Separate religious belief from cultural tradition. In the real world, this is no easy journalistic task – GetReligion
Is it possible to separate religious influences from secular societal customs? And if so, how does a journalist go about it?
It is not an easy task. It goes double for journalists – perhaps most journalists – with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.
It may sound like pride on my part, but I think the vast experience gained in the field of religion prepares journalists to better understand the complex social and psychological formulations of humanity – enabling religious writers and editors to ( potentially) better analyze the differences.
This recent New York Times The story of the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, leading to the deaths of some, provides a platform to explore the issue.
But first, a quick return to Brazil.
You may recall that a few weeks ago I published an article here about the custom of some Brazilian indigenous tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how, from their tribal perspective, the practice made sense.
I noted that in their rainforest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to find, children – fatherless or physically handicapped – were, in the opinion of the tribes, sacrificed for greater good. It was because they could not contribute to the group’s food supply, which the tribal leaders saw as an unacceptable burden that threatened the survival of the whole group.
I have also noted how the practice seems outrageously obscene when viewed from a Western mindset rooted in Abrahamic religious traditions. My purpose was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with very different beliefs.
The late Huston Smith, the famous scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I am paraphrasing now, that every civilization – and by every civilization it has even included small semi-nomadic jungle tribes – is influenced by a vision spiritual about how life is best lived.
I guess this means that in the Brazilian case, the tribes followed an intimate sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even though they didn’t articulate it in spiritual or religious terms. In this case, religion is defined as a group codification of ideas on the most complex issues of life. They did it only from a practical and materialistic point of view.
Physical survival is, after all, one of life’s most complex issues.
The practice highlighted in the history of Nepal, however, presents a qualitative difference compared to the situation in Brazil. Here, the religious component is a bit clearer – as is the writer’s (presumably unconscious) Western bias. This, despite the incomplete investigation of history into the origins of the practice.
The lede plunges us into the heart of history. It’s long, but essential:
TURMAKHAND from Nepal – Not so long ago, in rural western Nepal, Gauri Kumari Bayak was the spark of his village. Her loud voice echoed through the fields as she husked the corn. When she walked down the road at high speed, leading birth control classes, many admired her self-confidence.
But last January, Ms Bayak’s lifeless body was carried up the hill, a stream of mourners screaming behind her. His remains were burned, his robes donated. The small hut where she was forced to sequester herself during her menstrual period – and where she died – has been destroyed, erasing the last mark of another young life lost to deadly superstition.
“I still can’t believe she’s not alive,” said Dambar Budha, her stepfather, regretfully, sitting on a rock, gazing at the hills.
In this corner of Nepal, deep in the Himalayas, women are kicked out of their homes every month when they have their period. They are considered polluted, even toxic, and an oppressive regime has developed around this taboo, including the construction of a separate hut for menstruating women to sleep. Some of the spaces are as tiny as a closet, mud or rock walls, basically period holes. Ms Bayak died from inhaling smoke into her own as she tried to warm up by a small fire during the freezing Himalayan winter.
Notice the word “superstition”?
I would call this an unnecessary editorial intrusion; the writer expressed his own western values. Better to just describe the situation than to judge it.
As I said, it is extremely difficult to shake off your deeply ingrained values when trying to explain another belief system, whether it is a report from Nepal or Brazil, and even when the writer is, as in this case, a very experienced foreign correspondent who has already covered subtitles. Saharan Africa for Time.
Further down in this Times piece, we come to the corner of the in-game religion.
Many religions observe rules regarding menstruation, and Hinduism places particular emphasis on purity and pollution. Yet researchers do not know why the taboo on menstruation is so strong in western Nepal, where countless villages, across an area of hundreds of kilometers, still practice it.
Perhaps this is because this part of Nepal is poor, relatively homogeneous, predominantly Hindu and isolated, and the houses tend to be small. (In other Hindu subcultures, menstruating women may be isolated to some extent in their household.)
I think a lot more could have been said about the way Hinduism is practiced.
For example, rather than just speculating on why the practice continues in this part of Nepal – an incredibly beautiful nation that I have visited – the reporter might have noted that Hinduism is a catch-all term. by the British colonialists to bring together the very varied indigenous spiritual traditions of India.
As such, Hindu traditions and beliefs are exceptionally diverse. Journalists are supposed to care about these kinds of little details.
In other words, what one group of Hindus believes may be totally rejected by another. Or to put it somewhat differently, Hinduism is polycentric, meaning it has no binding hierarchy, has various centers of power, and is as culturally diffuse as it is religiously confusing to outsiders.
Which brings us full circle to my question posed at the top of this post.
Is the semi-isolation of menstruating women in parts of western Nepal still rooted in religious belief? Or have its Hindu roots been entirely lost through the centuries, and the practice persists only because, well, this is how it is – and always has been? When those who practice this custom describe it, are they doing it in religious language?
Again, my point is that with ancient traditions it is often almost impossible to separate spiritual or religious life patterns from mysterious life patterns, what you might call popular beliefs, which comfort humans – even if they don’t really know why, and even if from a stranger’s point of view, they seem cruel and doomed.
Yes, it’s a difficult call, maybe impossible.
Yet for me, trying to untangle that Gordian knot is one of the great learning experiences in religious journalism. The point is to listen carefully.