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Having been back in Malaysia for a while, it became quickly apparent that the world of academic research (at least for a grad student) is a blissfully warm embrace. You learn to think critically, take hits on your ideas, and debate new research/ideas. For most part, people are engaged or want to give the opponent a fair chance of get their ideas across. Most importantly, at least in Psychology, beliefs based on one’s religion are not put at the same level as scientific research.


For most part, being back home has been great, mostly because the people around me – family and friends – are themselves engaged and curious folks. It’s certain one off occurrences that are particularly jarring, probably because my research is on gender. Here’s an example:


A temple in Kerala had previously barred most women (women after menopause exempted) from entering this temple on the grounds of menstruation (there is a long precedence of Hindus excluding menstruating women from “holy” things). A few weeks ago, the temple lifted this ban. A couple of weeks after the ban was lifted, Kerala experienced horrific flash floods. Some may already see where I’m going with this. An extended family member of mine (a woman), made the leap that the flash floods may be caused by the lifting of the temple ban. My mother (who is religious herself) disagreed, but was faced with the task of responding to the question of “How do we know?” Indeed… how does one respond to a question like that? I thought I could think quickly on my feet, but damn - I was rusty!


In this situation, I argued (by default) what I knew based on evidence – we do know that these bans were not formally imposed until our very recent history… even then, I knew I wasn’t winning her over. Her mind had been made up because of deep-seated religious beliefs.


As a gender researcher, I struggle with this aspect of my work the most. Religion (I’m using it in a broader sense, not specific religions) plays a huge role in separating women’s and men’s space. Many religious leaders are not women and even if they are, they often have to fit a very specific mold. Malala Yousafzai is an example of someone who perhaps has managed to find a path is that progressive, yet religious - but that’s the exception rather than the norm.


I bring up religion because it continues to play a dominant role in political and social decisions (especially outside of WEIRD countries) and can often masquerade as cultural practices.


I don’t really have any answers yet. Do you accept the religious status quo and find ways to bridge gender inequalities through that? Do you go completely in the other direction? I have some ideas on how to make that happen, and hopefully I’ll have something more to say on it soon. For now, I’m keep my ear to the ground and listening to conversations that people are having around me (and maybe work on my non-academic persuasion skills!).

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