Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia

Swati Mantri

The presupposed role of women in nurturing their families has been a topic of discussion that is multifaceted and one that has evolved stronger with each generation over time. Women, hearth, and kitchen are some of the terms that have had a close association with each other. These categories might have taken new forms over time, but they have not completely moved away from locating the central role of women in such affairs. The relationship between these categories is taken up and explored in Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia: The Cultural Politics of Women’s Food Practices.

In the introduction, the editors inquire: why did one of the women participants in their study think of her identity through food? A gripping anecdotal reference highlighting the way in which the participant thought of feeding her conjugal family, serving her guests, and knowing her way about the kitchen as ‘natural’ brings to the reader’s mind the enduring debate of nature versus culture. This very question sets the tone of the book. How do gastronomical practices come to define women’s role both in the public and private space? Under what circumstances do women of the house equate the kitchen with a formative source of their identity? How do these responsibilities come to be ‘naturally’ expected from women?

As evinced through the range of essays in the volume, the response to the above questions necessitates exploring the myriad of cultural, socio-economic, and religious circumstances in which womenfolk find themselves. Thematically divided into three sections and ten chapters, the editors of the volume have tied together narratives around cooking, storing, eating, fasting, favouring/restricting certain foods, and commensality practices shaped by one’s socio-religious faith. The volume broadly explores the ways in which handling and preparation of food get a gendered identity, often becoming a site of resistance and agency. Using concepts such as identity construction, agency, and power to unpack the conundrums of ‘everyday’ experience, the research manages to bring forth the tendencies that mark the function and meaning of food practices. Highly contextual and shifting, these concepts enable the bridging of boundaries between home and outside, or in some cases, further deepen the lines between the ‘self’ and the ‘other.’


Nurture and Culture:  Becoming through Doing

The volume carries an account of voices from contemporary times that have been influenced by global forces and the refashioning of gender roles in the kitchen, but the volume also includes renewed interpretations of influential publications such as Ali Thanvi’s Bhishti Zewar or Rokeya Hussain’s essays on the role of women in food and ritual practices. The volume locates ritualistic fasting – emblematic of greater piety ­– as quite central to women’s lives in India, the geographical focus of the volume. A question like “Is the true purpose of fasting to contemplate God or to worship one’s palate?” provokes the reader to mull over the theatrics around religious celebrations critically. The reader gets a sense of how particular rituals woven into the everydayness determine practices of commensality, marking food as merely a “symptom of a more general moral and religious decay” (p. 63). Articulating lavish feasts in the name of rituals and religious reverence as a pathological excess, the authors manage to etch out the associated web of relationships surrounding food as “performance” (p. 6) to sustain power dynamics.

Positioning food as a route to interact with the divine and render the mundane pious is a thread that connects a lot of research in the edited volume. While one of the themes underlines resistance against the traditional adage of women belonging to the kitchen and their assumed responsibility of cooking and feeding the family, many snippets in the volume challenge this trained sensibility of women. Such narratives thus help to examine socialisation processes and to understand evolving aspirations. However, the ethnographies also sensitise readers to the “paradox of authority gained through servitude” (p. 79) that many women experience through their acts of piety. A point often cited across the chapters is that domestic cooking associated with religious rituals is primarily the domain of women. Simultaneously, it is also the site where women can express their creativity and agency (p. 14). Functioning as social capital, the authoritative role of women in the kitchen and matters of food is argued to be empowering and a potent factor for their identity construction.

A major portion of the volume deals with religious food practices in Muslim communities. However, the chapters on fasting and commensality in the faith of Buddhism and Hinduism make for an insightful read, too. Unpacking the ways in which currency of piety could be earned through gastronomy, the volume makes the reader aware of the micro-practices through which food interacts with an individual’s faith. The topics range from Englemajer’s argument that Buddhist women gain agency through food preparation and food-gifting (p. 141) to Khan’s examination of why her participants would maintain a distance from the preparation of time-consuming feasts, poignantly “imagined as fuel for hellfire” (p. 205), on religious occasions and instead direct their energies into praying. Sucharita Sarkar’s chapter uses the concept of ‘motherlines’ to trace the culinary practices that have been passed down over generations, now re-moulded and adapted in changing times under different circumstances by women. Exploring the “maternal legacies of recipes” (p. 14), Sarkar uses narratives that reignite memories around rituals and religious affairs through food. Reconceptualisation of identities and memories through cuisines, therefore, can be seen as a reconfiguration of duties, recipes, and food-ties marking food a “fecund source of nostalgia” (p. 22). Whether it is eating certain foods or abstaining from others, as Dandrekar discusses in her chapter, food becomes an agentive force. As argued in most of the chapters, the responsibility of food preparation and, more importantly, fasting lies more on the womenfolk of the household. This is further explored in Sanyal’s ethnography where women observe fasts to gain respect amongst peers (p. 196), while in the case of Kumar’s research it is more about dutiful obligation toward ones’ culture milieu.

It is fascinating to know the ways in which the actors in the chapters connect to the transcendental force through their symbiotic relationship with food, during periods of both feeding and abstinence. It is through observance of particular food practices that the participants in the chapters seem to exercise their faith, derive their sense of individuality, and accept the person that they become.


Methodological Routes and Food

What one might find remarkable across the ten chapters is the research methodology adopted to traverse through the descriptive narratives. The thick ethnography captured in these chapters paints a vivid picture of the events that unfolded for the researchers, but it also visualises the role of food in constructing, sustaining, and even unwrapping the underlying societal peculiarities. The dual tension present in the technique of participant observation – that is, the long-standing debate of insider/outsider and subjectivity/objectivity – is used by the researchers in their reflexive exercise to produce engaged sociology. One becomes mindful of the strategies that the researcher must employ to navigate the field while grappling with the situated relations and ones’ own positionalities. For instance, the chapters by Dandrekar, Werbner, and Kumar speak to the complexities present in an intersectional methodology and to how the researchers’ multi-positionality has the potential to get entwined with the socio-demographic traits of the participants. Concomitant with memory studies (e.g., in Sarkar’s ethnography) and material analysis (e.g., in Sanyal’s account of food practices in a girl’s madrasa), the authors’ methodological approaches encourage readers to gauge the depth of visible as well as invisible tools that ethnographers might access to unveil their research.

The rich ethnographic accounts might make this volume attractive to an audience interested in ritual-bound food beyond academia. However, the heavy usage of colloquial jargon, even by academic standards, might make navigating through the text a bit cumbersome for the reader. Overall, the volume successfully demonstrates how a close understanding of women’s activities and their religious worldviews can lessen preconceived notions about oppression within a patriarchal society and instead unravel the ways in which women construct their sense of control, authority, and identity. While women might still be in the kitchen more than men, it does not mean that the rituals, food, or actions they take are necessarily all done for the good of someone else. An analysis of what food practices like eating, fasting, and cooking reveal about processes of rituals and social change makes this volume interesting for scholars invested in understanding culinary subjectivities, gendered ritual practices, and social theory.