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When Sara Smith did her fieldwork in Ladakh, she frequently encountered interfaith couples who were being pressured to break up their marriages and return to their respective Buddhist or Muslim communities. However, the region was not always divided so rigidly between the different faiths.

A symbol of Ladakhi Buddhism, the Shanti stupa in Leh

A symbol of Ladakhi Buddhism, the Shanti stupa in Leh (Photo by Lovell D’souza on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In a recent journal article, Smith provides background for the religious divisions in the region and the ways the Ladakhi, especially the women, are coping with the resulting pressures. A geography professor at the University of North Carolina, she did fieldwork in Ladakh in 2004 and again from 2007 to 2009.

Smith provides background for the Buddhist/Muslim divide. Historically, Ladakh had “a heritage of heterogeneity and hybridity (p.48),” but events beginning in the 1930s started to change things. With the formation of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, which later became the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), Ladakhis began to form voting blocs with their religious beliefs providing the bases of their social and political identities.

A symbol of Ladakhi Islam, a mosque in Drass, Kargil

A symbol of Ladakhi Islam, a mosque in Drass, Kargil (Photo by sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As stresses developed, the LBA declared a social boycott of the Muslim community, which lasted from 1989 to 1992. It severed the commercial and social ties between Muslims and Buddhists. Community leaders at that time, particularly the LBA, felt that they should foster a sense of communalism based on their Buddhist identity, which would thus promote their own political ends.

When the boycott ended, the central government of India and the Buddhists in Leh agreed on the formation of a semi-autonomous political group called the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. But the aspect of the agreement ending the social boycott that most concerns Smith was the provision that the Muslims and the Buddhists would separate their young people in an attempt to prevent love affairs from developing among them.

Historically, Buddhists and Muslims had married without interference from anyone. But the new arrangement was justified as a way of avoiding conflicts and keeping an even balance between the two different sides in Ladakh.

A Ladakhi woman, probably a Buddhist to judge by her fancy turquoise perak headdress

A Ladakhi woman, probably a Buddhist to judge by her fancy turquoise perak headdress (Photo by Hceebee on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The background to the historic practice was the pattern of polyandry, at least in Buddhist Ladakh, which resulted in leftover women. Those unmarried Buddhist women were perceived to be attractive to the unmarried Muslim men in Leh, who were frequently urban and wealthy. The LBA solution was to outlaw polyandry, to try and break up existing interfaith marriages, and then to try and prevent new ones. This was where Smith came in.

Smith interviewed several people who had successfully married across the sectarian divide before 1989, but she did not find any after the ban had been imposed, despite the fact that Indian law—the Special Marriages Act—protects inter-sectarian and secular marriages. Smith interviewed one couple in 2004 that she felt sure had a marriage that would endure, but they subsequently did divorce and accepted arranged marriages to people from within their own faith communities. Both of the new couples then had children. Others who have divorced their spouses from across the religious divide have not always been as successful in finding new partners.

A Ladakhi woman, probably a Muslim to judge by her plain head covering

A Ladakhi woman, probably a Muslim to judge by her plain head covering (Photo by Christopher Michel on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The basic reason for the animosity against inter-faith marriages has been the desire to promote more births on one side or the other. Smith found that the Muslim women did view contraception, especially sterilization, as sinful, but the Muslim Ladakhis, both women and men, did not seem to advocate increasing their population through more births. Not so the LBA, which she visited in 2008. Leaders there told her, “Our top priority is population (p.51).”

Despite the priorities of the Buddhist leadership, however, the women did not seem to reject contraception. Younger women wanted their children to have a chance to get an education, at least through the equivalent of high school and ideally a university somewhere in India. Parents with large families, they realized, would have much greater difficulties in gaining those advantages for their children.

However, among 198 women that the author interviewed, only two cited their religious beliefs as reasons for avoiding the use of contraceptives. She found that they thought and rethought their answers to her questions about contraceptives, or they answered her questions with questions of their own. They did not necessarily contradict the religious or political arguments of their leaders, but they considered the question of how many children to have in terms of their own views of medical, ethical, and economic issues.

That is, their views were contradictory: the women had very real economic concerns about the potential problems from having large families, but they also accepted the arguments of the leadership to avoid the use of contraceptives. The author found that during her interviews with the women, they often articulated quite similar views to one another. Most of the women, both Buddhists and Muslims, felt that the ideal family should have only a couple children—two or three at most. Smith feels that the women are making their choices as to how many children to have based more on economic factors than on religious adherence.

The ideal Ladakhi family has a couple children, such as these two Muslim girls from a tiny village near Kargil

Most Ladakhi women believe an ideal family should have only a couple children, such as these two Muslim girls from a tiny village near Kargil (Photo by sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The author describes several of her interviews. In one, a Buddhist woman expressed her belief that contraception is a sin and that the ideal is having a large family—but nevertheless she only wants two children. Large families are simply impossible. She and her husband are urban and middle class, but they have to struggle and they are concerned about the future of their children. They are not rural agriculturalists, she said, and everyone worries about money. When she and her husband have children, the kids will want the things that others have, such as motorbikes, so in order to meet their needs, they will have to limit the size of their family.

Smith observes that the calculations of ethical values among Ladakhi women appear to be changing. One woman said that even spacing her children is sinful—despite the fact that she has had a tubal ligation. Another woman used an IUD to limit the size of her family. What else could she do, she wondered, since they lacked income to support a large family? Smith wraps up her stories about the Muslim and Buddhist women and their reactions to pressures for and against large families by asking rhetorically, what is best for Ladakh? Her results don’t allow her to really answer the question—but the discussion is a fascinating one anyway.

Smith, Sara. 2014. “Intimate Territories and the Experimental Subject in Ladakh, India.” Ethnos 79(1): 41-62