Second inspiring Day at the Jaipur Literature Festival

“Woman on the path” as a title of a conversation on other days would’ve sound too religious for me. But because I intended to write an article about women’s voices at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I felt like I had to attend. I wouln’t regret.

Ranjini Obeyesekere from Sri Lanka told the tale how women made their way into Buddhism. They shaved their heads, wore ropes and wanted to enter the Sangam. But first Buddha denied. So they asked him: Have women the capability to reach nirvana? He couldn’t deny that. So he allowed them to become nuns. “Buddha was never rigid about his rules, he changed them according to the social structure,” she said.

Then Ani Choying, an ordained member of a monastic sanga in Nepal, spoke up. In earlier days nuns were treated as if they could not head the most important nine-day ceremony of her nunnery. “We would invite monks for the rituals and only participate,” she recalls. “But then I started to question myself. Why can’t we do this?” And after a couple of years the nuns would lead the puja: take out the shrine, sing, make musik, Choying explained. And now they do it so dedicated and so beautiful and even have better voices than the monks. “There is no such thing as not allowed. “If you step forward, believe in yourself and question yourself, there is always a way.”

Kunzang Choden, Ani Choying and Ranjini Obeyesekere (from left to right)

Kunzang Choden, Ani Choying and Ranjini Obeyesekere (from left to right)

The Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden told that nuns often lived in hermitages or caves and were not highly respected among the academics. “For a long time the women have lived in the shadows of the monasteries.” They wouldn’t have access to the libraries, lived were ignored, lived away from the world and just prayed. Only now this is breaking up, she said. “But the change is difficult because we are so used to men leaders and gurus.”

Choying started to talk about her personal life. “The fear of having a husband in life was the biggest reason why I became a nun.” Her example of a man was her father. “I could see a very brutal and unfair man who treated my mother bad and beat her up,” she went on.  And she feared her father would chose a man for her that treated her in the same way he did with her mother, “treat me like a piece of material that is for his use”. But she made that choise: She didn’t want to live that way. “So in our culture the only possibility was to become a nun, it was not a possibility to live alone in a home.”

Now Choying runs a school for nuns. When she set it up, she asked a well-known scholar to come to teach. He said: “Yes, no problem. I’ll definitely come.” She was surprised she could persuade him so swiftly, so she asked what the reason for that was. He replied, “it’ll be easy. What do they need to learn?”


Later in the day I was briefly able to speak to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the literary theorist and philosopher. But even today, she said, after having achieved so much academically, people talk about how she looks rather than what she proclaims. “This makes one very intellectual insecure,” she stated.

On the panel “A Surrogate Life”, Kishwar Desai told the audience: “Ever time I did something on women’s issues, everybody said: Oh that’s terrible, that’s so sad. And then switched to another channel,” the ex-reporter said. So she decided to rather write a crime novel on femal feticide. “So people can connect more easily.”

Rohini Nilekani focused on clinical trials. The government is not paying any compensation for the victims, she claims, for example for the anti-cancer vaccine that had been tried out on tribal girls. “This is quite shocking.” Nilekani asked if we as Indians have enough respect for life.

In the struggle for gender equality, women shouldn’t forget the men, Nilekani demanded. “We do need to take men along with us and boys as well.” Because they have the fear of loosing supremacy.

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