In This Episode
This week, Phill hears a personal story of how one woman’s relationship to religion changed (for the better!) after her decision to have an abortion. As a young Hindu woman in a pro-life group at her Catholic school, Shivana Jorawar panicked when she found out she was pregnant. What happened next brought her a feminist approach to Hinduism that she carries with her today.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardy. Last week we delve into the religious battlefield that is abortion in America. And while the politics around abortion are shaped by Christianity, it goes without saying that many of the millions of people seeking abortions each year aren’t necessarily Christian. So what happens when your particular religion doesn’t say much about abortion, but your culture does? That was the crossroads where Shivana Jorawar has landed. And it turned out the choice she made would only end up bringing her closer to her spirituality in ways she never could have imagined.
Phillip Picardi: Shivana, I thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
Shivana Jorawar: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Phillip Picardi: I was really touched by a piece that you wrote in Bustle called By My Hinduism includes feminism and abortion. So I guess to, start if we can, obviously, so many of us already know the stories about Christianity’s teachings on abortion and how that’s specifically played out on the American political stage. But I am less familiar with what Hinduism teaches about abortion. So can you tell me what their teachings are there?
Shivana Jorawar: So that’s a really wonderful question. And I would also love to know. [laughs] I have been hard pressed to find anything specifically about abortion, per se, but we can tell a lot from the stories of Hinduism of what the religion, and what people who interpret the religion would like us to know. And for me, I’ve been of two minds when it comes to Hinduism because I feel like it is a religion with some really fierce warrior goddesses, right? If anyone knows anything, even very top level about Hinduism, you know that there’s this pantheon of gods and goddesses, right? And so many of these goddesses are the forces that are conjured into the universe when evil needs to be demolished. In so many of the stories that are passed down, the male gods couldn’t summon enough strength to take out the demons, and so a woman needed to be conjured up. And so she comes in her full ferociousness and power and saves the universe, saves the earth.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. That’s very true to reality?
Shivana Jorawar: Right? It’s like we’re living it right now. And I feel like those stories are silenced. They live there in our ancient books, but they’re not the ones that are lifted up. And I feel like that’s really a product of who is doing the storytelling and who is writing our scriptures, right. And who gets to speak to us from the pulpit. There are also stories that do get lifted up and these are stories which teach women to be submissive and that their body is owned by their partners, right? So one of the really, really famous stories is the story of Sita, who is the divine consort of Lord Ran. Everyone knows this story and everyone knows that Sita doubles over and does anything her Ram wants and needs so that he can be happy, right? And one of the things that she did when she was accused of being unfaithful, which she was not, and as she became pregnant, she was cast out of her husband’s family and made to be a single mother. And she was strong, raised these two beautiful boys who ended up being warriors themselves, who are lauded. But we don’t talk about her that way. We don’t talk about her as one of the first single mothers who was so strong. We talk about her as a model of submission.
Phillip Picardi: Interesting. And so you’re saying here that there’s an innate contradiction even within the stories you were taught about Hinduism of at once, female empowerment, but on the other hand, the importance of a woman’s role in society or in the household?
Shivana Jorawar: Exactly. And I think a lot of it does have to do with bodily autonomy. Another story that I think about a lot is the story of a Draupati. So there was a war between two sets of brothers and they were losing to each other and placing bets, and every time they lost, they had to give up something from their kingdom. And one set of brothers had lost everything but her. She was married into the family and they ended up losing her to the other side, and now she’s wearing this sari. You know a sari, it’s like a six-foot long, beautiful piece of drapery that women wear.
Phillip Picardi: I know my fashion, honey. I know a sari.
Shivana Jorawar: OK, so you know, and so the side that now won her is trying to unravel this sari and make her nude in front of everyone who is watching this debacle go down. And the sari, though, it gets to the six feet and it keeps unraveling and keeps unraveling and keeps unraveling and it does not stop. And the way the story is told, they say, oh, Draupati, the woman was praying to God, this male God figure, who saved her and made it so that her chastity was intact.
Phillip Picardi: Why is that about her chastity all of a sudden? That sounds like?
Shivana Jorawar: Well, also, also, yeah. And why don’t we say um, hello, why did you give away a woman as if she’s an object, right?
Phillip Picardi: Right.
Shivana Jorawar: We don’t talk about that. And we don’t tell the story in a way that says, what if it was her own inner power that made that happen? And so these are the kind of things that I think about a lot and that I want us to, as feminists, reinterpret.
Phillip Picardi: So I know that a lot of this feminist reinterpretation of the stories that you were told and specifically the stories of female figures in Hinduism, I know these stories played a large role for you in your own decision to have an abortion. And so you have shared your own personal abortion story. And I guess to start, I just want to ask, what was it like deciding to come forward with your story, knowing where you come from and knowing, especially with this age of the Internet, that anyone could access this story, conceivably?
Shivana Jorawar: Well, at first it was terrifying. I was in so much fear of being judged and being seen as someone who was a bad influence on younger women. And when I had my abortion, there wasn’t a second that I doubted my decision. And I knew immediately when my decision was. It wasn’t a hard one, but I also knew that I would have to go it alone at a very young age. I was a young teenager when I received abortion care, and I remember feeling this deeply unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach that if my parents found out, I would be cast away from the family. And I would hear stories, we’re from an immigrant family, so one of the things that immigrant parents used to threaten their children with was if you did such and such a thing, we’re going to send you back. First of all, I was born here, so not really sending me back, but it was this idea of punishment, right? And plucking you out of a home that you know and taking away from all of your friends. And so I was really just full of shame. And I also was feeling a lot of shame not only because of the abortion itself, but also because of the stigma around sex and sexuality when it came to women in my community, you know, we were not supposed to have sex. And so the fact that I had had a pregnancy was proof that I had sex and somehow there was more weight around that, I think even than the abortion care itself.
Phillip Picardi: And so you’re essentially a teenager who learns that she’s pregnant. How did you know that abortion was an option for you, and how did you, how did you find access to reproductive care?
Shivana Jorawar: Well, I actually was a member of the Right to Life group in my Catholic high school.
Phillip Picardi: Get out of here.
Shivana Jorawar: So I ironically learned what abortion was parentheses—and that it was wrong—from my experience there, you know? And I had heard all these bad things about Planned Parenthood. And so when I became pregnant, I knew that Planned Parenthood was the place to go to.
Phillip Picardi: Right.
Shivana Jorawar: You know, it was the days of dial up. And so I had to go on this stealth mission to—I don’t even, it wasn’t Google at that time, I think AOL was the search engine—I had to go on this stealth mission to find the closest Planned Parenthood, which happened to be in downtown New York and I lived in the Bronx. So it was also at that age tough for me to even physically get myself there to travel that far. And I had never been to a doctor without my mother at this point in my life. I depended on her for everything, I was so close to her and went to her when anything was wrong and this was the first time in my life where, you know, to me also I didn’t understand abortion care. And for me it was a very intense surgery, right? Like that’s how I had it in my head and to do it without her was just really, really hard and I think the most painful part of it.
Phillip Picardi: So am I to understand that you were alone during the procedure? No one accompanied you to Planned Parenthood?
Shivana Jorawar: Yeah.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. That’s a lot for a teenager.
Shivana Jorawar: I was really scared, I was scared of, you know, being put under, what it would feel like afterwards, if it was going to be painful—of course it was not and it was very quick. And I just wish that I had the support system that I needed at that time and that the shame and stigma around abortion care didn’t exist, right, and that I felt like I could reach out to a family member or a friend to be there with me.
Phillip Picardi: Yes, that’s, that’s absolutely fair. And I also find it interesting that you learned about the pro-life movement and became a part of the pro-life movement while in Catholic school, despite the fact that you grew up practicing Hinduism.
Shivana Jorawar: Well, yes. And I will also say that they gave free pizza every Friday
Phillip Picardi: A clever recruitment tactic. I understand. How did you feel afterwards, physically or emotionally?
Shivana Jorawar: I felt relieved. I remember feeling like, oh, my gosh, I can graduate high school, I can go on to college, I can pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer, the first lawyer in our family, and not disappoint my parents and not disappoint my culture. And, you know, it just made me feel like I can continue to live my life, pursue my dreams and have a family when I am ready on my own terms.
Phillip Picardi: Now back to my conversation with Shivana.
Phillip Picardi: So you weren’t worried about eternal damnation, et cetera?
Shivana Jorawar: No, no, if anything, I was worried about damnation coming from my community because I was very active in the temple community around that time. And for a lot of Hindus, when you go to temple, it’s not just worship. And we did that, of course, but it’s also a place where you’re coming together with people who share your culture and there’s a lot of cultural promotion that happens. So I did Indian classical dancing and folk dancing and there were Hindi language classes and music classes, you know? And it was, they’re such a, it’s an insular community where everyone kind of knows each other and there’s a lot of gossip. And so—
Phillip Picardi: So you were worried about being found out, essentially?
Shivana Jorawar: I was worried about being found out and branded with a scarlet letter S. You know, this is part of why I left that life, left the temple life, because I felt that if people knew who I really was, that I was having sex, that I was, quote unquote, “a loose woman” you know, and someone who embraced having desire, that I would be sullied and dirty and inadequate.
Phillip Picardi: I’m sorry you felt that way. I think one of the interesting things about your story is that after leaving temple life, it sounds like your relationship to Hinduism was only strengthened.
Shivana Jorawar: Yeah. So I think that leaving temple life allowed me to tap into a more authentic form of my spirituality and religion that feels way more real for me and more aligned with who I am and my personal relationship with a higher power, and allowed me to kind of distance myself from the interpretations of scripture that I did not agree with, and to just define my religion for me.
Phillip Picardi: And I know that you delve into scholarship too or, you know, there’s lots of talk about the texts in the stories that you unearthed to help enrich your interpretation of Hinduism and also reinforce your feminism. What did you discover during this time that made you feel more closely connected to a higher power in that way?
Shivana Jorawar: Well, one of the things that I began thinking a lot about was the way in which humans have bastardized a lot of religions, right? And one of the things that I was fixated on for a while was the so-called rule that women cannot enter the temple when they’re on their monthly, when they’re menstruating. That was something that always got under my skin. And I found out that it originated from something called the laws of Manu. You know, Manu was someone who kind of just became a pundit, a religious higher up, on his own. He had just decided that he was going to go and create these rules and somehow they were able to seep their way into mainstream Hindu culture. I mean, probably because of the patriarchy and because people wanted to believe that, right? So one of the things that I feel is really important to do is to debunk those myths and to lay bare where we believe things that don’t really come from legitimate places.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah. And I mean, that’s important across all sorts of different faiths and different practices. But I wonder if you think there is a feminist way to practicing Hinduism, or if you feel like Hinduism has enriched your own feminism and your own activism.
Shivana Jorawar: One hundred percent. Since I’ve been, I’ve been talking with you sitting down next to a statue of Mother Durga, who is one of the warrior goddesses that I really look up to and who gives me strength. And she sits on a lion and she holds a spear with three daggers on the end of it. And she is loving. She is compassionate and she’s ferocious when she needs to be. And for me, what I’ve been doing is trying to summon that kind of goddess energy within myself through worshiping these goddesses around me?
Phillip Picardi: And I wonder, too, about the decision that you made to stick with Hinduism instead of kind of saying, you know, for lack of a better term and pardon my French, but fuck this.
Shivana Jorawar: Yeah.
Phillip Picardi: You know, why am I going to participate in something that is so patriarchal and that is making me feel so bad about myself, right?
Shivana Jorawar: Yeah. And I think I just let go of spirituality entirely for a really long time. And then as I got older, I just felt like I needed it in my life so that I could feel whole and so that I could feel like myself again. It just felt like there was something that was missing.
Phillip Picardi: And I understand that you’re still quite close with your parents, is that right?
Shivana Jorawar: I am. I’m actually living with them right now during COVID. So we are very close.
Phillip Picardi: [laughs] Oh, boy. And what do they make, what do they make of your approach to feminism and the kind of radical politics that you very much embody and practice in your everyday life?
Shivana Jorawar: I think they would rather I didn’t speak as much about my personal experiences, but they are feminists, too, and definitely folks who believe in gender justice. And I know that we share the same values. And I also feel that in a way, my politicization has pushed them to be more and more progressive. And I’ve heard my mom say this to someone one time, that because of me and because she wanted to, you know, have a great relationship with me and be able to talk with me, she began learning more and more about feminism and realized that it also aligned with who she was.
Phillip Picardi: That’s a really beautiful and powerful thing and I dare say rarer than I would like it to be. But I’m really encouraged that your parents supported you, especially after, you know, as you said, your decision to come forward and share your story. Because I know through your work, you must know how important it is for women all over the world to hear different people coming forward about their own stories about reproductive justice, to help destigmatize this thing that has been so needlessly stigmatized.
Shivana Jorawar: It’s so important to share stories of real women and to share diverse stories as well, which is why, so I’m a part of a program called We Testify. The entire aim of it is to lift up the stories of people of color, immigrants, queer people, trans people—who do have abortions, right? And to also lift up stories of people who have had later abortions, right? Because those are not the stories that are lifted up. We’re always hearing stories of people who seem to be the perfect patient, right? And I think that we need all of it. I think we need to humanize people who have had abortions. And the storytelling is so powerful that the other side tries to drown it out quite literally. I was speaking once in front of the Supreme Court about my abortion. It was during the last major Supreme Court case. It was while it was being heard. And I’m speaking on the steps of the court at this major rally. Thousands of people are there. There’s a smaller anti-abortion rally right next to us. But they had really loud speakers and I was the first abortion storyteller to take the stage. And just as I started speaking, the other side began to hoot and holler and just really try to silence me. And they would not be doing that if our stories weren’t powerful.
Phillip Picardi: Exactly right. If they knew that your words weren’t going to impact people, they wouldn’t be trying to silence you.
Shivana Jorawar: Right. And elected officials were speaking, celebrities were speaking, but they only did this when the storytellers were up there.
Phillip Picardi: Right. Oh, that’s so interesting. It says a lot about their platform and the amount of lies they’re telling that they want to silence you. I remember working at Teen Vogue when we published our first stories about reproductive justice. I remember Planned Parenthood acknowledged us for it at an awards ceremony. And I also remember how deeply uncomfortable so many people were in the company and even at the publication that we had decided to be so forthcoming about showing young people specifically, you know, our young female audience the importance of access to reproductive justice care. And I was so terrified. I grew up Catholic and it was a really hard thing for me to unlearn the stigma against abortion. But I knew that even just my experience, being a young man coming of age and coming into sexuality, I knew that my world looked so much different than that of my, you know, my girlfriends, the people that I that I cared about in my life. And I always, you know, I always said, like, we need to make sure that we’re creating content here and things that young people can read that is a resource for them that is going to help them save their own lives. And if we don’t show young people what their options are, then we’re not empowering young people. And so what’s the point in that? And so I say all of that to say thank you so much for sharing your story, for the bravery it takes to share your story, for the incredible work that you’re doing every day. I really commend you. And I’m so glad that you are here with us as the fully-formed beautiful person you are, and that this has been a positive experience for you. It means a lot that you are willing to come on today to share it with all of us.
Shivana Jorawar: Thank you so much for creating this opportunity and the space to have these kinds of important conversation.
Phillip Picardi: It’s my pleasure.
Phillip Picardi: Abortion is a deeply personal choice, and I hope that over the past two weeks you’ve learned a little bit about the many factors that can go into such a decision, whether those are financial, professional or spiritual. And even if your mind or your personal opinions haven’t been changed, I hope we can all agree that it’s nobody’s place to force their beliefs or opinions on anybody else, especially over what they do with their own bodies. I am sure somehow that we’ve all got enough to worry about in our own lives without focusing on how to tell other people how to run theirs. Sometimes being the best kind of neighbor—yes, even in the spiritual sense—means tending to your own garden and not somebody else’s.
Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa, and our executive producers are Lyra Smith and Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.