Addressing this year’s theme of “Women’s Perspectives in the Dharma Traditions (and Beyond),” more than 30 leading female scholars were featured at the second annual International Jain Conference held Aug. 23 and 24 at Claremont Lincoln University.
The conference invited the scholars to examine how ancient interpretations of sacred texts and religious traditions can pose obstacles to the full citizenship of women, as well as articulate new approaches to those very same texts and traditions in order to usher in more social equality.
Experts from the Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu faiths as well Islam, Judaism and Christianity focused on these questions in the context of the status of women throughout the world, according to a press release.
Dr. Brianne Donaldson, assistant professor of Jain and Sikh studies at Claremont Lincoln University, opened with a call to make the conference a vehicle to champion the rights of women socially, physically and spiritually in all communities.
Dr. Masum Momaya of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. presented a collection of idealized images depicting South Asian women “in veils or doing domestic labor [which] are used to justify military action with the mission of ‘saving these women,’” before showing a series of maps that highlighted countries and regions with higher statistics of physical abuse of women and selective infanticide in favor of male children.
Dr. T.S. Rukmani of Concordia University in Canada spoke on Sanskrit texts that supported equality for women. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Delhi, as well as the only person to be awarded the D.Litt. degree in its Sanskrit department, established in 1922.
Dr. Rita Gross from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a pioneer in the field of Buddhist studies and author of numerous books, including “Buddhism after Patriarchy,” spoke of the role of women in the Buddhist faith, while Dr. Manisha Setty of the Jamia Islamia University in Delhi spoke about the lives of Jain nuns and the vows of renunciation they take.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Nikky Singh of Colby College in Maine who spoke of the beauty of the Sikh scriptural poetry and the ways in which women are both celebrated and subjugated.
Dr. Rosemary Radford Reuther, the preeminent scholar and pioneer in the field of women’s rights and feminism in Christianity, Rabbi Gail Labovitz of the American Jewish University and Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council spoke on what being a woman in their faith traditions meant to them and how it felt to be both a professional and a woman of faith in American society.
Dr. Rita Sherma of the University of Southern California and Claremont Lincoln University hosted an evening panel with female scholars from the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions to discuss romantic love as experienced by women in their religions.
The conference culminated with a trip to the Jain Center of Southern California in Buena Park, where conferees were given a preview of an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian curated by Momaya. Titled “Beyond Bollywood,” the exhibit depicts the history of Indian Americans and how they have helped to shape the U.S.
Her preview included the arrival of the first Indian immigrant to America in the 18th century, images of Indians building the railroads, a rare poster from the lecture tour of V.R. Gandhi, the first Jain delegate to the World Parliament of Religions in 1895, and a rare candid photo of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian American elected to Congress in 1957, chatting with future presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Pallavi Gala, a Pathshala teacher, also gave the attendees insight into the practice of women of the Jain Center, and highlighted the students who have continued to practice Ahimsa and Anekantvad in their professional lives.
The conference committee was chaired by Dr. Nitin Shah. Members included Poorvi Parekh, Dr. Mamta Shaha, Alka Dalal, Dr. Brianne Donaldson, and Whitny Braun, who served as conference coordinator.