For months, women activists of the Bhumata Brigade struggled relentlessly for their right to worship at the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple. The Shani Temple Trust on Friday reversed the 400-year-old tradition and allowed women to enter the sanctum sanctorum, ending centuries of discrimination, The Quint is republishing pieces that were published during the height of the protests.
Faith, they say, can move mountains. Should it then stand in the way of movement? Should it turn its back on the march of progress? Should it, above all, stand in the way of our constitutional right to equality? These questions lie at the heart of any debate on whether women can be kept out of certain places of worship simply because tradition – and an antiquated belief system – dictates it.
The debate flared up once again yesterday when hundreds of activists from a women’s group called Ranragini Bhumata Brigade clashed with the authorities over their demand that they be allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra.
The temple bars women from the sanctum of the rock idol of Lord Shani, apparently because proximity with women displeases the deity. The other reason being touted now is that the rule is for the women’s own good since the vibrations emanating from the idol can harm them. In other words, these so-called vibrations too have a sexist bias: they singe women, but not men.
Watch women activists protest against the ban:
The Misogynistic Rules
- Shani Shingnapur temple bars women from the sanctum of Lord Shani apparently because proximity with women displeases the deity.
- Sabarimala temple in Kerala prohibits girls and women between 10 and 50 years from its precincts.
- Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai does not allow women to enter its inner sanctum – ‘for women’s own good.’
- The Catholic church opposes the ordination of women as priests.
Purity and Pollution
The marching women, spearheaded by the group’s feisty leader Trupti Desai, were finally stopped by the police some 70 km from the temple. Admittedly, there was an element of studied drama to the affair. But the irony was unmissable.
On a day when India was celebrating its 67th Republic Day, a day when our Constitution came into force, – the same Constitution that guarantees equal rights to every citizen – women’s right not be discriminated against was spectacularly violated. There were other ironies on display. Hearing of Desai and her group’s plan to storm the temple, scores of women in the village of Shani Shingnapur had banded together, determined to prevent them from upending an age-old practice.
Anita Shete, the first woman president of the Shani Temple Trust, declared that her appointment earlier this month proved that the temple was not anti-women, but, well, tradition was tradition and could not be flouted. Clearly, women can often be patriarchy’s most trusted handmaiden, the staunchest upholders of its unjust and grossly sexist rules.
The Shani Shingnapur controversy comes close on the heels of the furore over the custom at Sabarimala temple in Kerala where girls and women between 10 and 50 years are prohibited from its precincts. According to the temple administration, that’s a dangerous age bandwidth. They could be menstruating and hence “impure”.
And if they were to – shock, horror – enter the temple in that state, so goes the argument, they would pollute the entire divine superstructure. In November last year, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the head of the Travancore Devaswom Board that runs the temple, had made the utterly odious remark that women across all ages would be allowed into Lord Ayyappa’s shrine the day there was a machine to detect who’s menstruating and who’s not. Around the same time, the Shani temple underwent ritual “purification” after a woman clambered onto the sanctum forbidden to her sex.
This whole construct of women as impure, lesser beings who can be excluded and diminished at will is so outrageous, so obviously created and assiduously maintained by patriarchy, that it needs no debate.
You could of course argue that if God made both man and woman, why would he take offence to a bodily function of one species and be perfectly indifferent to those of another? Who says this or that deity cannot abide women? Who has decided that a woman of reproductive age is potentially unclean? And that men carry a certificate of purity at all times? Who decides that women can worship at the Shani Shingnapur shrine from afar, but risk catastrophe if they so much as touch the idol’s sanctum? Who made these misogynistic rules?
Be that as it may, the real point here is that such rules, and their discriminatory outcomes, are a violation of our fundamental right to equality before the law. Article 15 of the Constitution guarantees that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Hearing a long pending petition against the custom at Sabarimala, a three-member Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Deepak Mishra, had observed earlier this month that according to the Constitution women cannot be disallowed from the temple. The verdict on the case is yet to be out.
Of course, institutional religion is often a boys’ club. The Catholic church continues to oppose the ordination of women as priests; Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai does not allow women into its inner sanctum – “for women’s own good”. A petition challenging that ban is in the Bombay High Court. Once Dalits too were barred from entering temples. That practice was outlawed when the Constitution abolished caste discrimination.
Excluding women from places of worship is equally egregious. At a time when they are storming every male bastion, including the armed forces, it’s a hopelessly sexist anachronism. When “tradition” flies in the face of citizens’ constitutional rights, it is upto the courts to consign it to the trash heap of history.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)