Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More Than Skin Deep: India, Faith, and Looks

You learn something new every day.

At least, we should.

Take, for example, the story of a statuesque young woman with long hair and flawless skin from suburban Syracuse, New York, who won the Miss America beauty pageant this past Sunday evening.  Her win elicited a firestorm of sorts from American television viewers of the contest because... she is of Indian descent.

From practically the instant she won, Nina Davuluri was besieged with racist vitriol from complainers who thought she stole the crown by being some foreign Muslim.  For the record, Davuluri was born in upstate New York, of Hindu parents, and has lived in both Oklahoma and Michigan.  She spent some summers in India, where she has extended family, and she's participated in beauty pageants there, as well as, obviously, here in the United States.  But she's more of an American than right-wing Senator Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, and since when has religion factored strongly in beauty pageants?

If you weren't aware that there even was a Miss America pageant this past weekend, you're not alone.  A lot of Americans haven't paid attention to beauty pageants in years, because their blatant sexism is hard to ignore, and practically impossible to justify.  In patriarchal and provincial India, however, beauty pageants have become all the rage.  And their country's popular press has been enraged at the bigotry emanating from those corners of America still deriving significance from them.  Media bookings for Davuluri in her ancestral homeland have been off the charts, according to the Miss America organization, which says she's in more demand than any previous winner - white, black, brown, or polka-dotted - has ever been.

Almost as an affirmation of Davuluri's win, even though they'd scheduled it long before, PBS began airing on Monday a documentary on its "Point of View" series entitled The World Before Her.  It follows two young women in India who've embraced worldviews that are the polar opposite of each other.  One is an aspiring fashion model, and the other is an activist in Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an increasingly popular militant Hindu movement in India.

At first, Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja intended to concentrate on India's pageant industry, but when she met the VHP activist, a new dimension was added to her project.  Pahuja has juxtaposed two college-age women in India who, although they appear to be economically close in terms of their lower-middle-class standards of living, have little in common when it comes to the future they want for themselves and their native land.  Neither appears destined for the college programs other women their age pursue to advance their lifestyles.  One, raised by a dominant mother and an easygoing father, seeks to leverage her beauty and poise on the catwalk, seeing fashion and materialism as the next grand evolution in India's role in world affairs.  The other, raised by an abusive father and a mother she never even acknowledges to us viewers, seeks to assert her neo-traditionalist upbringing in a country she's been taught is embracing too much foreign commercialism.

Told in their own words, mostly in English, it's an unexpectedly provocative film.  Pahuja interviews the mother of one of the other contestants in a Bombay beauty pageant (it's interesting that India's social climbers don't call it "Mumbai") who cried when recounting how she left the father of her daughter because it was his second daughter, and his parents wanted them to kill her, because it wasn't a boy.  Indeed, India's age-old devaluation of females, demonstrated so brazenly by the country's recent spate of highly-publicized gang rapes, runs unabated throughout Pahuja's entire documentary.  Even the young militant extremist explains her loyalty to her father, a man who boasts on camera of branding his daughter on her foot, by saying that at least he didn't kill her when she was born, and she is his only child.  She admits to being sexually confused, since she was raised both as a boy and a girl, but she considers her lot in life as being her god's ambassador of strict, nationalistic Hinduism.

Never mind that her domineering father still expects her to get married.  Of course, the pageant contestant expects to marry sometime, too, but only after she's gone as far as she can get in the fashion world.  Beauty can open doors for brown-skinned young women in places like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Russia, and western Europe.  Oddly enough, however, when her mother lists countries in which her daughter could make a name for herself, the United States isn't among them.

For its part, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the sect to which Pahuja's militant interview subject belongs, has been working for nearly fifty years to claim an influential role in India's vast and complex political apparatus.  Like some elements of traditional, albeit unBiblical Christianity in the United States, VHP appeals mostly to poor people in India's countryside, although it has an American branch, probably as part of their fundraising appeals among Hindus here.  They claim not to be instigators of violence, but should Muslims, Christians, or foreign capitalists try to exert too much authority over India's true culture, that of its Hindus, they say they will fight.  For that reason, some elites in India are pushing for it to be banned.

It doesn't seem that will happen any time soon.

Perhaps more so than any other major world religion, Hinduism defies precise description, since today, the term "Hindu" is used mostly in reference to the amalgamation of India's historic religious traditions, an amalgamation encouraged by the British when it ruled India as a colonial power.  Hindus worship no particular deity, share no common rites, and have no core set of doctrines.  In a way, they sound a lot like many Americans in our post-Christian society!  Some scholars point to the Hindu nationalism of movements like VHP as expressions of civic pride among Indians that may be filling the void Hinduism otherwise creates in its adherents.  By making India itself the focal point of Hinduism, they posit, a form of religious patriotism may be developing.

All of that likely has no immediate application to Davuluri's Miss America win, particularly since she's placed no public emphasis on her faith, which one can only assume is the same as her parents'.  The beauty contestant in Pahuja's documentary also barely talks about her faith, aside from vague references to some "god."  Meanwhile, all three women display their captivity to the stereotypical subjugation of women that both modeling, with its emphasis on appearance over character, and militant religiosity, in a male-dominated society, perpetuate.

For those who displayed such racist stupidity at the crowning of our new Miss America, perhaps a better target of that emotion and displeasure would have been the social structures that objectify people rather than humanize them.

Then, too, classifying people by religion and country of origin, which is what militant Hindus are doing, is also a way to objectify rather than humanize.

And, um, not just militant Hindus or beauty pageant fans, either.

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