Fourth-year Emma Leiken has received a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship for a year of research in India. With the fellowship, Leiken plans to study Ambedkarite Buddhism with a focus on the intersections of caste, class, gender, and religion in the experiences of Ambedkarite Buddhist women.
The name Ambedkarite refers to a movement started by B.R. Ambedkar, who saw conversion to Buddhism as a means to end the caste system in India. Ambedkarite Buddhists are a historically oppressed group, and women experience discrimination based on caste and gender.
During the Fulbright year, Leiken intends to document the stories and narratives of female Ambedkarite Buddhists with the goal of linking interviews and oral histories into a published journal article.
“To understand the impacts of the conversion and what Buddhism has meant for a varied array of female practitioners, I will take a comparative approach, interviewing both urban and rural Buddhists,” she explains. “I will conduct my research through interviews in villages, academic institutions, slums, Buddhist temples, and pilgrimage sites such as Deekshaboomi in Nagpur.”
A religion major and philosophy minor, she speaks minimal Hindi and hopes to learn Marathi, the local language in Maharashtra, during her Fulbright year. She also speaks Spanish and took one year of Russian at Oberlin.
After her Fulbright year, Leiken says she is considering graduate school so she can continue to study Indian religions and history, or she may pursue work for a human rights organization. She is particularly interested in education and women’s issues.
“Oberlin has provided me with tremendous opportunities that have paved the way for this grant,” says Leiken, who is from McLean, Virginia. “In the religion department, Professor Paula Richman’s course, Modern India, is where I first learned about Dr. Ambedkar and the Buddhist conversion movement. My capstone advisor, Rhetoric and Composition Professor Laurie McMillin, has also been a continuous support throughout the application processes. Overall, Oberlin is a place that pushes us to interrogate our values and honor what we really care about. This mentality has really prepared me to do this research.”