Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sonja Thomas's "Privileged Minorities"

Sonja M. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Colby College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Privileged Minorities: Syrian Christianity, Gender, and Minority Rights in Postcolonial India, and reported the following:
Privileged Minorities is a feminist examination of the intersections of race, caste, class, religion, and gender in postcolonial India. I specifically focus on the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, India. “Syrian” refers not to the country of Syria, but to the Syriac language and Eastern Christian traditions of the community. The Syrian Christians are also called “St. Thomas Christians” because they believe that St. Thomas, the Apostle of Jesus, came to Kerala in the year 52CE and converted Aryan Brahmins to Christianity. Their privileged caste status is buttressed by land ownership and class power. But as Christians, they are a minority religion in India and women in the community have to contend with the intersections of patriarchy and castesism (also known as brahmanical patriarchy).

Page 99 of Privileged Minorities sits in the middle of chapter four, “Who are the Minorities?” In this chapter, I examine differences between the Syrian Christians and other minorities through a minority rights protest that occurred in 1959. The Syrian Christians organized the protest claiming their rights under Article 30(1) of the Indian Constitution were being violated by government regulations proposed in the 1957 Kerala Education Bill. Article 30(1) gives religious and linguistic minorities the right to administer and run their own schools. The purpose of this article is to ensure that minorities have an enclave where they can teach children about their minority culture and keep their minority way of life alive in the face of the dominant culture.

But what is “minority culture?”

On page 99 I state:
In all the discussion over minorities and the Kerala Education Bill, nothing is mentioned as to what is actually being protected by Article 30 (1)—only that the bill infringed upon this article. The Syrian Christian argument that minority schools were for the benefit of the minority community rested on the assumption that minority [school] managements are the authentic and legitimate authorities over what constitutes “minority culture.” The definition of “Christian culture” is evident in the concurrent debates over another bill, the [1958] Kerala Dowry Prohibition Bill. Syrian Christians asked for exemption from the Dowry Prohibition Bill on the basis of their customs enshrined in Christian personal law. As Anna Lindberg has argued, the codification of religious customs in the Christian personal law was an “identity making process” for the Syrian Christians, one in which patriarchal controls over women were strengthened. It is through the debates on this [Dowry Prohibition] Bill that we can see how gender roles and expectations act as the marker for defining minority culture rather than any numeric difference between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
In the late 1950s, Syrian Christian (male) politicians argued that the Syrian Christian community should be exempt from the reaches of the Dowry Prohibition Bill because dowry was their tradition. This “tradition” of dowry is an upper-caste Christian tradition that secured the community’s status in society over other minorities (Muslims, Dalit Christians, Tribals) and over Dalit Hindus. It secured the status of the community because the “tradition” of dowry mandated that Syrian Christian women needed to marry within the caste and within the faith. In turn, this ensured the literal reproduction of the caste, race, and class status of the community through endogamous unions.

This page really does reflect some of the major theoretical interventions of my book. Page 99 of Privileged Minorities looks at intersectional privilege and subordination, numerical minorities and assumptions concerning political vulnerability, and gendered and sexual controls which police bodies on everyday levels.
Learn more about Privileged Minorities at the University of Washington Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue