Where Religion and Secularism Meet: An All Girls School in Ahmedabad

 

https://youtu.be/ivXinHdnY5Q

Video by Roda Osman

 

Written by Ana Singh

AHMEDABAD – On most days, Dr. Nita Shah feels like she is the mother of 400 girls. She helps them with their homework, with making their beds and comforts them when they are homesick. In fact, many of the girls at her school, SV Randesan, call her “Ma.”

“She is naturally like that,” said her assistant principal, Bharat Mavadia.

And if she is the mother, Mavadia is the father figure on campus. “I just picked up the role that was then required,” he said. “I needed to be the disciplinarian guy.”

SV Randesan, a residential boarding school in Ahmedabad for girls in fifth through twelfth grades has nearly doubled in size since it first opened its doors two years ago. With 370 current students, there is no plan to stop growing. Instead, over the next few years the school hopes to have 1,000 students.

“There was a demand from parents for a school which could accommodate under-privileged girls,” said Shah. “They live at their remote locations villages where good educational systems are not there.” The majority of the students receive some form of financial assistance and many of the girls from poor rural areas are given access to a free education.

Financial aid for the school is made possible through the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism. But despite the religious affiliation, the school prides itself on providing a traditional secular education to its students. The classrooms are enhanced by the state of the art facility and fully equipped with the latest technologies. “Having technology helps get our students ahead,” said Mavadia.

Technology is one of the ways in which SV Randesan is trying to empower its students from underprivileged backgrounds. Literacy, especially among girls and women, is woefully low in India. The overall literacy rate for women in India is 39 percent in comparison to a 64 percent literacy rate for men. As a result there are 200 million illiterate women in India.  Educational disparities for women become even more exaggerated in rural areas where only 31 percent of all women are literate. In urban areas the literacy rate among women is drastically higher at 64 percent.

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A few of the girls inside their dormitories

Ana Singh

Besides poor job prospects, low illiteracy rates have other societal implications for Indian women. Thirty-eight percent of illiterate married women were married below the age of 18 in comparison to the 23 percent of literate women who got married below the legal age according to the most recent census data. One of the intentions of both the school is to give girls and young women access to education in the hopes that they can achieve financial success without depending on an underage marriage for security.

In addition to providing a quality education for young girls, SV Randesan also emphasizes values such as honesty, obedience and good behavior, both in and outside of the classroom. Although all school lessons are secular, these values connect back to the teachings of the Swaminarayan faith. “From religion there this value system which will make individual a better citizen,” said Shah.

The obedience and good citizenship of the girls is especially apparent inside the dormitories. In every room, all the beds are perfectly made and not a single article of clothing lingers on the floor. Across from the dormitories, in the aarti room, a large chart containing a daily checklist of good behavior hangs on the wall. But this checklist was not the doing of a teacher or a school administrator. Instead the mastermind behind the chart was none other than an eager young student.

 

Like the rest of the school, the cafeteria is brand new and impeccably clean. In long tables, many younger girls could be seen finishing up their lunches. One of the girls, Mahima Gohil, 11, was eager to chat about her experience at SV Randesan.

“My favorite class is chemistry,” said Mahima. Her English is good considering that when she arrived at the school less than a year ago, she could not speak the language. Like all other students at SV Randesan, Mahima’s schedule begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine in the evening.

 

The 14-hour day extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The girls participate in dance, play time aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship. [Also included in the schedule is a compulsory hour of yoga. “It helps me with my schedule,” Mahima said.

 

Shah also spoke of the benefits of yoga. “Their bodies and mind are totally different. It helps them settle,” said Shah.

 

In contrast to the younger girls who sit at the tables and talk in excited chatters, several young women calmly stand in line waiting for their turn to receive food from the lunch buffet. The women are members of the first graduating class of an intensive four-month long vocational training program. The program provides English classes and computer training to young women ages 21 to 27 in the hopes that these young women will be able to find jobs and be independent without feeling pressured to be married.

A devoted follower of the Swaminarayan faith, Shah is clearly guided by the ethos of her own faith. In addition to her position as principle, she takes on a more nurturing role to her younger students especially to the new ones who are unaccustomed to living away from home and need extra attention during the day and sometimes in the late hours of the night.

But the additional hours spent comforting a homesick child does not seem to bother Shah in the slightest, “So you know becoming a parent of 400 girls. Don't you think it is very interesting for anybody who really want to see some good things in life?” she asked with a slight smile.


Sufi Shrine Diversity

With so much of the world's conflict stemming from religion, this Sufi shrine has created a space where all faiths meet and worship side by side. The following piece is an audio story about how Nizamuddin shrine in New Delhi creates a welcoming space for believers of all faiths and tourist to enjoy Qwalli music and build a spiritual connection to their higher power.


Can Zoroastrian Law Change? Some Believe that the Future Depends on It

 

AHMEDABAD -- Chatter fills the Zoroastrian Hall in Ahmedabad on a balmy Friday night. The mood is merry as the Parsis community convenes to share stories and a meal--spicy chicken wings and khichri--while catching up on the latest news. There’s little ritual here. It’s a relaxed, jovial atmosphere; the community is gathering to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the construction of the local fire temple, the central place of worship for Zoroastrians.

The night also serves as a way for young Zoroastrian men and women to meet each other, socialize, date and eventually, the community hopes, get married. Young men pace through the aisles of the banquet hall with darting eyes, surveying the guests. The women, dressed to the nines, congregate in small, insular groups. There are far more men than women, and this is contributing to a problem the community is facing: the need to marry outsiders, a step that many see as threatening to the religion. In the face of this crisis, many Zoroastrians are asking: Is it time that the community update age-old marriage laws and tradition?

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The Zoroastrian faith is widely known as one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, monotheistic religion. Thought to have been founded nearly 4,000 years ago in modern day Iran, the community today is tiny, with a population now believed to total fewer than 200,000, according to a survey published in the Fezana Journal in 2004. The majority lives in India, where they are also known as Parsis.

The religion has strict guidelines against conversion; only those born into the faith may be considered Zoroastrians. In the past, the community held that only those born to two Zoroastrian parents were considered members of the faith. But there is a growing trend to accept children of even one Zoroastrian parent as members of the faith.

Many single Zoroastrians, both in India and around the world, feel the weight of the tradition. They recognize that their decisions about marriage will impact their community. Edwin Pithawala, a Ph.D. candidate at Gujarat University, summarizes the question, this way: “Youthful Zoroastrians are confronting double weights: finding a satisfactory mate keeping in mind the end goal to maintain the religion and save their way of life.”

Within the Zoroastrian community, the opinions on marriages outside the faith largely fall along the age line. Palaash Tarapore, 22, grew up in Ahmedabad and then went to college in America. There were few Zoroastrians in his extended community, and none in his immediate community, in the US. He says the elders of the community are the ones who are most likely to “pass a snide remark,” based on their stronger dogmatic beliefs. The youth of the faith are more open-minded, he says. While the elder gentlemen in the community are wearing suits and kurtas at the Zoroastrian get-together, Tarapore sports a tee and a modern haircut.

“I have no issues with marrying outside the religion, and I know my parents will be very accepting of that decision,” Tarapore says. But other parents aren’t as welcoming of outsiders, he says.

He notes that he has never dated a Zoroastrian girl, and his brother is “happily engaged” to a Christian woman and has never faced any negative response.

Edwin explains that under Zoroastrian law, the non-Zoroastrian who marries a Zoroastrian is still not permitted to enter the fire temple or participate in sacred rituals. The children born to this couple, however, are considered Zoroastrian and are able to enter the temples.

He adds that many in the community think the status of these children is impure.

“A few Zoroastrians don't… feel that the offspring of just a single Zoroastrian parent [is] not genuinely some portion of the religion,” says Pithawala.

He goes on to say that these resultant generations are “deductively not an immaculate strain [of]… the blood of a Zoroastrian.”

The laws that govern marriage and status of children are strict and difficult to change. Pithawala believes that this is because there is no central authority in Zoroastrianism, such as a pope. In this case, such questions are answered by local experts for their immediate community.

 

For those who do enter the community through marriage, Tarapore says that Zoroastrian communities provide a type of safety net, as well as an educational aid. He says that the family will ensure that they educate the new addition and adds that there are occasionally workshops put on to teach outsiders the “stories and doctrines” of the faith at this particular Zoroastrian hall.

“We do not differentiate Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians,” Tarapore says. “Basically, as a Zoroastrian, we are made to believe that each moment is meant to be a celebration and enjoyed to the fullest. If my non-Zoroastrian wife attends a dinner with me, she will be treated as one of our own.”

Though there is considerable controversy today within the faith over the status of “true” marriages and children as accepted by the elders, the future of the community may well depend on the ability of young Zoroastrians to start families with individuals outside of their community. The question then raised is, will this necessity finally force the laws of the religion to change?

When discussing the reason for keeping non-Zoroastrians out of the fire temple, Tarapore laments that the old rules based on ancient problems still carry so much weight.

At the communal anniversary dinner, children usually stay with their families. Although it’s encouraged, boys and girls rarely mingle. Perhaps it’s typical teenage shyness, or perhaps it’s the forced nature of the interaction, but at this anniversary dinner, there is little mingling between the sexes.

Tarapore is confident that he will find a wife outside of the community. He believes that, with time, the community will accommodate and accept her.

“Alas, it is not a problem [for non-Zoroastrians to enter] anymore, but the rule still holds,” he says. “The fire temple that I build will not have any such rules.”


Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me an (Indian) Match

 

Elizabeth VanMetre

 

NEW DELHI – Gopal Suri didn’t plan to be a matchmaker or, as he calls himself, a marriage broker. For years he worked in the hotel business. But in 1992, after he found husbands for his five sisters, the career fell into his lap. It was something that he knew he could do and something that India needed.

Seventy-five  percent of of Indian marriages are arranged by families, according to a survey conducted by IPSOS.

 There was a time when “arranged marriages”  meant fathers going door-to-door in the family’s village looking for the right match. But today, with more Indians living in cities and more young people leaving home for school and employment, it is more complicated.

 

Suri does his best to retain a traditional, old-world style. The moment you sit down in his office  he offers you tea and food. He insists there is no discussion  before a cup of chai is shared,  a practice he observes with his clients as well. He is an older man with a bald shiny head. He constantly wears a big smile his face and never seems to stop laughing. Suri boasts that he had never had a marriage he had brokered fail, although there have been some broken engagements. It’s something he is very proud of. It is a sweet sentiment but one impossible to verify. He has arranged hundreds of matches.

 

The going rate for someone looking for help from Suri varies depending on services included and how much the family has to spend. While he doesn’t share his going rate, he he works families who make between 5 million to 50 million rupees (about $8,000 to $800,000 US dollars) annually . The Hindu Times estimates that the going rate for marriage brokers is between 15 thousand to 31 thousand rupees ($300 to $500 US dollars). This amount is constitutes a big chuck of a typical middle class Indians family’s annual salary.

 

Suri’s business, A to Z Matchmaking, is down a long strip mall hallway tucked inside a shopping arcade inside the Hyatt Regency in Delhi. The office is small and is separated into two different sections by an installed wall. One side sits a few chairs and a table. It’s a bit of a waiting area. On the other side is a desk with four chairs.. A TV sits on a table behind the desk. This is where the Gopal Suri, the founder of the agency, provides services to around 10 clients a day.

 

Suri specializes in helping middle and upper income Hindus and Sikh families find mates for their sons and daughters. With over one billion people in India, this is a daunting task. Suri says there are an abundance of families that he provides services for--so many that he doesn’t have time to take holidays or weekends off. He estimates that he sees about 10 clients a day, which leads to around 200 weddings a year.

 

It’s 6 p.m. on a recent spring day and his last family of the day arrives.

The family was  originally from Delhi but moved to Dubai when the father found work there in the hotel business.  The husband and wife seem friendly. Their son is going to look at profiles today with his parents to find his wife. The mother’s wedding ring spills off her ring finger onto her pinky and middle with large blinding diamonds. Each family member is decked out in designer clothing. The 24-year-old crosses his leg showcasing his Gucci shoes. He has a fresh haircut, average height. He smiles a lot and exudes a cool confidence.

 

This isn’t their first meeting with Suri. The parents have stopped by privately before. The family has filled out their preferences in an online form that states what they hope for in a wife for their son. “Women’s family usually want the financial security and they want educated people for their daughter,” Suri says. “Most males need a very good faced girl. They are about the looks.”

 

The son also shares his caste, Kshatriyas, and his religion, Hindu. He will not be shown any matches in a different caste or religion, even if they are a perfect in every other aspect. “Everyone wants to do their relationship in their religion only,” Suri says. “They won’t go apart from their religion. Social taboo is big here. No one has come to me so far that is an Indian Hindu and wants to get married to a Muslim or Christian.”

 

The way Suri sees it, if people wanted to get married to someone of a different religion they would be doing it without their parent’s approval and would be a “love marriage,” a term coined to identify couples who get married without it being arranged by their families.

 

“Love doesn’t see caste,” he explains. But he says love for most will come after themarriage and is not a priority when it comes to finding matches. While religion plays a large role in the matches clients will see, Suri says most people aren’t looking for the most religious of mates-- he says spirituality matters the most. He says you are born with your religion and it is “given to you by your parents.” Spirituality is something “that you know yourself and yourself only,” he adds.

 

Today the family, which asked not to be identified by name in this article, will begin looking at actual profiles of eligible women for the first time. Suri has some of his own picks lined up and assured the family they will be pleased. Each girl’s profile will be shown on the small TV screen behind Suri’s desk that’s connected to his laptop. The son doesn’t seem nervous, just a bit annoyed at his mother who is asking him to focus. And it begins.

 

The first photo posted on the screen is of a short woman with long hair and a round face. She looks young and the photos appear to be taken professionally.

 

As soon as the photo pops up he says, “no.”

 

“Really look at her. Can we see more pictures?” his mother says while his father glances up then goes back to scrolling on his cellphone.

“I don’t like her. Move on,” the son counters.

 

And the process moves on. After awhile he finally agrees to see a profile of one of the women. She is tall, possibly taller than he is. She wears heavy eye make-up and her first photo appears to be a selfie that reveals  a large portion of her collarbone. She looks long and lean. More skin is exposed in this photo than the other profiles.

 

He sits up straight in his chair and leans forward, taking more of an interest than with the other women. There’s a lot of information laid out about her like details of her family, including that her mother died. It also lists her personal likes and dislikes.

 

He says “yes.”

 

His mom seems unsure.

 

“Yes?” she asks. “She doesn’t have a mother. Lets pass.”

 

He looks frustrated and slumps back in his chair, crosses his arms and stares at the ceiling. They pass.

 

While keeping the tradition alive, Suri knows that this new method is far from traditional. He says that while the families have the final say, the children are getting a lot more say into their matches. That being said, parents are still very involved during the process, which he thinks is very important.

 

“In arranged marriages parents are always there,” he says. “They have seen the ups and downs of marriage. They have some experience on that kind of relationship. They are involved they will be supporting the couple.”

 

Dating websites like https://www.bharatmatrimony.com/ boast that they help thousands of people find partners a month. Suri does warn that even though they may be fast and less expensive, they have major drawbacks.

 

“Online dating profiles are not good,” he says. “Cheats are [on] there. They fill out a profile even though they are married. There is no authenticity. You are wasting your time. You are wasting your emotions.”

 

Suri double-checks every profile before he adds it to his database. He makes sure that they are single, they are telling the truth about their religion and caste and that their financials add up. He says he has lot of methods of doing this including checking in “with his sources.”

 

By the end of the appointment the mother seemed to remove herself from the process of find her son a wife, at least temporarily.  She walked to the makeshift room so her son could look at matches without getting frustrated by her. Eventually his father joins her.

The son has gone through all the matches.

After the appointment ends, Suri will contact  the families that have been chosen. If the female’s family is interested in meeting the match, he will arrange a meeting of the parents, then of their kids. If the arrangement is successful, there will be a wedding—and he usually receives a wedding invite in the mail.


Indian Christians Struggle with Identity in America

YONKERS, N.Y. -- When Dr. Listy Thomas, an emergency medical specialist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and Bridgeport Hospital, walks into a new patient’s room, she can sometimes sense disappointment in her patient’s eyes. “Oh, they say, ‘I thought Dr. Thomas would be a man,’” she laughs.  “I think that with a name like Thomas, they’re disappointed that I’m not a white man.”

Thomas is Indian, and her family moved to the U.S. in the early 1970’s from the Southern Indian state of Kerala. When her father came here, she says, “He had $10 in his pocket, and now he’s a millionaire.” Being part of the quintessential American immigrant success story has always been a way that Thomas, who moved to the U.S. at the age of eight, identified herself. She’s also a part of India’s long-standing Mar Thoma Christian community, with a strong faith and cultural roots going back almost 2,000 years.

Growing up in Connecticut, Thomas and her siblings were Indian children in a very white community. But it’s only since Donald Trump came to political prominence last year that she’s started to feel differently about her place in the U.S. Many Mar Thoma Christians are reassessing their identity and community because of recent violence against South Asians in the United States. This is especially difficult for South Asian Christians, like Thomas, who grew up in the U.S.  For the first time, she feels vulnerable to bigotry. “My medical students who are Muslim are scared,” Thomas says. When she was drying her son’s hair after a bath, he joked about how he looked in the turbaned-towel. “Even my seven year old, brown, Indian kid joked about being labeled a Muslim.”

Mar Thoma Christians believe that their community, officially know as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, came to India  52 BC with the missionary St. Thomas. In New York, they held weekly Sunday services for years in a nearby hall of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Vacant churches were purchased in the early eighties, and today there are four Mar Thoma churches close to New York City. Congregants live all over the tri-state area, some as far away as Rhode Island, and drive into the city every Sunday for service. Thomas drives in to a congregation in Yonkers each week from her home in Trumbull, CT.

The Yonkers church,  St. Thomas MarThoma,  has grown from 63 families when it was established in 1981 to 248 families today. At a recent Easter service, row upon row of extra chairs were set up as men in pastel shirts and women in bright saris ushered children and grandparents up the aisles. The atmosphere was cheerful, with incense illuminated by sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, giving the parishioners a private showing of the northern lights. Near the end of the three-hour-long service, children were invited up to get Easter eggs with candy and a Bible verse in them.

There was chatter throughout the sanctuary in both English and Malayalam, the language of many Mar Thoma Christians. As warm and communal as the church atmosphere is, the community has been affected by the recent rhetoric of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. But with strong conservative governments presently ruling both the U.S. and India, no one I spoke to was considering returning to India.

In India, Mar Thoma Christians are the small minority in a country of 800 million Hindus. It’s an insular community that somewhat transcends the caste system still prevalent in Indian society. They do not associate themselves with any particular class, but are said to have descended from converted Hindu Brahmins in early centuries AD, giving them high caste status. Most Mar Thomas are from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and marry within not only Christian but also Kerala-specific communities.

The Rev. Abraham Matthews is the head of the Immanuel Mar Thoma Church in Noida, outside of New Delhi.  On one morning earlier this spring, he was leading a group of seniors in a discussion of the role of Eve and gender equality in the Bible in Malayalam. Many of these twenty-odd men and women are from Kerala, and hope to return there one day. Some of the women display golden crosses hanging outside of their saris, and many in attendance have a well-worn pocket Bible in Malayalam.

The members of Matthew’s church do not see themselves separately as Indians and Christians, but as proud members of both. The rise of Hindu nationalism on behalf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing BJP party is worrying to many, but the focus isn’t on their community. Mar Thoma Christians, who  make up just one percent of the country’s population, are not mentioned in the jingoistic speeches of right-wing Hindu nationalists when they lambaste Muslims and call for a “Hindu India."

Looking from India to America, however, younger Mar Thomas are more wary than before. Benson Benny is 25, and lives in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. At church service on a Sunday, he proudly points out that their community is strong in India. “You don’t see any empty seats,” he boasts. “In America, churches have empty seats.” Benny says that he used to think about becoming a software engineer and moving to the United States, but as he grows up he started to have doubts. He and his friend Jibin Jose, also 25, say that they hear stories of violence from the United States, and that the risks and difficulties of moving overseas seem to outweigh the benefits.

Both Benson and Jose both talk about their youthful IT ambitions, but now Benny works in the outsourcing business and Jose sells jewelry and ornaments. They plan to stay in Gujarat. Of their childhood dreams of the U.S., they fear that  “anything can happen” if they live  in a “non [Mar Thoma] Christian community.”  Neither of them has experienced persecution in India, they say, but with what they read in the news, they don’t rule it out in the future.

President Trump says in speeches that he welcomes Christians from non-Christian countries, but the Mar Thoma community is struggling with how to present itself in Trump’s America as a sympathetic group. South Asian men of Hindu and Sikh faiths have been attacked in 2017, and Mar Thoma Christians worry about protecting their members and their identity. Thomas says that she worries about having to talk to her kids about bullying and discrimination. Meanwhile, other young church members are breaking away from the Mar Thoma Church and moving toward American Evangelical churches, where vibrant expressions of faith and piety are a tempting change to more conservative worship. For them, retaining their core faith and fitting in means leaving their Indian culture behind.

But for Thomas, “It’s the church of my youth,” she said. She won’t be leaving anytime soon.