Work-in-Progress Seminar with APC Visiting Scholar Rupa Pillai
Rupa Pillai is a senior lecturer of Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her PhD in anthropology from the University of Oregon. Her dissertation, Caribbean Hinduism on the Move, is the culmination of 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork with the growing Indo-Caribbean American community in New York City. Through this research, she explores how this community adapts and mobilizes Hinduism in this second migration, first from the Indian subcontinent and second from the Caribbean, to carve a space for themselves within the social landscape of New York City. While at the Alice Paul Center, Dr. Pillai will be working on her current project, “Reclaiming Shakti: Gender Justice in Little Guyana,” about feminist and queer interventions in Caribbean Hindu faith communities in New York City during the #MeToo era. Before joining Penn, Dr. Pillai taught at Brandeis University and Tufts University.
Mandirs are the cornerstone of Guyanese Hindu life in New York City. Besides offering spiritual guidance, mandirs offer ethnic networks to find employment and housing and, more importantly to preserve one’s culture and traditions. However, as sites of cultural, religious, and ethnic preservation, mandirs can also be sites of repression, perpetuating misogyny and homophobia. As a result, many survivors of gender violence in the community avoid mandirs and give up their faith. However, some Guyanese Hindus refuse to abandon their faith, opting to reinterpret Guyanese Hinduism to align with their progressive politics and social justice goals. In this paper, I will discuss such efforts to consider how faith may offer a feminist praxis of change. From feminist reading groups to new models of mandirs, Guyanese Hinduism is reworked in the context of New York City to offer better support in migration and to encourage change. As I will demonstrate, by contextualizing their faith in their history of twice-migration, these Indo-Guyanese Hindus move beyond reducing community issues to a problem of culture, a move that may present avenue for more radical transformations.