Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India

Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India

Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India

Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India

Synopsis

With the emergence of Hindu nationalism, the conversion of Indians to Christianity has become a volatile issue, erupting in violence against converts and missionaries. At the height of British colonialism, however, conversion was a path to upward mobility for low-castes and untouchables, especially in the Tamil-speaking south of India. In this book, Eliza F. Kent takes a fresh look at these conversions, focusing especially on the experience of women converts and the ways in which conversion transformed gender roles and expectations. Kent argues that the creation of a new, "respectable" community identity was central to the conversion process for the agricultural laborers and artisans who embraced Protestant Christianity under British rule. At the same time, she shows, this new identity was informed as much by elite Sanskritic customs and ideologies as by Western Christian discourse. Stigmatized by the dominant castes for their ritually polluting occupations and relaxed rules governing kinship and marriage, low-caste converts sought to validate their new higher-status identity in part by the reform of gender relations. These reforms affected ideals of femininity and masculinity in the areas of marriage, domesticity, and dress. By the creation of a "discourse of respectability," says Kent, Tamil Christians hoped to counter the cultural justifications for their social, economic, and sexual exploitation at the hands of high-caste landowners and village elites. Kent's focus on the interactions between Western women missionaries and the Indian Christian women not only adds depth to our understanding of colonial and patriarchal power dynamics, but to the intricacies of conversion itself. Posing an important challenge to normative notions of conversion as a privatized, individual moment in time, Kent's study takes into consideration the ways that public behavior, social status, and the transformation of everyday life inform religious conversion.

Excerpt

This chapter lays the groundwork for understanding the gendered effects of religious conversion in the arenas of domestic, marital, and sartorial practices (the foci of chapters 4, 5, and 6). I offer here a history of Protestant Christianity in south India that pays particular, though not exclusive attention to the consequences of Christianization for women. I do not intend to provide a comprehensive history of Christianity in south India or even of women in south Indian Christianity. Rather, I examine here the process of conversion through local categories to establish a framework for understanding the far-reaching transformations of custom and habit that took place over the course of Christianization. After discussing the history of Protestantism in south India, I provide an analysis of the so-called mass movements, large-scale conversions of groups of people that brought the majority of converts into the Christian Church and also contributed to the division of the Church along caste lines. South Indian religious culture in its various modalities is a crucial backdrop to the Christian conversion movements of colonial Tamil Nadu. For, when viewed through the concepts and categories of Tamil religiosity, which positively affirm the potency and efficacy of the divine in this world, conversions appear as the movement of people marginalized from the centers of power and influence in south Indian colonial society toward new centers of power that emerged in the social landscape because of the transformations wrought by the presence of new political figures. As I argue in the following analysis, this move toward a new center could also involve a move “up” in the sense of having expanded opportunities to exercise economic, political, and social power over others, or, more important, being less subject to having power exercised over oneself.

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