Sonja Thomas

Assistant Professor, Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies
Colby College, U.S.A.

“A Life without Religion: Debates over Secularism, Religion and Morality in Indian Textbooks" 
In the early 1960s, the Indian nation-state adopted numerous secular policies intimately tied to nation-building. One component of this was the promotion of history textbooks which conveyed a secular and democratic message which was idealized as politically and morally superior to the divisive religious past. Education usually entails some sort of “moral” or “value” component in an effort to cultivate morally conscious citizens. Since religion is supposed to provide us with a path to live a moral life, religion is deemed to be a crucial component in educating the nation’s future generations. Because of this reason, the right to morally educate children resonates with religious group rights, and the secular Indian textbooks have repeatedly come under communal attack. In this paper, I examine a particular protest in the state of Kerala, India in 2008 against a social science textbook that contained alleged “anti-religious sentiments.” These “anti-religious sentiments” centered on the depiction of an inter-faith/inter-caste marriage in a lesson on caste and religious tolerance. The protest had widespread participation from Christians, Muslims and Hindus but was arguably led by the upper-caste Christian community in Kerala. Examining the rights of religious minorities in postcolonial India, I look at how a unified definition of morality forms and contributes to political protest across religious, caste and class boundaries. In an era when state-sponsored secular moralism is increasingly seen to be outdated and unsuccessful, how does a morality that is centered on the regulation of female sexuality contribute to strengthening claims for religious group rights in the 21st century?

Sonja Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  At Colby, Thomas teaches classes on tap dancing and Black feminist thought, transnational and South Asian feminisms, human rights, and feminist theory.  This academic year, she is a visiting scholar at Lehigh completing a book project with University of Washington Press on minority rights and women’s rights in postcolonial India. In the book, Thomas explores how the political interpretation of minorities in India seeks to homogenize minorities as subordinated in order to protect their rights while on the ground, caste, class and racial hierarchies are reified in numerous ways between minority communities. This engenders differing definitions of “womanhood” and indeed, “women’s rights” amongst minority groups making feminist solidarity between religions, castes, races and classes and among minority populations, contentious.  She has published articles on gender and the human right to education in postcolonial India, and on the religious traditions of the Syrian Christians of Kerala India.