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Finding Agency Within Patriarchal Religions: A Religious Film Critique Part 2

Academic Essay

This essay examines the characters in the movie Water and how they display women finding agency from within more oppressive religions reinforced by the culture. It was written while taking my Religion & Film Class during Spring Quarter 2018. 

Religious scholars often deal with feminism critiques and interpretations of religious systems, especially those with blatant sexist and misogynistic traditions. The Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism, and Hinduism are the most popular religions to receive feminist criticism. All these faiths have some regulations that force women to become submissive to men and portray women as sexual objects. From the traditional Western, feminist perspective, the women who continue to follow these traditions are oppressed and have no free will.

However, a new scholar, Saba Mahmood, argues that “[agency] can be understood only from within the discourses and structures of subordination that create the conditions of its enactment”; in other words, women find agency only from within the social constraints they find themselves in (1). Although the word “only” is too constricting when discussing agency, Mahmood makes a compelling argument that both the movies Water and Wadjda demonstrate clearly. These movies display women finding their own agency within the patriarchal societies they live despite Western feminism seeing these actions as unfree.

In Water, it is after the women accept their role as widows that they are able to find their agency within Hindu culture. The three characters Madhumati, Shakuntala, and Kalyani easily display their reclamation of agency while remaining loyal to their culture that constrains them, though sometimes pushing and maybe expanding these boundaries.

Madhumati uses her role as elder in the home to find her agency as a widow. This authority is first seen when Chuyia arrives to the widow’s home. Chuyia is brought to Madhumati, who is flanked by two other widows, by another widow. While Madhumati talks to Chuyia about the change of her life, it’s noticeable that Madhumati is sitting upon a higher seat and all the other widows were sitting on the floor.

This initial display of power and authority is then translated throughout the movie. We see her making decisions to maintain the livelihood of all the widows present in the home even when it is not something she wants. She also has the best accommodations for her social position as a widow, such as her mattress and friend who brought her treats. It is through this higher position of authority that Madhumati finds her sense of agency within the confines of her life. She is able to choose the direction of the widows’ home and all of those who reside within, including their religious decisions. For example, she arranges Kalyani’s meetings with clients who want sexual favors and oversees the monetary exchanges. Madhumati even seems to be in charge of all the monetary transactions of the home since she became outraged at Kalyani deciding to marry. This gives her access to extra cash to afford the nicest objects warranted to widows within Indian culture, such as the mattress and food. Despite being a widow who must sell off younger women to maintain enough finances for all living in the home to survive, Madhumati is seen to be living a nice life given her circumstances.

In addition, Madhumati’s friendship with Patiraji was also a way of reclaiming her agency both within and outside of the system controlling her. In Hindu culture, widows are not supposed to associate with people as they are to live with their own kind in a renunciation-like lifestyle. In contrast, Madhumati and Patiraji have a close connection between each other, as each interaction seen on screen is light-hearted with happiness that makes the viewer even forget for a moment the horrible situation that caused their friendship.

Madhumati must communicate with Patiraji within the economic systems established around the low socioeconomic position of the widows. Their friendship that blossomed was a reclamation, perhaps by both parties, to have a life of their own. This is slightly outside of the system as Patiraji’s role as intermediate ‘pimp’ between the widows and brahmins is not an official role spoken about, but it is still a construct of the patriarchal culture. Nonetheless, these two women have changed a horrible transaction and relationship into something to look forward to and enjoy together as women talking and being friends.

Shakuntala’s character seems to be suffering, as she struggles to find agency within the confines of her situation, but she finds agency through aiding the other widows. She is constantly correcting Chuyia, trying to teach her the customs and social norms for being a widow so that she is safe within the culture. She was always there for the widow who craved candy, comforting her throughout the nighttime. Some may argue that this is not agency but altruism; however, Shakuntala must want to do these actions as she continuously completes them despite there being no force making her besides her own conscious. This is exemplified in the final scene where Shakuntala gives Chuyia the chance to live a life outside of the widow’s home.

Kalyani finds her sense of agency at first within the home of the widows; however, she also discovers her own choices regarding her death outside of the system prescribed to her at birth. Within the widow’s home, Kalyani seems to be finding agency through her sexuality. Her hair is so long, and she is the only widow who is prostituted, as she is the youngest aside from Chuyia. During the scene when Kalyani breaks the news about her engagement, it is discovered officially by the audience that Kalyani is the only one earning money for the home after she commits suicide, forcing Madhumati to sell out Chuyia. Since she is the “bread-winner” she is given the best room to herself atop the widow’s home. Furthermore, she is forgiven for breaking rules and is seen giving Chuyia some of her happiest moments in the home. Her sexuality power extends to her romance with Narayan, as her high status as “bread-winner” gave her the confidence and desire to choose to leave the home. Although she begins to be outside the constraints of her culture, she discovers the identity of Narayan’s father and is once again faced with the reality of her social identity. Even though Kalyani finds her agency through the sexual power meant to degrade her, she tries to use this power to break out of the cultural boundaries.

Through her death, Kalyani reaches outside her culture to take back power over her life in a stance almost against sexual power. In Hinduism, there are three options for widows: death by sati (the fire or ‘goddess’ within), marrying the husband’s younger brother if permissible, or becoming a widow renunciate. Sati is thought to be the goddess evoked within that burns the widow alive. The goddess is usually depicted in Hinduism as a wrathful, sexual deity, and it is believed that when a husband dies, it is because the sexual desire (‘the goddess’) of the wife is so powerful and hungry that it devours her husband and kills him. In contrast to the flames that represent wrathful, sexual properties, Kalyani drowns herself in the Ganges, thought to be the ‘lovely goddess.’ By choosing her death to surround and fill herself with the purity of the Ganges, Kalyani really took back her life in the end.

From the two characters Wadjda and the Mother, Water also presents to viewers the dynamics of agency but in Islam. Wadjda is a pretty rebellious character constantly pushing the boundaries of the culture and those who enforce it. It is through this rebellion she finds her agency; nonetheless, Wadjda is still stopped and remains within the bubble she created from her previous pushed limitations. For example, Wadjda tries to win money for a bike by winning a competition that required her to perform the best of all other girls at her mosque school. This meant that she needed to assimilate perfectly to this culture; she did, but she still remained rebellious by practicing riding the bicycle alone with her boyfriend. She already made the boundary before officially purchasing the bike, as the bike owner also agreed to hold the bike for Wadjda. It seems as though she is pushing the boundaries of the cultures by wanting to purchase a bike as well as riding one already; however, those enforcing the rules seem to be allowing these actions as if the culture is tolerant of these ‘radical’ actions. Even though the teacher is extremely upset at the decision of Wadjda to buy a bike with her competition earnings, she does not punish Wadjda except by not giving her the extra prize money. Her mother afterwards buys her a bike maintaining this rebellious outburst. Instead of being completely outside the culture, Wadjda seems to have pushed far enough to stay within acceptance but pushing for more progressive ideas.

Her mother, on the other hand, seems to stay within the boundaries of the culture to find her agency. Her shoes, clothes, and make-up are all put together the best they can be as that is one aspect of her life that she controls. She also seems to have reign over her time in the kitchen where she cooks and sings however she desires; the recipes and verses are hers to customize but they all have a similar connected background from the culture, whether that be the original recipes or songs from other singers. Finally, at the end of the movie, the mother is pictured smoking cigarettes with her hair cut off choppily. She takes controls of the final aspects of her life as her husband’s choice of a new wife, as well as her inability to give birth, are out of her hands. Therefore, Wadjda’s mother finds agency within the cultural aspects closest to her.

Both Water and Wadjda do a fantastic job of exploring the argument presented earlier by Mahmood. The characters in each movie demonstrate the factors involving agency when it comes to cultures very different from that of Christianity and the West. Even though the usage of only seems like an extremity, these movies put into perspective the desire to be accepted in cultural as well as the strength of cultural pressures when examining agency.


1. Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Currently a graduate from the University of Denver with a BS in Psychology (concentration: cognitive neuroscience) and BA in Spanish. With a passion for learning, she enjoys understanding more the world, others, and herself. She absolutely loves her orange hair, being a woman, traveling, languages, and exploring new ideas and cultures. Also, she's in the #girlgang for life.
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