This year’s Republic Day was marked by an interesting and important protest. A 350-strong group of women from Bhumata Ranragini brigade was stopped by the police and the temple administration from entering the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. The women were trying to break the allegedly 400-year-old tradition of the temple banning women from entering its inner sanctum. The activists demanded intervention of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis against this discrimination and vowed to enter the temple via helicopter if disallowed by the police personnel who had formed a ring around the temple.
This protest follows another controversy arising from the new board president of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala who wanted to install machines outside the temples to check if women were menstruating. Speaking to reporters he had said, “A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year… There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ (not menstruating) for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.” His remarks were met with outrage prompting women all over India to start a Happy to Bleed campaign, most significantly on social media in an attempt to protest against menstrual taboos.
As women are increasingly becoming conscious of the dichotomy between progressive values guaranteed to them by the Constitution and regressive traditions which continue in the garb of religion such protests will soon become a norm. People are becoming aware of the largely patriarchal way in which religious institutions and its administrative machinery functions in the country. In this respect the attempt by the women to enter the Shani temple raises important questions. On one hand one can argue about the utility of the endeavour to enter a temple which bars women, after all why should women worry about entering a temple which is clearly exclusionary towards them? On the other hand, one must realise that entering the temple is actually symbolic of the larger discrimination against them; the fight is on the principle and not just the act.
In fact, temple entry movements by marginalised sections have historically been used as a symbol of protest against exclusion and as a challenge to the established power hierarchies in society. Banning entry to temples is especially discriminatory since it subverts the idea of everyone being equal for God and thus movements to enter the house of God assume larger meaning. Mahatma Gandhi based a large part of his social justice movement for Dalits on temple entry. Vaikom Satyagraha was a movement to enable the Dalits to not just enter the temple but also use the roads leading to it and use of other spaces around the temple, previously reserved for the ‘upper castes’. EV Ramasami aka Periyar and Sree Narayana Guru also joined the Satyagraha and this paved the way for subsequent Temple Entry Act. Interestingly, women formed important part of this struggle as the movement spread.
As earlier, even today these exclusionary ideas are based on repugnant and arbitrary notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’, ideas which have no place in today’s time. The societal change must be accompanied by an attitudinal shift and a thorough re-examination and rejection of ideas which sees women and menstruation as an ‘unclean’ thing or a taboo. In fact the campaign to end the ban started last year when a woman inadvertently entered the open platform of Shani temple to offer prayers, prompting the priests to ‘purify’ the area with milk and oil.
CM Fadnavis a day later met the women and tweeted support where he talked about giving women right to pray, stating “A change in yesterday’s traditions is our culture. Discrimination in praying is not in our culture.” However he held back from directly intervening in the issue, instead asking the “temple authorities” to “resolve the issue through dialogue”. Members of the board that runs the Shani Shingnapur temples have said that they are ready for this. However, for the dialogue to be meaningful it must go beyond mere negotiations on the entry issue and confront the prejudices informing discourse on religion and the ideas of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘purity’.
It must be remembered that societal re-examination of ideas like sati which were traditionally seen as enjoying various sanctions, led to the recognition of their inherent misogyny and cruelty, and ultimately to their abolition. Religious traditions cannot always take refuge in the notions of unchanging antiquity. Moreover, religious customs, like society, must be dynamic and evolve to be inclusive and equal for all. 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 rights then for every one step forward there will be two steps back.
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