that prostitution is the bane of society, a thought that is generally accepted to be true by almost all Indians. Second, his conviction is juxtaposed with his desire to “respond to Guru-ji’s [spiritual teacher’s] call.” One must bear in mind that Ashish’s parents or his relatives may not necessarily approve of his marrying a prostitute. In fact, they may be vehemently opposed to such a “pernicious” idea. In the light of this, Ashish’s strong desire to respond to his Guru-ji’s call may also be seen as a measure of the strength of his new beliefs.

  3. I find myself a bit concerned about how these women will be treated by their husbands, who may well be rather smugly pleased with themselves for making the extreme sacrifice of marrying someone “beneath” them, who will be totally dependent on them. Sounds like “legalized” spouse abuse in the making, I fear. On the other hand……

  4. I’m skeptical about this one, too. Given the high rate of HIV among the women and children these men claim to want to “help”, and the accusations against the DSS leader of instigating riots and raping women, I just don’t see how these offers could be sincere.

    Then again, the politics in that region are pretty tricky. In a tangle of sectarian violence and rape, who’s going to tell the truth about who did what to whom and in the name of what God, political party or social justice issue?

    Religious and political squabbles aside, though, the issue of HIV is just too big a deterrent for even the most sincere “saviour”. Most would-be messiahs pick a more spectacular rite of martyrdom, don’t they?

    This is an interesting post. I hope the Jenders and/or Vishal Lama will let us know if anything positive does happen for these women and their children in the coming months.

  5. V.L. Pardon me if my questions about “answering the call of divinity” are a little ethnocentric. Sometimes knowing a tiny bit about others’ customs can be worse than knowing nothing at all.

    I’m interpreting the stated desire “to repay a debt to society” in very Judaeo-Christian terms. This would include any combination of 3 specific goals: to honour the divine/society/collective/future generations through an act of self-sacrifice that benefits a prostitute and her child directly; to offer charity in a more practical sense, or the reverse–to attempt to eliminate an “evil”.

    I’m missing a cross-cultural subtlety here, aren’t I?

  6. @Xena: I think J’s as well as your concerns vis-a-vis “those women” are quite justified. It would be silly/foolish to assume that those prostitutes after getting married would not be confronted with unpleasant realities. For instance, how much status would be accorded her by her husband’s parents and immediate relatives, say? That’s an important question because most married Indian women don’t only live with their husbands. They also have to live under the same roof with their in-laws, who most often comprise their respective husbands’ parents (and possibly grandparents) and sometimes his unmarried brother(s)/sister(s). (From what I little know, this isn’t very different from what it used to be like in the US a hundred years ago!) Living with in-laws is certainly a decaying phenomenon in urban areas in India (but still common) but in the rural areas that isn’t the case.

    I have very little information on the DSS except for the fact that its members were involved in sectarian conflicts with members of the (predominant) Sikh religion over allegations that the DSS leader tried to project himself as a Guru (spiritual/religious leader) modeled on the last (10th) Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. Also, most of the DSS members belong to the so-called lower castes, and so, caste tensions (especially quite common in rural areas) also come into play. I should mention that the influence of the caste system in India is so strong (especially in the rural areas) that even though religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism are technically not supposed to have caste divisions, they haven’t escaped from such an influence.

    Anyway, all this is not to suggest that I am sanguine about the DSS. On the contrary, I am skeptical of religious/spiritual movements/organizations trying to usher social change and all that, and I remain most skeptical of charismatic leaders who supposedly hold the key to such a change. It certainly remains to be seen if all this is just a gimmick by the DSS leader.

  7. V.L., I think you might have just nailed it. This situation reminds me of an anthro class from a few years ago. At that time, the “headline grabber” in India (I don’t remember the exact location) was a group of untouchables who had amassed enough wealth through their work in the leather industry to own land and rent to members of the brahmin caste. In order to justify this highly irregular (and improper?) arrangement, the brahmins constructed a new meta-narrative identifying some kind of “karmic accident”(?) where the untouchables were brahmins in another incarnation, and were being repaid with new found wealth and status for the “mistake”of being reincarnated as untouchables.

    Pardon me if that interpretation is half-remembered and kind of sloppy; like I said, I only know a tiny bit about the cultural/religious/political workings of the region(s) we’re discussing, and to my thinking, they are COMPLICATED.

    What I’m getting at here is the question: when a man claims to want to “answer the call of Guri-ji” and “repay a debt to society”, he’s not making the statement in the Judaeo-Christian sense, right? He wants (or is at least claiming to want, for whatever reason) to repay a karmic debt and act toward favourably altering his path along the spiral of incarnation? I know this meta-narrative is Hindu, but some Hindu influences must have trickled into other religions if their followers have adopted the caste system?

    Am I “on the right track” in guessing that when members of the lower caste make “headline grabbing” claims, the intent is often to work within the system (if only by paying lip service to it) to elevate their status?

  8. @Xena: Based on your comments above, I have to say that they are quite perceptive! (That anthro class you took wasn’t so bad after all!)

    As you surmised, the dynamics of caste, religion, ethnicity and gender in India are indeed very complicated. Just to be sure, caste divisions, say, are disappearing at a fairly decent rate in urban areas. But they are very much observed in rural and semi-urban areas, where (if my memory serves me right) at least 60% of the country’s population still lives. Just to give you a taste of the complicated dynamics I just mentioned , take the example of Brahmins. I think many in the West are aware that brahmins (as a caste group occupying the top tier of the social hierarchy) have historically belonged to a privileged class. This is not to suggest that all of them were rich or accomplished. Many were (are) poor and did (do) worse than others including some from the so-called lower castes. But, there is always a certain amount of “veneration” (perhaps I am slightly overstating here) accorded them by almost all members of Hindu society. Anyway, very few Westerners, I think, are aware that not all Brahmins are born equal! There are, of course, sub-castes of Brahmins, and “rules” concerning marriage, say, are observed quite conscientiously. For instance, the sub-caste of Brahmins who traditionally are cooks(!) – keep in mind that not any cook was (are) permitted in a traditional Brahmin marriage – are lower in the Brahmin caste hierarchy, and consequently, they don’t (or aren’t permitted) to marry Brahmins who are higher up and involved in priestly duties, say. Well, it is possible that what I just wrote above isn’t observed in other parts of the country, for there is a fair amount of heterogeneity in practice.

    In response to your question on karma and duty, I think you are correct in assuming that oftentimes “repaying debt to society” is associated with one’s “karmic duty.” That is, good karma can (should) be accumulated whenever chance permits. In addition, as you hinted, “answering one’s Guru’s call” definitely involves accumulating a lot of good karma! [On a slightly related note, every Hindu family used to have its own “family guru” over and above any other Guru its members might choose to venerate. Of course, things are different nowadays, but I think family gurus are still very much in vogue in rural areas.]

    Also, there is no doubt that “Hindu” philosophy, epistemology, religion, myths, practices and so on have had considerable influence on religions of Indian origin. I put the word ‘Hindu’ in quotes because we must bear in mind that there isn’t a single monolithic Hindu philosophy or religion. The Hindu religion is highly syncretic, having absorbed most of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices unique to particular regions/areas over the course of its development. So, for instance, certain Hindu schools consider Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) to be the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu (who together with Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma form the Hindu Trinity!)

    Lastly, I think you are more or less right in assuming that many of the “headline grabbing” claims do involve attempts on the part of those making such claims to elevate their status in the social hierarchy by, of course, working within the system. As you might have guessed, the Hindu system is highly flexible and has the capacity to accommodate pretty much any thought/idea. (To provide an example, much to the consternation of Christians (I think), Jesus is considered by a lot of Hindus to be an enlightened saint whose teachings were somehow lost and misinterpreted by his followers!)

  9. Fascinating. I actually enjoyed my anthro classes. I was just a little nervous about extrapolating based on info that I studied several years ago. I’m genuinely curious about the mythologies that shape human experience in the multi-cultural communities where I live and travel. It’s important to me to be able to relate well–at times when cross-cultural misunderstandings create hostility, I’ve even felt that my safety depends on being able to speak to human similarities rather than our differences.

    That’s an interesting statement on JC’s teachings. I decided as a teenager that I wouldn’t call myself a Xtian for just that reason! I’m still trying to figure out how those medieval Catholics ever got to “burn the witches and beat the devil out of women” from “be excellent to each other”.

    The difference between “wedding” and “marriage” that you pointed out comes down to “public ritual”, or ceremonial forms demonstrated before the extended family and community leaders (elders?) vs. private informal matters of practical day-to-day life then? Unlike some westerners, I do grasp the difference between “wealth” and “status”. I’m fairly confident in my grasp on concepts of “ritual purity”, which if I’m not mistaken, is the basis for the higher castes’ status in your country, not money or possessions. But given the strict rules of conduct regarding what’s required to “stay pure”, I’m wondering if my understanding of the distinction between a “wedding” and a “marriage” as “a formal display” and “a less formal partnership” needs further fine-tuning?

  10. @Xena: You are on the money regarding the difference between “wedding” and “marriage” for Hindus. Perhaps, I should add why I made that “error” in using “marriage” when I should have used “wedding” instead, earlier. The Hindi word – btw, Hindi isn’t a language of Hindus – for marriage is shaadi. [Ever visited http://www.shaadi.com? :)] Native speakers of Hindi will ordinarily refer to both “wedding” and “marriage” (understood in the Western sense) as shaadi. That is, both the union (marriage) and the (usually elaborate) ceremony (wedding) are shaadi. Consequently, I imbibed this indifference to the meanings of “wedding” (as a formal ceremony) and “marriage” (as a union) for a long time, which is why oftentimes I use those two words interchangeably! The distinction was brought into focus only when, a few years ago, a good Indian American friend of mine pointed how, like other Indians, I consistently used the word “marriage” to refer to both marriage and wedding.

    As you probably already know, Indian weddings generally tend to be elaborate affairs. Brahmin priests are absolutely required (needed) to perform the necessary rituals (chanting Vedic hymns, offering food to the deities, etc. ) In many cases, such as in one of my uncle’s traditional wedding, the priest recites hymns/prayers almost the entire night!

  11. Just to nuance the discussion a little, I wanted to make a couple of points.

    First, the “debt to humanity and society” I would interpret as a transformation of a Vedic understanding that men have 3 debts: to the gods, the ancestors, and the rsis (seers). To repay these debts, one studies the Vedas to repay the seers (who heard the Vedas and delivered them to humanity); one bears sons to repay one’s debt to the ancestors; and one gives sacrifice to repay one’s debts to the Gods. Now, By the turn of the first millennium, this had already been re-interpreted in Dharmasastras, and this transformation continued, especially during the time of the Hindu renaissance in the 19th century. They way they are talking about debts here is not that much of a stretch from how some of the 19th-20th century thinkers talked about it. The general point here is that few study the Vedas, and puja has replaced Vedic sacrifice… so these debts are continually re-conceived .

    Second, there is precedent in certain parts of modern Indian society (I’m not sure if there are historical precedents for this) for men to wed women in unorthodox situations for various reasons. Sometimes it was to relieve the women of social stigma, for a symbolic statement, and so forth. The most radical example I have heard is of a grandson who wed his grandmother so that she would not face the social stigma and the consequences therein of being a widow.

    Third, I think all of the cynicism in the comments are not necessarily out of place. If the condition of the wedding/marriage is for the women to give up the sex trade, then there is far more going on here than altruism. The the use of the term “respectible options” should be a clue. Nonetheless, if these men are relatively well-off in this context, however patronizing their thought may be, it could potentially be an empowering place for these women to move from prostitution (which since the time of the British has become increasingly inauspicious in India) to wife (sumangali, that is the most auspicious ‘role’ for women), and the potential socio-economic benefits of the marriages. But, of course, it is a conceptual trade-off: many of the assumptions underlying the offer, as mentioned above, are terribly problematic, but on the other hand, it may be the case that these women would take this up as a quality of life issue etc. Of course, it might just be jumping from the frying pan into the fire (i.e. these women always having their former profession held against them within the marriage and facing oppression because of it). What would be best to do, before coming to any position on this, would be to ask the women these men are targeting what they think of the whole thing. Which leads to my next point:

    Fourth, Where are women’s voices in this article? How is this story framed? What kinds of knowledges are being brought to bear about these women who are silenced in many ways in this article and thus the ensuing discussion?

  12. Given what’s been discussed so far, with prostitutes being “outside the system”, will they even have a voice if they’re not “saved” by marriage?

    Or, if you’re referring to the “voice” of a female journalist in terms of news coverage, good luck finding one who’s bold enough to visit an Indian brothel for an interview. I read a story in a women’s magazine a few years ago, complete with several pages of shocking photos illustrating the conditions in those places. I believe it was written by a man with experience as a war correspondent. Granted, the piece may have been designed to show the worst of the worst, but what female journalist is going to be welcome in any brothel? Or, on the flip side of the issue, how qualified is a female journalist who’s never set foot in an Indian brothel to “give a voice” to a woman she’s never met?

    Also, with the degree of male control involved in the industry, I suspect that even a (likely male) journalist who’s resourceful enough to get past the industry’s “gatekeepers” would have a serious problem extracting an honest and informative commentary from an illiterate girl who’s been bought, sold, raped and tortured since the age of 7.

  13. Oops, I just re-read that last comment, fuzzy. You’re talking about the particular 1000 women that these men intend to marry. I didn’t get the impression from the article that there were any specific fiancees yet; just a vague reference to some women in red light districts in Calcutta who contacted the DSS.

    The comment “This is going to have to be a slow and delicately handled process,” suggests that there haven’t been any formal arrangements yet. So, like I said, who’s brave enough to hang around the red-light districts of Calcutta to “give a voice” to these women?


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