Hindu, Muslim Women Fight Male Control of Shrines, On Streets, In Court
Demonstration for Muslim women's right to enter Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai
NEW DELHI: #HappytoBleed hashtags, a campaign on the social media, protests repeatedly on the streets, petitions in court: Hindu and Muslim women are fighting for their right to pray. Two temples and a Muslim shrine that have closed their doors to women because they are “napak”, “impure” now find themselves at the centre of legal action with the initial observation by the court in at least one case clearly critical of the ‘ban’ on women.
It is a sordid story with lawyers fighting for women’s rights receiving death threats, and the key women themselves being subjected to a vilification campaign of the worst kind on the social media. However, the courts as those involved in the protest told The Citizen have given them hope, and they are optimistic that even while the political parties and leaders fall silent, the judiciary will speak out for equality and an end to discrimination.
“Islam ke naam pe ghair barabari nahin chalegei’, “Ham bhi Quran padte hain, hum bhi Islam jante hain’ shouted women demonstrating against the Haji Ali Dargah Trust authorities on the streets of Mumbai not so long ago. They were led by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan that has also gone to the courts, with the hearings being concluded just yesterday after a long struggle. As the Andolan’s chief and petitioner Zakia Soman told The Citizen, “we are optimistic that the doors will open for us now.” On January 18, the Bombay High Court had said that it would wait for Supreme Court's ruling on entry of women in Sabarimala temple before deciding on the plea related to the Dargah. This has been interpreted as a positive by the agitating women. Mumbai-based advocate Ejaz Abbas Naqvi, a member of the Central Waqf Council, interestingly said "It is a welcome moment that is going on across country. Why should women not get the position to be trustee? Why are they not allowed? In western countries, it’s not the same."
In another part of Maharashtra, Ahmednagar a group of women from the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade marched towards the Shani Shingapur temple to gain entry. They were stopped by the police, just 400 odd women as they tried to break a 400 year old tradition banning women from entering the temple. They were led by Tritpu Desai who described their arrest by the police as a “black day for women” with the activists lying down on the road and literally being dragged by the police force that stopped them from proceeding. Desai told reporters that if they were not allowed in, they would hire helicopters and drop ladders over the temple that does not have a roof, and enter the shrine thereby defying the ban.
In Kerala women, and more specifically the Indian Young Lawyers Association is seeking entry into the Sabarimala temple in the Pathanamthitha district. The shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyapa does not allow women between the ages of 10 and 50, seen as the menstruating years. The case is in the Supreme Court that has in an observation recently come down heavily on the temple management asking: "Why can you not let a woman enter? On what basis are you prohibiting women's entry... What is your logic? Women may or may not want to go...but that is her personal choice," Justice Dipak Misra, who heads a three-judge Special Bench, said. The court has asked the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, to provide proof of its claim that the temple is following a centuries-old tradition. The ruling is keenly awaited.
Menstruation remains the reason for the denial of entry into both the dargah and the temples. Zakia and a group of women were regular visitors to the Haji Ali shrine, praying and placing the chadar. In 2012 when they went for the ritual they were “shocked” to find that women were no longer allowed inside. They went into the office and a man sitting inside confirmed the decision by the Trust and gave two reasons. One, that women were impure. And two, when they bent down to lay the chadar the sight titillated the men devotees. Zakia was almost embarassed repeating the two reasons given out, and her organisation then wrote a letter to the Trust asking for a meeting. There was no response, with all letters being ignored. Efforts by officials to hold a meeting informally of the two sides did not succeed as the Haji Ali representatives did not turn up. “We had no choice but to approach the court” Zakia said and now that the hearings have concluded, the women are waiting just like the others for the judgement that can completely shake the status quo that feeds off a complete denial of rights to women.
The political parties seem to have made common cause in support of the Trustees managing the shrines. There is little difference in the positions taken by the BJP and the Congress on this issue, although the Left Front had filed an affidavit supporting womens right to enter the shrine about seven years ago. Interestingly Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has just opposed the Sabarimala temple’s ban on women and admitted to a news channel: "My party has taken a stand that the Sabarimala tradition should be followed. But, I am personally against it - because I believe customs and traditions evolve." Tharoor pointed out, there is "nothing sacrosanct about social practices...Dalit were not allowed (to visit temples) till 1930s. Now they are."
"I don't think God's dignity, whom we worship is capable of being polluted by human presence, and he or she who wants to worship should be free to...If one wants to go to the temple, I believe it's wrong to bar her on grounds of gender and especially between specific ages, “ Tharoor said taking care to add that this was his personal view and not as a member for the Congress party.
The Young Lawyers are up against a very strong, powerful and influential lobby in the state. The supreme priest of the temple (tantri) has made it clear that age-old customs and rituals can’t be changed overnight. The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which manages the temple affairs, said it would oppose the idea of permitting women of all ages to the shrine. And many women devotees, predictably, supported this view saying it was an issue of religion and not gender. The Congress Temple Affairs Minister V.S. Sivakumar has responded with, “The state government wants status quo to be maintained. We don’t want to interfere with the age-old custom of the temple.” He further added, “As the presiding deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate, women of menstruating age (10-50 age group) are barred from time immemorial.” The Lawyers fighting the case are being attacked on the social media, receiving death threats.
The Bharatiya Muslim Womens Andolan has also found itself facing a strong lobby with the Haji Ali Dargah Trust well connected, and pulling out all the plugs to battle the women. It has been a tough fight with the women having to look the other way as allegations moved into the personal realm, with lies and falsehoods being spread about them. The campaign on the social media is hideous, they told this reporter, pointing out that it takes guts to challenge the religious and patriarchal hold on shrines.