In North East India, the Christian Church allows very few women to hold high positions.
“It’s not about name, fame, power or money. It is a matter of due recognition not be given. When men dedicate their lives to the church and God, they are ordained and given the title of ‘reverend’ and the opportunity to preach to his flock, to bless a wedding and to conduct baptisms. But when a woman makes the choice of a life of the same rigor and sacrifice, they mostly become secretaries, teachers or at best, missionaries. They get no title, recognition or position. I have never seen or heard a single woman reverend in my community.”
Achungmei Kamei, community correspondent and activist from Manipur confesses that she is unable to make sense of the gender discrimination that is pervasive in the Churches of the North East. 34% of the population of Manipur is Christian and majority of the churches are of the Baptist denomination. Achungmei belongs to a Baptist church in her village and while she’s hesitant to answer the question ‘are you religious?’ she’s comfortable with describing herself as a habitual churchgoer. “In my place, the church is a respected and influential institution and the fact that there are hardly any women higher up in the ministry is a reflection of the position of women in society. Rather than continuing the restrictive traditions, I would think it is the responsibility of the church to set an example to the community by ordaining more woman.”
She reveals that her motivation to speak out on the issue is also a personal one. She tells the story of her sister who from a very young age decided that she was going to dedicate her life to the church. She was a good student throughout her long and exacting theological studies but at the end of it when she desired to be part of the ministry, she was not accepted. She is currently employed as a teacher but Achungmei feels that the bright promise that she held has been unfairly nipped in the bud.
“People say that the scriptures dictate that women must not speak in the church but the same scriptures also say that everybody has a voice in the house of God,” she says. “Many churches and denominations across the world are now ordaining women. I see them on the TV sometimes but I would love it and be proud if I saw one in my community and church.”
Since the 70s, there has been a vocal struggle in the churches of India to secure equal rights for the women. The first Indian woman was ordained in 1983 by the Church of North India and most churches have followed suit. The number of women in ministries have risen steadily. Even as the Vatican refuses to acknowledge gender equality, most churches have moved ahead keeping in context the culture and outlook of the times. But local factions like most churches in the North East are still steadfast in the grip of orthodoxy, alternatively citing and overlooking the scriptures as per convenience and altogether missing out on the often more progressive attitudes of a younger generation. Till date only around 8 to 9 women have been ordained in the whole of the North East where Christianity has been prevalent.
“Among the Baptists, the believers themselves have to make a choice as to when they want to get baptized. Only once they are baptized do they initiate their Christian life. It’s almost like a second birth. Isn’t it fair then, that a woman is the one who guides you through?”
(the article has been amended from an earlier version that erroneously declared that they were no woman pastors in the North East. It has since been brought to our notice that we were wrong. We apologize for the error.)
For more info on the role of women in India in the church of India:- http://www.womenutc.