Review: Food, Faith and Gender in Southeast Asia

Media of Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia

Food, Faith and Gender in South Asia: The Cultural Politics of Women’s Food Practices. Usha Sanyal and Nita Kumar. Bloomsbury. 2020. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3501-3706-6. 222 pp.

Wendy Yared (

Food is nourishing, pleasurable, and deeply symbolic. When used in a religious context, it can show devotion, offer charity, and demonstrate self-restraint or piety by abstaining from it. The authors of this volume challenge long-held assumptions that women’s roles in food creation, especially in a religious context, are strictly subordinate when they are actually quite political. The book presents ten detailed accounts of how cooking, serving, and eating food (or choosing not to eat) can translate into favorable spiritual and social capital for women in South Asia.

It peers deeply into the sometimes-hidden spheres of women’s life, from the mundane to the holy. The editors note that “food is our lens, but it is not our end.” They divided the text into three themes: 1) subordination and resistance, 2) food rituals as a tool to set boundaries and establish identity, and 3) food as a way to gain or lose authority (Sanyal & Kumar 2020). At the end of their introduction, the editors also bring attention to the various imaginative, reflexive, and challenging research methods contained in this volume.

More than half of the research takes place within Muslim communities. Accounts of Hinduism and Buddhism are also woven in. Readers looking for rich ethnographic narratives of these religions will find the applicable sections worthwhile.

The first few chapters approach food rituals from the individual’s perspective–rather than going into great detail about a specific group or religious sect. In an unconventional approach, Steele analyzes a long-lost chapter about herbal remedies in an essential publication on Muslim women’s health from the early 1900s. She narrates a fictional story of a woman who utilizes the herbal cures for her family in everyday life that in turn exhibits women’s moral authority, agency, and status (Steele 2020, 31-54).

Moving to  contemporary times, Sarkar applies the concept of a “Motherline” to how recipes and food customs, often within a religious context, are passed down from Hindu mothers to daughters. She posits that this is not just the “obedient transmission of rituals,” but instead a way to foster imagination and collaboration between relatives despite the patrilineal context (Sarkar 2020, 74). She addresses how in today’s world, women still pass down recipes to daughters and daughters-in-law, but the younger generation takes liberties with preparation style, ingredient choice, etc. Anyone interested in the intergenerational transmission of food or the anthropology of cookbooks would find this chapter to be a gem.

The construction of women’s identities and spirituality through religious actions related to food is a pervasive theme throughout. For example, Engelmajer examines how day-to-day activities of women in Buddhist communities, like almsgiving of food, are an opportunity to express a fundamental tenet of their religion–generosity–and gain authority not just for themselves, but for their family as well. She cuts through some of the typical biases that “the religious activities of laywomen are perceived as less worthwhile and meaningful” than men and women who have chosen a monastic path (Engelmajer 2020, 139)

Farah’s and Werbner’s chapters discuss how food can elicit boundaries between one religious group and another. Farah’s research into the niyaz and fateha would help anyone who wants to dive deep into the details of Barelwi culture and religion. Werbner compares and contrasts two similar food rituals, the slametan and khatm-e-qur’an performed by Hindus in Java and Muslims in Pakistan/of Pakistan descent in London, respectively interpreting class and gender differences.

In some cases, it is what women choose not to consume that gives them agency or spiritual gains. For example, Dandekar discusses the interplay of ritual fasting by women of different castes in exchange for childbearing luck to ultimately produce a male heir. This chapter is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in fertility rituals, caste inequality, and goddess worship.

Kumar and Sanyal’s chapters echo Dandekar’s with a narrative look at fasting in the context of work and school. Kumar discusses how choosing to fast and celebrate food-related holy days can bridge the dichotomy between work and home while at the same time giving working women just the slightest amount of control over their lives. Sanyal’s research highlights the spiritual importance of fasting for young women living at a madrasa (Muslim university). After the lively descriptions of social life in the madrasa, the author also provides cautionary words from Mahmood not to project traditional feminist ideals on the suffering felt when women fast, “We in the scholarly academy tend to assume that women universally desire ‘to be free from relations of subordination…from structures of male domination’” (Mahmood 2001, 206). Instead, Sanyal reminds us that women in the madrasa use fasts to discipline themselves for their own internal piety and the respect of the women surrounding them. While pious acts can then be applied later in life when they are married, their immediate goal is to gain their peers’ respect.       

Several authors discuss how the women of the family take on the brunt of food preparation for holy days. In some cases, this takes away from religious practices, and in other cases, this contributes positively to their spirituality. Sengupta analyzes Rokeya’s efforts to reform Islam by addressing “the problem of ‘excess’ in religious ritual with the reproduction and reinforcement of gender hierarchy” (Sengupta 2020, 58). Rokeya argues that women unfairly have less time for their spiritual practices because of the expectation that they prepare extensive meals for iftar, or the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. She suggests, instead, that iftar meals become a more pious eating occasion. “The accomplishment of cooking…is not unlike the ornaments that married women wear, ornaments that are in fact shackles to imprison them” (Sengupta 2020, 62). Khan’s chapter also details this traditional inequity and how female leaders from the Jama’at sect attempted to democratize women’s worship opportunities by minimizing the amount of time spent in the kitchen.

Overall, the text has good flow and continuity. Many of the same manuscripts (Bihishti Zewar – The Jewelry of Paradise), people (Thanvi, Rokeya Hossain), rituals (recitation of the Qur’an khwani), and philosophies are referenced, connecting the dots between from start to finish.

Given the depth of research and specificity of the geographical region, the volume as a whole is more suited towards a graduate student audience than an undergraduate. However, anyone with a keen interest in the ties between world religions, food, and feminist politics would likely voraciously consume this publication. Readers with a baseline knowledge of the tenets of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism will more easily digest the symbolic and political discussions because some authors assume a baseline knowledge of certain concepts. Despite the authors’ efforts to define key terms and place complicated religious concepts into context, it can be challenging to keep track of the names, concepts, and definitions. For example, Farah thoroughly translates Islamic words, provides historical context, and summarizes the religious sects’ beliefs. However, it can be hard to follow along if you do not recall the meaning of a word from a few pages prior. Similarly, Sanyal’s chapter on women in a madrasa never simply states what a “madrasa” is.

On the other hand, Werbner helps the reader keep track of two similar religious concepts by defining them in the first section and then going into rich detail one by one–continually teasing out their similarities and comparing their differences throughout. Sengupta makes it easy by defining key concepts in parenthesis.

In line with the geopolitical topic of South Asia, most of the publication covers deeply rooted religious and food-related practices from smaller villages or religious sects, often in rural areas. To round out the discussion, it would be interesting to contrast the politics and food practices listed herein with the dominant religious beliefs in some of the larger cities in South Asia like Islam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or Catholicism in Manila, Philippines. However, even without that addition, this book is a resource for readers concerned with the plight of women serving themselves and their gods via the kitchen.

I enjoyed how some chapters, like Steele’s, presented non-formulaic research and reporting. Her envisioned fictional account of everyday life based on a popular text reminded me of the poetry and other creative aspects woven into presentations during the American Anthropology Association’s “Raise your voices” conference earlier this year.

I found it refreshing how many authors, like Sarkar and Farah, were keen to remind the reader that we should not always make assumptions that women’s participation in cooking, religious food-related rituals, and suffering serve only to benefit a patriarchal structure. In fact, much of the time, food provides a space for creativity, pride, individuality, and spiritual growth. Farah notes, “women are also believing subjects in their own right who articulate their piety through the idiom of food…While women’s labour in the kitchen does, indeed, take on an aspect of devotional practice, it does not necessarily crowd out…more ‘appropriate’ forms and objects of devotion” (Farah 2020, 107). This acknowledgment demonstrates the depth to which the authors studied women and their actions in non-judgmental subjective fieldwork.

The interplay of agency between women, food, and faith is a timeless subject that will continue to morph and change, as does our contemporary world. This volume demonstrates how a thorough understanding of women’s activities and their religious worldviews can lessen preconceived notions about oppression within a patriarchal society and instead expose women’s power. While women might still be in the kitchen more than men, it does not mean that the rituals, food, or actions they take are necessarily all done for the good of someone else.


Hossain, Rokeya. 1973a. ‘Rashana Puja’. In Abdul Qadir (ed.) Rokeya Rachanbali. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptic Islamic Revival’. Cultural Anthropology 16(2):202-36.

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