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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Lord, Why am I Banned from Your Abode? Women’s Entry into Places of Worship

Sunday 13 March 2016

by Ram Puniyani

One is witnessing strange incidents where the women from Muslim and Hindu community are facing similar obstacles. This relates to the issue of entry into places of worship. While the women from the Bhumata Brigade are struggling to get entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple (Ahmednagar, Mahrashtra), the Muslim women are fighting a legal battle to restore their access to the mazar of Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. In yet another incident, the women are trying to get the right of worship in the Sabarimala temple. The Hindu women in an act of brave initiative landed up in many buses to the Shani Shingnapur temple, where they were denied entry while the police had to resort to some force to prevent their entry.

In the case of Shani Shingnapur, while men are allowed entry to the Chabutara (raised platform), it is believed that going to the Chabutara will be a bad omen for women as Lord Shani (Saturn) will cast an evil eye. So it is claimed that prohibiting women to enter is a matter of spiritual science. Sanatan Prabhat, the Rightwing daily, says that the movement of women must be prevented to save the Hindu traditions. In response to the agitation led by Trupti Deasai of the Bhumata Brigade, the spiritual Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar of Art of Living tried to mediate between the women’s group and the temple trustees. Interestingly, he advised that neither the women nor the men should be allowed to the Chabutara. The matter is being negotiated; a solution does not seem to be in sight. Also the RSS mouthpiece Organiser opines that while initiating any move to amend the existing regulations, care should be taken to preserve the tradition and prestige of these places.

In the case of the Sabarimala shrine, the argument is that the Lord is a celibate and the women in the menstrual age-group will be distracting him. One recalls that one IAS officer, who happened to be a woman, had visited the shrine for overseeing the arrangements in readiness for the pilgrimage in her official capacity. She was also denied entrance on the ground of her being a woman. In the case of Haji Ali in Mumbai the local women’s group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, has filed a writ in the court demanding that the entry of women to the mazar be restored. The women’s groups have cited different clauses of the Constitution where one has equality before the law and that one cannot be discriminated against on the ground of gender. The argument of the Dargah trustees is on the ground of security of women, which, to say the least, is ridiculous. In the case of Sabarimala the earlier argument that the path to the shrine is difficult for women on the ground of security was later clarified by the Devaswom Board, Travancore by stating that the ‘real’ reason for denying entry to women was the celibacy of Lord Ayappa.

Muslim women have a varying degree of access to the mosques, much lesser in the South Asian countries than in countries like Turkey, for example. In Hindu temples the entry is again not uniform; there are different pretexts to prevent their full access to the places of worship. While in many countries the law for equality is very much there, the traditions and controllers of these places have been preventing the women from having full access to the holy deity. The patriarchal control over access to top places of worship is there in varying degrees.

This does not apply to churches in general, where access is not the issue; what is talked there is why women do not have the right to be on the higher levels of priesthood. In Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and shrines the women priests are practically not there; some claims of such positions are more as an exception than as a rule or norm.

In the case of India where equality is guaranteed by law, these laws of equality cannot ensure entry into the places controlled by the conservative trusts. The controllers of insti-tutions of religion generally turn them into exclusive male bastions, though the degree of control and its expression could be of varying magnitude. In the Hindu fold there is an additional factor—that of caste. One understands there is ‘caste in the practice’ of Muslims and Christians also, but so far as the places of worship are concerned, they are accessible to all, irrespective of caste. One recalls the struggles of Babasaheb Ambedkar for temple entry, the Kalaram Temple agitation, before he decided to renounce Hinduism by describing it as Brahminic theology. As such most religions do have the hierarchical structure in-built into the institution of religion.

Talking of South Asia as a whole, the mosques, dargahs and temples have a lot of rigid rules as far as women are concerned. These are the norms which are imposed by tradition. Thus we see a bit of variation in different religions, as far as treating women is concerned. As such it is the differential treatment and this depends on the degree of secularisation of the particular institution and particular country and region. By seculari-sation we mean the extent of erosion of hold of the landlord-clergy combine on the society. No uniform pattern is discernible but at the core there is the understanding which regards women as inferior beings, secondary to men, being regarded as the property of men, so to say.

Earlier it was regarded that their secondary position is purely due to biological functions; with time and with the impact of the women’s movement, it is clear that the gender roles are psychological and social, determined by time and location. In early matriarchal societies women had a predominant role in the family and social affairs. With the rise of the slave society and later the feudal society, women’s subservient role came to be the norm. Again, with Industrial Revolution and the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity gaining political ground, women started entering into the social space and the social equations started changing towards those of equality. As the degree of secularisation is different, the degree of success of women towards equality is different. In nations which saw industrial revolutions, the path to women’s equality there was paved by the underlining slogan of revolutions or social transformations. Still, the equality of women has not been automatic, there was a path of struggle through which women expressed their aspira-tions, longings and struggled for new equations towards equality.

The movement for gender equality again has highs and lows, ups and downs. Currently one understands that politics in the name of any religion, fundamentalism-communalism, is the politics of the status quo to begin with and then it aims to throw back the society to the earlier feudal values of caste and gender hierarchy. Talking of recent times, the world witnessed this first in the form of the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America in the decade of the 1920s, in the face of the rise of the industrial society with modern education and industrialisation coming to the fore. In the societies which had to undergo the painful experience of Fascism, Nazism, there also the role of women was defined to be in the confines of ‘Kitchen, Church and Children’ by the political ideology, which can be regarded as the close cousin of religious nationalism. With the coming of Islamic fundamentalism again an attempt was made to further subjugate women to lower positions in society. The cover of Islam was used for this social-political agenda. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan are a few examples of that.

Here in India we saw the rise of majoritarian and minoritarian communalism. Both these again try to push back the women, to restrict their social space, all in the name of religion. With the rise of religious nationalism in India, various issues came up giving a glimpse of the attitude towards women. Many of these are not fully blown-up pictures, but they are rooted in the goal of subjugation of women, in the language of the Sharia or a sophisticated version of the Manu Smriti. In India while the secularisation process, the overthrow of the hold of the landlord-clergy combine, remained half way through, with the assertion of religious nationalism, primarily Hindutva, the striving of women for equality is being countered strongly.

In the ideology of dominating Hindutva, the subordination and secondary position of women is asserted by invoking the noble traditions. In the literature from Gita Press, Gorakhpur, the major publication promoting traditional conservative values amongst Hindus, which is generally the base of Hindutva politics, one can see millions of books being distributed which advise the home-making role, the ideal of sati (women being burnt on the funeral pyre of their husband), the stree dharma (duties of women as ordained by their religion) are propounded, Instructions to women about the dress code and choice of life partner are handed down. One of the major agenda of the divisive love jihad campaign is to restrain the Hindu girls, to do away with their choice in matters of life and choice of life partner.

Overall the role of religious institutions has been to maintain the social status quo, And the issues related to priesthood in holy places, the entry to these shrines do reflect the same in varying degrees. It seems that despite the obstacles, the women from different religious communities are making their statement loud and clear that their march towards equality cannot be halted by these institutions, and that is the portent of these moves for entry to the abodes of the Lord!

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.