By PARVIN SULTANA
Most religions routinely exclude women and treat them unequally. One manifestation of such inequality is restricting the access of women to different spaces. While in many cases the restriction is subtle, in some religious institutions such restriction is blatantly practised in the name of tradition. Of late this issue has started gaining ground in India. A group of Hindu women has been demanding entry in different temples. Similarly a group of Muslim women question their exclusion and demand entry into the area where the graves of saints are kept in dargahs.
Women across religions are demanding equal rights to worship and pray. On the one hand we have the Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmedabad which does not allow women to enter certain areas to pray, we have the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala which restricts women of the menstruating age group from entering the temple, on the other hand the trust which manages the internal affairs of the Hazrat Haji Ali Dargah at Mumbai stopped the entry of women to the place where the saint is buried on the excuse that having women near the grave is “un-Islamic”. Muslim women have stated that such a step is arbitrary as many other dargahs allow women inside the shrines.
The temple trusts also gave similar excuses. While the Sabarimala Trust don’t allow women on the ground that the temple deity Lord Ayyappa was a Brahmachari and the menstruating women will pollute him, the trustees of Shani Shingnapur said that the ban was actually to protect women since Lord Shani emits a radiation which can harm women and cause deformity in a foetus in a pregnant woman if she enters the temple. The women agitating for temple entry found this excuse absurd as they were allowed in other Shani temples. In Haji Ali Dargah women were asked to use a separate entrance supposedly for their safety. But they were asked to not go near the grave as they might distract the men there.
What binds together the conservative temple and dargah trusts is a patriarchal notion of women’s inferiority and their bodies being impure during menstruation. At this age when we make big claims of development, menstruation continues to be a taboo in India. It is further used to keep women in a subservient position. However if we look back to ancient texts we will see the acknowledgment of the life giving capacity of the menstruation which marks a woman’s fertility. In Vedas, menstrual blood was euphemistically regarded as kusum (flower), pushpa (blossom) and Jivakarta (the giver of life). Our mythology is marked by the presence of strong women characters like Gargi. Greek mythology had female oracles like the Oracle of Delphi. But as patriarchy took roots, male supremacy was reasserted. So much was the capacity of women to heal and give birth of life feared that many midwives and natural healers were burnt alive as witches during the medieval period.
Such deep rooted prejudice found its way in modern day practices like barring women from places of worship when they menstruate. The taboo is such that the ‘impurity’ of menstruation is conflated to engulf the whole female body and render women as impure beings. And if this polluted body enters a place of worship, that place needs to be purified. Women are also seen as the temptress or the seductress who will distract men and act as a hindrance to their devotion. Or the ever tested patronizing stand of protecting women from harm in crowded areas is forwarded to limit their mobility.
The taboo of menstruation is deep rooted in Indian psyche. It is treated as anything but a natural biological process that a woman’s body goes through at regular intervals. Restrictions range from the mild limitations on praying at home, or working in kitchen to severe restrictions of movement, food, where that person will sleep for those few days. At places they are asked to stay in isolation for the entire period of menstrual cycle. Basic requirement of hygiene is blown out of proportion and a menstruating woman finds herself dealing with absurd superstition.
This issue is often used to treat women as a lesser human being. And religion uses it as a tool to keep women at bay. However with the recent temple entry and Dargah entry agitation, women have not only started demanding equal religious rights, but also started questioning such beliefs that hold a menstruating woman as an impure being. Women led by Trupti Desai have approached courts to ensure that they are allowed to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple. Pointing to blatant discrimination, she states that while a man is allowed to enter certain areas on the condition of a good donation she was denied even when she offered the same money.
The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is demanding entry in the inner area of Haji Ali Dargah. They state that if women can pray in the mosques in Mecca and Medina, there can be no reason in restricting their entry in Dargahs. While the Maharashtra government has been sympathetic to the agitating women, the final decision will be taken by the courts.
This entire episode has seen interesting developments. While women started asserting their right to pray and worship, they came up with creative arguments like God will not mind if women are allowed because even he was born from a womb. When a priest in the Sabarimala temple made an absurd statement that women can enter only after a machine is invented which can detect a menstruating woman, a young girl Nikita Azad started an online campaign “Happy to Bleed” which showed women posting their photos with placards saying that they are fine with menstruating.
A strong legal battle is at place to decide whether an authority governing a place of public worship can violate someone’s fundamental right of entering a temple area to pray. The trustees have often gave the excuse that religious institutions have the freedom to manage their internal affairs outside the ambit of state interference. But does such a freedom mean that these religious institutions will dismiss the rights of half of the community it claims to represent?
This agitation has brought to forefront crucial issues of gender, patriarchy and religious discrimination. Most religions discriminate women and try to maintain a status quo in the name of tradition. This agitation can ensure that Hindu and Muslim women can stand side by side and demand their equal rights. Entry in temples and dargahs may not lead to women empowerment and liberation but such exclusion is in itself discriminatory. This issue has also paved the way to de-stigmatize menstruation and do away with discriminatory traditions that tend to hold women back.