As temples try to keep women out of their reach and as women are prayed as goddesses, some of our religious customs are not in tune with the contemporary ideas of women’s rights, women take recourse to their constitutional rights to worship at par with men.
Though the storm over Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra has died down in the recent waves of JNU controversy leading to arrest of their student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar and a few more convicted in charges of sedition, the temples continue to keep women out of their inner chambers in the name of God.
Shani Shingnapur, a happy place, as they say and as India Today quotes, “where for 400 years there has not been a single theft, riot, murder or rape. There’s no home with locks, doors or windows, no ailing spirits walking by night. Just ancient peepal trees that people touch reverentially every Saturday as they fast. Watching over the village is its dark lord, Shani Dev, a five-and-a-half-feet rock, in his open air temple.”
It’s the stuff of fairy tales. But in 21st century, the fairy tale has turned into a soap opera. On January 26, Republic Day, the nation couldn’t take its eyes off the television screens as 1500 women- activists, housewives, students-marched towards the Shani temple. Their demands? To enter and worship in the sanctum sanctorum, traditionally off the limits to women for the ‘harmful vibrations’ the god apparently emits when the fairer sex comes up close.
The step by the protestors to enter Shani Shingnapur on Republic Day and break the tradition of not permitting the women into the temple’s most sacred innards is clearly not the last we have heard on the issue. This daring step by the protestors empowered women rights activists across the country to take recourse to their constitutional right to worship at par with men, thus leading to Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan’s PIL and protest against denial of entry to women in the sanctum sanctorum Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai and demands on lifting of the ban on women, aged 10-50, from Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The points being raised in all cases is similar.
Those advocating the status quo use the cloak of faith and religious belief to justify discriminatory customs. At Sabarimala, for instance, it has been variously claimed that menstruating women are inpure and/or could taint or tempt the celibate male deity of the shrine, Lord Ayyappa. As reported in Deccan Chronicle last November, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Trevancore Devaswom Board, went so far as to tell reporters: “A time will come when people will ask if all the women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year. These days there are machines that scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine will be invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for women to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.”
Haji Ali Trustees, on their part, reportedly told Mumbai High Court that women being allowed near the grave of a male muslim saint is considered sinful in Islam. To counter this point, only because it is out of context with regard to Islam, it is interesting that women are allowed near the grave of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last messenger of Islam, lying peacefully at Masjid-e-Nabvi, Medina, as told by an elderly woman in my neighborhood, who paid her holy visit to Mecca last year.
It’s not about religion. It simply isn’t. It is a confrontation that occurs on the contested terrain of women’s bodies and sexuality. If religious bodies get vocal about what women should wear, who they should talk to or spend their leisure hours with and how, the legal regime reacts by stepping inside the home and dictating terms of conjugality, relationships and family. The conflict over women’s rights to worship is one such challenge, playing out over confused ideas of what is pure and what is not.
As women are increasingly becoming conscious of the split between progressive values given by the constitution and the regressive traditions which continue at the garb of religion, such protests will soon become a norm. People are becoming aware of the largely comforting way in which religious institutions and its administrative machinery work in the country. Temples in particular, have complex rules and rituals of purity. The only thing held against women is they menstruate and men do not. At the Sabrimala temple, for instance, that means non-entry of women of reproductive age- between 10 and 50 years, as fixed by Kerala High Court in 1983.
“According to the legends, Ayappa is a celibate so that he can focus on answering the prayers of his devotees and he will remain celibate till the day kanni swamis (first-time devotees) stop coming to Sabrimala. It has nothing to do with menstruation”, quotes Firstpost.
It’s more about power, not religion. Religion, like politics, works within a power structure- economic, political or gender. These are culturally symbolic, the domination and the protest, an expression of changing values in society. The diktats that bar women from temple entry come from priestly class, especially those interested in secular powers. There cannot be a situation where women are worshipped as goddesses on one hand and denied right to pray inside a temple on the other hand. If religious customs are not in tune with contemporary ideas of women’s rights then for every one step forward there will be two steps back.
Image credit: week.in