Privileged Minorities

Syrian Christianity, Gender, and Minority Rights in Postcolonial India

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Sonja Thomas
Global South Asia
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , November
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780295743844.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Privileged Minorities, Sonja Thomas problematizes a link, often assumed in Indian politics, between numerical minority and political vulnerability. She does this by a close examination of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, India, using an interdisciplinary approach and a variety of sources: oral histories and interviews, clothing, and legislative assembly debates. The Syrian Christian community is a fascinating example of a minority population that is and has been historically socially advantaged. The community locates their origins in the conversion of a group of Hindu Brahmins in the year 52 CE, when Thomas the apostle traveled to India and began proselytizing. This numinous history explains why the Syrian Christian community has a special status; although Christians in India are numerically a minority population, who often experience oppression, the Syrian Christian community (generally) does not. Instead, they are privileged in a number of ways: by their economic class, by their caste connections and how they have historically interacted with other castes, and by their perceived “race.” When these privileges are examined, light is shed on complex issues such as those concerning multiple oppressions, privilege and subordination, racialization, and religion and secularism in India.

In chapter 1, Thomas includes a brief history of the Syrian Christian community, a description of Syrian Christian denominations, and a critique of the Kerala “model of development.” Because in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries Kerala went from a rigidly caste-divided and socially backward society to an almost completely literate state with vast improvements in quality of life, it is often touted as a “development model” for other areas. Chapter 2 traces changes in women’s clothing from “communal” dress of the “secular” sari, and elaborates on the caste/class/religious differences and connections that each configuration of dress can either hide or provide. In chapter 3,  Thomas discusses the connection between race (or colorism that is then explained as race), colonialism, the categories of Aryan and Dravidian as utilized for power and privilege, and how these categories create/justify a person’s status and what happens to them (their “fate”).

Thomas problematizes the term “minority” and discusses how the term has been used for the betterment of certain minority groups to the detriment of others in chapter 4, while chapter 5 discusses how minority groups united in defense of morality against a textbook for children that included a story of an interreligious marriage. She investigates why this particular incident was successful in uniting minorities while a later movement, this time against government intervention into minority religious schools, failed.

The conclusion briefly examines the connections between caste, class, and gender in the Charismatic movement, particularly interesting for those who follow this burgeoning worldwide movement.

One of the book’s great strengths is illustrating the importance of deeply examining intersectionality. Although it is easy to talk about a Christian minority in India or Kerala, the multitude of differences between (and within) groups is important. As Thomas highlights, the Syrian Christians are vastly different from Roman Catholics and Protestants. They each have different histories, status, wealth, and are seen and treated very differently. The category “Christian women” is similarly diverse.

Also important is her criticism and breakdown of the so-called Kerala “model of development,” which holds up Kerala as a success of modernization and education for women and minorities but effaces the multitude of problems that such broad readings of vectors, such as literacy and education level, hides. As Thomas notes, the statistical data that this “model” relies on does not accurately reflect the lived reality of many minority populations, who do not have the quality of life that the aggregate data suggests. This results in disenfranchised groups being dismissed as outliers, a problematic assumption that tends to serve the interest of the privileged. Similarly, the much-touted high status of women in Kerala becomes less impressive when examined closely. Thus, statistical data that is often presented as evidence of Kerala’s development hides “struggles against gender- and caste-based violence and patriarchal religious norms similar to those of women in other areas of South Asia” (34).

The tightness and focus of Thomas’s narrative keeps the book at an interesting and readable length. Due to this, there are areas where I wanted more elaboration, such as about the early history of the sari and more nuanced examinations of other minority populations such as dalits or Muslims. I would also have liked to read a little more from her interviews with women. I have a feeling that there is additional insightful material that Thomas did not include in the book, and I hope to see it in future publications.

Early in the book, Thomas notes why it is important to look closely at particular individual or group experiences. She writes, “Tracing the intricacies of that agency allows us to understand how intersectional oppression functions, to see how solidarity movements may be hindered because of dominant-women/dominant-minority paradigms, and to question how social change is envisioned, acted upon, and ultimately actualized” (7). And this sums up the great importance of the book for scholars of India who tend to overlook Kerala or subsume it under “South India,” as well as for feminists, religious scholars, activists, and people in general who are interested in thinking more deeply about how inequalities coexist, interact, and intersect across groups, time, and place.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keely Sutton is Assistant Professor of Religion, Birmingham-Southern College.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

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