Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Who will break down patriarchy?

There is a brief, awkward moment at my mother’s cremation. Although we’re at the electric crematorium, as she desired, there are some rituals that my sister and I are performing as part of her last rites. I can hear our family priest and the crematorium priest arguing briefly in the background. Mercifully, the objection is to the protocol of the rituals and not to our gender.

“Daughters perform the last rites when there is no son," Pandit Dharamvir of the Lodhi Road Electric Crematorium later tells me. “Earlier if there was no son, then a male relative would do the rites. But that is no longer true. Times are changing."

Times are changing indeed. In Maharashtra, a group of activists led by the 31-year-old Trupti Desai have won the right to worship at the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. “What is this tradition that suggests women are impure," she asks Mint’s Abhiram Ghadyalpatil.

It’s a tradition that has such strong roots that despite a Bombay high court order, Desai and hundreds of accompanying women were initially prevented from worshipping at the temple. It’s a tradition that leads to local citizens, including women, to form human chains in order to prevent the court orders from being implemented. And it’s a tradition that Desai intends defying again at temples that continue to restrict the entry of women.

Desai’s fight has been framed in the public domain as a fight between Constitutional rights to equality and the traditional discriminatory practices of religion. A three-judge Supreme Court bench is at present hearing arguments on why women should (or shouldn’t) be allowed at the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. And the Bombay high court has admitted a petition by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) demanding unfettered access to the Haji Ali dargah.

But heroic as this battle is and welcome as the first victories are, uncomfortable issues persist.

The first is the “right" to pray. The right to worship freely and on a par with male devotees is a feminist issue, but I’m not sure that this right overrides the right to work, or the right to livelihood, or the right to live a life free of violence. If gender equality is the goal then we have a long haul ahead and the hon’ble judges might start by asking why since Independence only six women have made it to the Supreme Court out of a total of 229 judges appointed since 1950. In high courts across the country, only 62 of 611 judges are women, according to the website If gender parity is the issue, then the judiciary is a good place to start.

My second point: If the court verdict on Shani Shingnapur is to be taken seriously, then there must be consistency with both the ongoing Sabarimala and Haji Ali petitions. There can be no room for double standards. Moreover, the logical end to this journey cannot be the gates of mosques, temples and churches. The logical end has to be the removal of discrimination in personal laws that allow gender inequity to persist. The logical end must include the abolition of abhorrent practices like triple talaq and polygamy. Otherwise, granting women the mere “right" to worship is just symbolism.

My third issue is this. Laws are important agents of social change. But laws alone are not enough. In the aftermath of the December 2012 gang-rape, for instance, Parliament responded with tougher criminal laws. But violent crimes as well as everyday patriarchy persist because social attitudes have not changed substantially.

In other words, even if the Supreme Court grants me unfettered access to places of worship, how do I treat this “right" if my own religious convictions—reinforced and reiterated by the custodians of faith—prevent me from enjoying them? If I am convinced that menstruation makes me impure, I’m not likely to be headed to the temple. If one of Hinduism’s most senior seers says the worship of Shani will lead to rape, how likely is it that I will ignore his disapproval? If the custodians of my personal law say the Shariat cannot be questioned and interpret it to mean that men can divorce their wives on a whim, I am very likely to submit to that belief without protest.

When what passes as tradition is internalized, then what barriers do I need to break down?

Misogyny, alas, is not the monopoly of any one religion and patriarchy cuts across faith. It cuts across religion and holy book and the hero of every faith is either a male god or his prophet.

“Every religion worships god in the image of man," says feminist Kamla Bhasin. Certainly, patriarchy touches our most fundamental religious practices: the bride is “given away" whether in church by her father or around the holy fire as “kanyadaan." Fasting rituals for a husband’s long life. The mark of marriage and the demand for appropriate attire—only for women.

And, yet, we unthinkingly adopt these practices as an inherent, inviolate part of our “right" to worship.

I doff my existential hat to Trupti Desai and the BMMA. But for me the fundamental question is patriarchy. Who will break down that door?

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint and can be reached at

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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