A question of faith

Who controls religion? Women across faiths are asking this question


If the Supreme Court rules that banning women from temples is indeed unconstitutional, then it could open doors closed to women on grounds of religion or tradition. Photo: Mint
If the Supreme Court rules that banning women from temples is indeed unconstitutional, then it could open doors closed to women on grounds of religion or tradition. Photo: Mint

Roughly 24 hours from the time you read this, we will know whether a plan by a group of women to storm the Shani Shingnapur temple at Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district has succeeded or not.

What should have been a routine ‘let’s-go-to-the-temple’ trip is now a derring-do, complete with a planned alighting from a helicopter that will hover over the temple and from which Trupti Desai and activists from the Bhumata Brigade will slither down a rope to land on the temple’s platform.

On the ground, a protective ring of women chosen by the temple authorities will try and prevent Desai’s landing. The presence of women is prohibited at the temple.

In November, an unidentified woman had jumped on to the platform. So egregious was her sin that a purification ritual was ordered, seven employees were sacked and a temple trustee voluntarily resigned owing “moral responsibility”.

Elsewhere, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments from the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association—its current head happens to be a Muslim man who has, no surprise, received death threats—and five female petitioners who in 2006 challenged a Kerala high court judgement that ruled in favour of the Sabarimala temple’s no-women-allowed stricture. The lawyers say the ban violates the principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution.

In Mumbai, my friends at the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan have gone to court asking why women are banned from the sanctum sanctorum at the Haji Ali Dargah. The judges have told them that they will wait for the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala before they take a final decision.

It’s impossible to predict which way the Supreme Court judgement will go. If it rules that banning women from temples is indeed unconstitutional, then it could open doors closed to women on grounds of religion or tradition.

But the questioning of prohibitions in the name of religion goes beyond law and signals the emergence of a new generation of women determined to challenge orthodoxy. Interestingly, the challengers are believers who are fighting for the right to worship and to enter sacred spaces denied to them.

The challenge is not so much to religion but to the control and interpretation of religion by men.

Who decides if a celibate deity will be offended by the presence of women (surely divinity is made of stronger stuff)?

Why does a Parsi woman who marries outside her faith forfeit the right to worship at her Fire Temple?

Why does a dargah that has allowed women free entry suddenly erect steel barricades that inhibit the untrammelled access they have enjoyed all these years?

Who decides that it is acceptable in the name of tradition to cut a woman’s clitoris and in doing so, deny her the right to enjoy sex?

The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or khatna, widely prevalent among the Dawoodi Bohra community, is being questioned by a small group of women within the community. The 17 women who comprise Speak Out On FGM have over the past year initiated discussion about a practice that is almost never discussed in public in India. By doing so, they hope to be able to dissuade other women from subjecting their daughters to it.

Ultimately, change will come not from court judgements—though the law will certainly enable it—but from movements that take root in the ground.

Already there are indications that this ground is shifting. Earlier this month, the Shani Shingnapur temple for the first time in its 500-year history, appointed a woman as the chairperson of the trust. At Sabarimala this past week, the board has declared that female devotees of Lord Ayyappa will now be allowed to worship at the Perunad temple.

Not all pending court orders have this effect. Late last year, incensed by what he saw as “indecent” attire at temples, a Madras high court judge used his discretionary powers to issue his very own firman: a court-approved dress code—dhoti not lungi, sari not dress and so on. The code applied to men as well as women, but in a strange twist, the temple authorities, who perhaps saw this as an unwarranted intrusion on to their turf, appealed against the ruling and got a stay.

The fight is clear: who controls religion? Women across faiths are asking this question. The answer might not be palatable to all.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor at Mint.

More From Livemint