The Right to Worship my God

Top Story Image: Four women from Pune who had almost climbed the platform where the Shani idol is kept; Source: Indian Express

Source: Police on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, foiled the women march toward Shani Shingnapur temple and detained many activists including Bhumata …

Six busloads of members of the Pune-based, Bhumata Brigade who sought entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, to secure for themselves a right enshrined in the Indian Constitution – that there shall be no discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth were arrested this Republic Day. Trupti Desai, a leader of the brigade had announced that, if they were refused entry, they would persist with their programme, albeit unconventionally, in a helicopter descent. But the police also thwarted this. Earlier, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS) had issued a call for the mobilisation of Hindu men to ‘protect’ religious tradition.
The Bhumata Brigade, which came into being in 2007, has taken up a number of other issues. News reports detail its support for the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, farmers’ agitations on crop-loans, the Ajit Bank's multi-crore scam, etc. On January 11, rattled by its announcement to take on the temple, the Shani Shingnapur Temple Trust appointed a woman, Anita Shetye, as its chairperson, and another woman, Shalini Lande, on its board of trustees. 
The storm the Bhumata Brigade has kicked up over the entry of women to this temple is matched, perhaps in a more muted fashion in the legal arena, with discussions of the right of women to two other places of worship – the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala and the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai. In all these places, women of these faiths are demanding the Constitutional right to practice their faith and worship alongside men, without any discrimination.
Last year, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan filed a writ petition before the Bombay High Court to demand the right to enter the mazaar of the Haji Ali dargah and the Indian Young Lawyers' Association (IYLA) filed a writ petition to seek the entry of pre-menopausal women and post-puberty girls into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
In both petitions, significant aspects of constitutional rights are at stake, though the trustees of these places of worship have proffered different reasons for restricting or banning the entry of women. While Article 15 of the Constitution of India prohibits any discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, the IYLA petition has challenged the ban under Art 14 (equality before law) and Arts 25 and 26 (freedom of religion) of the Constitution. The ban on the (Sabarimala) temple itself is enforced under rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965.

There has been much debate on the myths and the reasoning behind the restrictions (including the arduous trek to the shrine through forests that used to be populated by wild animals) but the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the Samarimala Temple, maintains that the restriction is necessary because the presence of women of reproductive age would disturb the celibate god. (See

The Shani temple does not specify any clear reason why women are not allowed into what is called the ‘foundation’ – the raised granite wall which encloses the idol. Pictures and information of the Shani idol on the website of the temple (a tri-lingual one – available in English, Marathi and Hindi) clear show the foundation was added later on the donation of a local trader. Interestingly, the HJS site says that prohibitions on women is a matter of ‘spiritual science’ and quotes the Sanatan Prabhat to say that a movement must be started to protect religious traditions!

The Haji Ali DargahTrust proffers more prosaic administrative reasons. Here, women were allowed till as recently as 2012, when a decision was taken to prohibit the entry of women on grounds of their safety and security!

While the hearings on the Sabarimala temple entry are on, the Bombay High Court has decided to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision before giving its verdict on the BMMA’s petition on entry into the Haji Ali dargah.

For several years now, women have been trying to push the ossified frameworks that govern religious practice. There are instances of daughters of the Hindu faith who performed the funeral rites of their parents (the latest being Mallika Sarabai who lit the funeral pyre of her mother and celebrated danseuse Mrinalini Sarabai just last week). There are less publicised instances of Hindu widows who participate in the weddings of their children. Hindu women have chanted the Vedas and other Sanskrit shlokas and some of them also conduct religious ceremonies.
Hitherto, these attempts to push the envelope were seen as private acts that impacted family or friends and the immediate community. Even when women worshippers tried to enter the Sabarimala shrine or the Shani Shingnapur temple, they were seen as stray rebels or worshippers who entered the forbidden area by mistake and elaborate purification rituals were undertaken to ‘restore’ the sanctity of the shrines.
But now, it is clear these efforts have entered the more public realm of organised religion, especially with trusts that command a lot of influence and manage substantial funds. The trusts are accountable to the laws of the land and do have state and political patronage, either in the form of long leases on the land they occupy or in the composition of and appointment of the trustees and administration.
Granted, the struggle to seek their rightful place before their gods is a fundamental expression of the faith of these women. But the edifice of religious practice is not merely a question of faith. When women confront these structures, as they have done and are continuing to do in matters of personal law, matrimony, maintenance, child custody, property and inheritance rights, they have had to wage protracted battles to secure the most minimal of rights. The restrictions on the entry of women into places of worship are only one manifestation of the patriarchy and misogyny that marks much of organized religion. Much more than mere tradition is at stake here.
 (This writer is a senior and independent journalist)




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