Dargahs and Women’s Issues in India

Hello everyone! My name is Alanna and I’m guest-blogging for our two wonderful bloggers Sarah Wells and Allison Hren. I’m a senior at Elon University majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies and am so excited to be going back to India! I’ve previously studied abroad and had the pleasure of traveling to India where I fell in love with the people, places, sites, smells, sounds, etc.


Alanna with a Hindu holy man near the River Ganges in Varanasi, North India, in 2011.

During our trip to Madurai, we will be visiting a dargah, which is an Islamic holy place generally built over a grave of a revered religious figure, similar to a shrine.  Dargahs are relevant to our course because Islam is the second-most practiced religion in India after Hinduism.  Approximately 14% of the Indian population, or 160 million people, identify as Muslim.  Specific to Sufi Muslims, dargahs traditionally house mosques, meeting rooms, Islamic religious schools, residences for professors or caretakers, hospitals, and other community buildings.  Many Sufis believe that dargahs are channels through which they can come in contact with the deceased saint and ask for certain blessings.  Others simply visit dargahs to pay their respects to deceased religious individuals or to pray at the site for perceived spiritual benefits.  I am very excited to arrive in Madurai to further my knowledge of dargahs and observe the religious practices through our on-site fieldwork.

Madurai Dargah 1

The dargah that our group will visit in Madurai:

India is the world’s second-most inhabited nation in the world with a population of over 1.2 billion.  As a result, women’s issues in India vary widely by religion, ethnicity, caste, education, social class and occupation.  For my issue paper I will attempt to articulate everyday life and concerns of approximately 600-million Indian women without over-generalizing. The traditional Indian social structure heavily favors males, generally giving them economic and social authority while females are primarily confined to domestic roles. In numerous Indian communities, the birth of a daughter is seen as a curse and financial liability because women hold little or no economic, social or familial power in Indian culture.  Many times, the importance of producing a son is seen as the determinant between a successful or failed family. It is the son who carries on the family line, houses his new bride, financially supports the family and brings pride to his family name. Even in the case of highly educated and professionally qualified women, a dowry is often still provided at the time of marriage.  In some areas, sex-selective abortions or female infanticide are practiced, leaving India’s male-female ratio adversely disturbed with a gender ratio illustrating 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. 

The strongly marked gender differences are also illustrated in the dominant joint family system because the home is typically under the authority of the father or oldest male.  Indian families are generally structured by patrilineal descent, which means that kinship is created through males.  When a woman marries she travels to live with her husband and his family, becoming a new daughter-in-law in her husband’s house, where she is often expected to cook, clean and do other chores around the house.   Such a system weakens a woman’s ties to her natal homes and force her to become accustomed to, and accept, her new family’s deities, traditions, foods, etc. as her own. With a female literacy rate of 53.4%, many Indian women are not highly educated, leaving them with limited educational and career opportunities.  These limitations may lead to exclusion, marginalization and wage discrimination in the job market. According to the calculations of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS), male workers earned an average of INR 73 (USD 1.34) per day, while female workers earned an average of INR 47.4 (USD .87).   The cumulative effect of illiteracy, limited career opportunities and overall subordinate life-sustaining scripts forces poverty-stricken Indian women to depend heavily on males. The Indian government has passed copious amounts of legislation to safeguard the rights of women including the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Succession Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, the Indecent Representation of Women Prevention Act, and the Sati Prevention Act.  Even with this considerable amount of constitutional and legal attention to women’s issues, the patriarchal socio-cultural realities of India still prevail. While many women lead fulfilled lives both personally and professionally, in general, India’s traditional values and behavioral norms inhibit women from claiming powerful or even equal roles in the realms of familial authority, sexual autonomy, economic independence, or social presence.

Countdown to India: T-minus 9 days! Can’t wait!

We’re looking forward to meeting women from all walks of life during our coursework in South India, like the women working in the informal sector, such as the vegetable sellers pictured here, and the professional women from the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute pictured below.





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