‘I hope that my husband will let me go to church’: the tension between tradition and religious freedom for women in the Narikuravar community

Every morning after finishing her household chores, 17-year-old Deepa* walks into a small thatched building in Mappedu, Chennai. This is where Christians belonging to the indigenous Narikuravar community in Mappedu have been gathering for prayer meetings and Sunday services for more than a decade.

Deepa has been attending these meetings since she was a child. She loved learning Bible verses, sharing her testimony and singing songs. But there was a huge price to pay. To this day, she has been facing significant opposition from her parents, to the point that she has been physically abused because she continues attending church

Deepa told CSW: ‘My parents used to scold me and beat me up since I started going to church, but I would still go. We had fights at home everyday. They would swear at me, threaten me with dire consequences and beat me up. I would just pour my heart out to God and keep praying. When I told them I was going to get baptised, they were furious. I’ve now decided to wait a little longer to get baptised.’

Deepa’s parents’ main concern is that being involved in church would lead her to marrying outside of her community. Deepa said: ‘They talk ill about the church and pastor. They say that I will go wayward if I go to church.’ 

Girls in the Narikuravar community are usually married by the age of 13 or 14, but Deepa’s pastor has encouraged the young girls in church to stand up for their right to get married only once they attain the legal age of 18. This is another reason why Deepa’s parents don’t like her going to church. ‘I will be married off in a few years. I hope that my husband will let me go to church.’

Women in the Narikuravar community face discrimination and oppression. Many who come to the church here claim that they have finally found peace and a safe place to vent their frustrations and have hope. Deepa says that it has also changed her as a person. ‘I used to speak bad words, I used to fight with people and gossip, but now I don’t do any of these things. There’s a lot of change in me, but nobody in my family sees the good.’

Sindhu is a 24-year-old woman who has also been attending the church since she was a child. Today, she has two children and says that her husband is opposed to her going to church.

Sindhu had to drop out of school at age 13. It is a common practice within the Narikuravar community to force girls to drop out of school once they reach puberty and for their parents to quickly marry them off to prevent them from leaving the community with another man.

This is exactly what happened to Sindhu, and after her wedding at age 15, her husband started demanding that she stops going to church. She told CSW: ‘My husband comes home drunk every day. He is not happy with me going to church and gives me a very hard time because of this. I am like a robot at home. I have to blindly follow his orders and do whatever he tells me to do, otherwise I will get beaten up.’

‘This church has been a place of shelter and safety and peace. This is where we understood what love means. Outside these walls, all we know is oppression and poverty and hatred. Husbands are happy when the wives support them in whatever they do even their bad habits like drinking. But since those who are coming to church don’t support their husbands drinking, they are against it.’

One Christian church leader who has been serving the community for over a decade told us his ministry has gotten a lot more difficult in the last couple of years. He said: ‘Everything I do is scrutinised. I have to be very careful about every move. I am already facing a lot of opposition within the community from the non-Christians. They say that I am the reason for all their family members turning away from their ways. For instance, I organised tailoring classes for the women here so that they can make some money and be self-sufficient. But the men are totally against it, saying because of this, they are leaving their traditional bead making practice and that the art would die away soon. Parents are also very concerned that the children will leave their culture and go astray. They say I am spoiling them. They have been threatening to close down the church and hand me over to the police.’

He added that parents in the community have accused him of leading their children astray. ‘Deepa, for instance, was engaged at 15. She was about to get married the next year. But here at church, I’ve encouraged the girls to be of legal age (18) before they get married. So she’s been very strong that she will not get married before that. Now the parents blame me that I am spoiling the children [sic]. When we try to fight for the rights of girls, there is so much opposition and they try to hurt the church indirectly.’

The church has been instrumental in creating an atmosphere of unity, peace and freedom for those who attend. But for the elders within the community, there is a deep-rooted fear of change, of losing their identity if the younger generation is turning to Christianity, and this underpins their opposition to it. However, while there is a need to preserve their culture and heritage, the right to freedom of religion or belief of individuals within the community must be upheld.

By CSW’s India Desk

Editor’s note: All names have been changed for security reasons.