Growing up, I was sandwiched between the Protestant beliefs of my mother and the Catholic beliefs of the convent school I attended. My father is a non-practising Catholic. As a child, I absorbed the often contradictory and sometimes (though rarely) complementing doctrines and principles of these two Christian denominations. However, the one contradiction I always found particularly confusing as a child was how each viewed the Virgin Mary. The Sunday School I attended at my mum’s church rarely mentioned her except in passing when talking of the story of Christmas or the first miracle at the wedding in Cana. As opposed to this, the Catholics have an entire month dedicated to the Virgin Mary where her role in the life of Jesus Christ was not only remembered but celebrated. This month, the month of May, being the Month of Mary; I thought I would reflect on these two diverging views on the woman whose name is so closely associated with the figure of the Christ, as I have seen and experienced in the tiny town of Shillong.
Shillong is a place of many contradictions. Its population demographic is predominantly tribal, with the Khasi tribe being the most populous at 51% of the population (according to the 2011 census). The rest is comprised of other tribals from Meghalaya and other Northeastern States, and a non-tribal population from other parts of the country. The local tribal people are predominantly Christian whilst the rest follow the indigenous religions called Niam Khasi and Niam-tre. There is much syncretisation of local customs and Christian beliefs. For example, the funeral of a Christian Khasi man involves burial of the body in line with Christianity; but before that, a wake of 3 days and 2 nights is held where the body of the deceased is placed in his home, where streams of mourners and people offering condolences arrive to pay their last respects, as per traditional Khasi custom. However, not every belief can be so beautifully syncretised. Besides there being a passive-aggressive (and on the rare occasion, an actually physically aggressive) ideological war between the Khasis and the non-tribals, there is also the war between the Catholics and the Protestants. A strange rivalry that is more reminescent of 16th century Tudor England than the modern world where both denominations co-exist quite peacefully.
The Khasis, being a matrilineal tribe that passes not only lineage but property along the female line, have ultimately clashed with the patriarchal customs of Christianity. And nowhere is this seen more prominently than in the figure of the Virgin Mary. From the time I was old enough to attend Protestant Sunday School, I was living in this limbo between Catholic doctrine and Protestant doctrine mixed in with some local doctrines as well. There was much scoffing done at the expense of “those Catholics who worship a woman like she was at par with the Saviour of mankind.” This reflected on the deep-seated sexist and misogynistic tendencies of the Protestant churches. How dare a woman be made equal to a man? That too, not just any man but Christ himself. It was a regular indoctrination in the understanding that a woman’s role in a story is only to aid or serve the role of the protagonist, who is always a man. This was extended beyond stories in the Bible into every day life itself.
Every month of May, we would sing songs of praise for the Virgin Mary in my Catholic school. And every month of May, I would hear the barely contained whispers of outrage over this aggrandisement of a mere woman. The Virgin Mary was reduced to a mere vessel whose role ceased to be important the moment her precious cargo was born. Forget the fact that she had enough faith and courage to announce her pregnancy to her fiancé before them being married, forget that she travelled to a far off land in her condition for the taking of the census, where she eventually ended up giving birth in a manger, not even a human dwelling. All this strength of character, this endless courage and the unflinching faith that she had in what she had been told by the angel Gabriel, was erased for being a woman.
I remember being taught of Jesus’ first miracle where his mother coaxed him into turning water into wine. In Catholic school, we were made to see how the Virgin Mary held an influence over her son. Even if he was the promised Saviour, he still listened to his mother. She was special. In Protestant Sunday School, we were only taught of how Jesus turned water into wine, the greatness of the man promised as a Saviour. Catholicism still embraces this secondary albeit important role of a woman in the story of the Saviour but the Protestants denied it altogether. All this praise and adulation over a woman was seen as foolish and, believe it or not, as blasphemous. The main evidence for the blasphemy charge being the statues of the Virgin Mary that were placed in Catholic churches. This was, according to the Protestants, a direct disobeying of the second commandment which states that, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” – Exodus 20:4. To disobey this commandment, that too, because of a woman, was unjustifiable and complete blasphemy.
Christianity can be considered a misogynistic religion especially when you take into account the teachings of Saint Paul who is remembered by literary critics as one of the most outspoken and zealous misogynists the world has witnessed. “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34. This is one of the many passages that speaks of Saint Paul’s misogyny. However, if you were to take into account the context in which it was written, he was probably not saying anything too shocking. Back in his day, women were expected to play a domestic role instead of delving into the more “manly” matters of government and religion. The problem lies when we look back at these passages 19 centuries later, and still interpret them quite literally and that too, outside of their context. The world has come very far from where it was back then, and to forget that we have a different context will bring dangerous results. Besides the Church of England, no other Christian denomination allows for women to be priests or pastors. No woman is allowed to take a leading role in the interpretation of the Bible. When it is only men who hold a monopoly over Church doctrine, it is bound to be skewed against women.
There is, thus, an uneasy truce between the tribal matrilineal customs of the Khasis and the male dominated ideology of the Christian churches. I personally believe that all Christian churches in Shillong – Catholic and the myriad Protestant ones – promote some form of chastising and/or dominating of women. However, the Catholic Church, in its very structure, is more comfortable with the idea of women playing an active role in the mission of the church – be it as school administrators, or as sisters of mercy who run orphanages and old-age homes. This may be a far cry from allowing women to become priests, but it is still one step forward.
Christianity is inherently sexist and misogynistic but the Protestant churches take this one step further in refusing to acknowledge the importance of the one woman whose presence in the story of the Christ is of such central value. This is especially tragic in Shillong as the Khasis are a people who pride themselves on being matrilineal in a country where gender justice is a far off reality for most women.