It's time for women religious to think of their rights

A critical consciousness can pave the way to making a breakthrough against enslaving thinking patterns

Kochurani Abraham

Updated: January 02, 2024 05:31 AM GMT

Catholic nuns offer prayers at the graves of deceased sisters at a cemetery during All Souls Day, in Hyderabad on November 2, 2021. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)

A week before this year's International Women's Day, Bishop Paul Mattekkat of Diphu in India's eastern state of Assam sent a letter to all his priests and religious, revising the salaries of women religious working in his diocese.

The Feb. 28 letter stated that from April 2023 the revised monthly allowance for nuns working in diocesan schools would be 11,000 Indian rupees (US$135). An extra allowance would be paid to head teachers, who have specialized graduation in teaching. But undergraduate nuns teaching in diocesan schools would continue with a monthly allowance of 8,700 rupees (roughly US$107). The bishop also requests provincials not to appoint undergraduate nuns in schools as part of a diocesan policy.

The bishop's letter raises many questions: Does the monthly allowance for nuns relate to the minimum wage policy of the state? Is the Diphu diocesan policy exceptional or does it reflect practices in other Indian dioceses as well? Are nuns yearning to be a cheap workforce in Church institutions as implied in the letter? Has the Conference of Religious India, the national association of religious in the country, issued any directive on the salary/stipend of nuns working in Church institutions? Would the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM), which has been in existence for over the past 35 years in this country, have anything to say on this issue?

I am afraid that these questions would encounter a deafening silence from Church leaders and women religious as well. This hushing up is dangerous as a human rights violation within the Church.  Cases of this nature reveal a zero-sum gender game between the clericalist male hierarchy of the Indian Church — who in many instances hold spiritual and economic power over women religious — and the nuns who are dependent on their benevolence.

Nuns incurred the contempt of their own leaders, who failed to defend the rights of their sisters when set against the powers of the Church

These concerns are more striking in the context of the celebration of another International Women's Day, which insists that a focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society's DNA. (

I wonder why the language of 'rights' does not go with the DNA of women religious in a country like India. When the mind is coated with layers of gendered religious indoctrination, even gross human rights violations are spiritualized and made palatable. The silence of the leadership of women's congregations in India in the face of hierarchs' abuse of power — economic, spiritual, or even sexual — is a stark expression of women religious colluding with a blatantly oppressive system.

Two cases illustrate the dynamics of this collusion. The first refers to the traumatic experiences of a small group of nuns waging a legal battle for reclaiming the ownership of their school in a village called Narakkal in southern Kerala state. The nuns incurred the contempt of their own leaders, who failed to defend the rights of their sisters when set against the powers of the Church.

The second relates to the ongoing harassment encountered by a nun and her small group of companions within their own diocesan congregation, for filing a criminal case against their bishop accusing him of sexual assault.

The two incidents lay bare the incapacity of nuns to think of their rights as human beings within a religious framework.

Evidently, the question here is how women religious become accomplices to the systemic forces that subjugate and exploit them. In the highly patriarchal Indian society, of which the Indian Church is a part, the consciousness factor is of major importance in understanding the dealings of women religious. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of Indian nuns function from a contradictory consciousness.

While individuals may be conscientized to take a stand for rights, collectively they may find it difficult to dispute the hegemony of those who hold power over them. In such situations, women religious keep to the guidelines of the dominant and follow a prescribed behavior, as explained by renowned educationist-philosopher Paolo Freire.

It is imperative that women religious reclaim their prophetic voice and realize the liberating and transformative potential of their mission

In order to demand one's rights, women religious need to exercise agency — the capacity to make a difference — and for that they need autonomy. However, the way the vow of obedience is defined may not allow them autonomy of thought or action. The enslaving 'dependency prescriptions' associated with an infantile application of the vow of obedience denies an average religious the freedom to exercise agency.  In such situations, the consciousness of rights remains a question mark.

Even though the language of rights may not exist in the vocabulary of Indian women religious, there are signs of some cracks developing in the hardened system of abusive religious power. The book, It's High Time: Women Religious Speak up on Gender Justice in the Indian Church, published in 2020 is clearly a pointer in this direction. 

The expression It's High Time signals the restlessness that at least a minuscule number of the huge body of women religious in India experience and that indeed is a healthy sign.

Given the state of the 'political unconscious' that is pervasive in the life of Indian women religious evolving consciousness of 'rights' may seem unrealistic. All the same, I find critical thinking enables women religious to challenge the premises and practices of their religious culture and resist exploitative systems of power. A critical consciousness can pave the way to making a breakthrough against enslaving thinking patterns.

Even though evolving a critical consciousness is a risky affair, my contention is that it is imperative that women religious reclaim their prophetic voice and realize the liberating and transformative potential of their mission. Asking critical questions could help peel the layers of conditioning and achieve the freedom to evolve as women who can respond courageously to the prompting of the Spirit.

Consequently, Indian nuns will be enabled to live their religious commitment as women with greater passion, claiming for themselves and others the right to live with justice, dignity, and equality.

Kochurani Abraham is a feminist Catholic theologian, who left a congregation of women religious to lead an independent religious life in her home state of Kerala in southern India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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