Religion and feminism: India’s fight for religious desegregation

By Nishtha Sharma

Shani Temple
Shani Temple

Feminism and religion are often perceived to be at odds with each other. But in India, where spirituality plays a major role in the lives of many Indians, feminism and religion are being used as tools for women empowerment and growing calls for religious equality.  What initially began as a movement demanding equality for India’s lower caste Hindus, the demand for equal access to certain religious institutions for all classes and sexes has become a part of the larger struggle for social reform in India. Heated debates about upholding traditional customs and challenging religious inequality have saturated India’s political, religious, and social discourse. Mired in religious gender discrimination across religions, the context of the debate lies in two recent developments. Firstly, calls to end restrictions from entering the inner sanctum of the Shingnapur temple, dedicated to god Saturn in Hindu mythology, have attracted both support and opposition. While many have criticised the movement that challenges traditional customs of the temple, others have supported a move towards religious equality in the temple. However, the debate has not been restricted to Hinduism. Many Muslim women have also demanded equal access to the shrine of 15th century Sufi saint Haji Ali in the city of Mumbai, Maharashtra.

For centuries, Hindu temple Shingnapur in India’s East was open only to men. According to a 400-year-old tradition, women were restricted from entering the shrine. However, this 400-year-old ban on women’s entry into the shrine’s sanctum (core area) was unwillingly lifted by the temple trust following advocacy group Bhoomata Brigade’s (Women Warriors of Mother Earth) agitation against gender segregation and India’s High Court order upholding the equal right to worship. Women’s activists from the group had led protests demanding entry specifically to Lord Saturn’s shrine. Women from across India stormed the village to protest against the gender bias and enter the temple. Five hundred activists, led by activist Trupti Desai, attempted to enter the temple earlier in January, only to be stopped by police, some 90km away. Following these protests, the Bombay High Court in March, asked the State government to ensure that women were not being denied entry to any temple, thus affirming that women had a fundamental right to enter and pray inside temples across the state.

On April 8, the Shani Shingnapur trust finally allowed women devotees to enter the sanctum after the Court’s ruling that women had a fundamental right to enter temples, and said those trying to prevent them would be given a six-month jail term. “What right does the temple have to forbid women from entering any part of the temple? The reasons for banning anything must be common for all,” said Justice Dipak Misra, head of a three-judge bench. “Gender discrimination in such a matter is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the temple’s arguments must be based on the nation’s Constitution. The state authorities also assured the court that they would follow orders. “It’s the triumph of female power,” Ms. Desai said. “We will continue our fight to end discrimination against women at all other places of worship,” she said.

However, while attempting to enter the temple after the ruling, activists were stopped again by angry residents of the village from entering the temple’s inner sanctum. “The ruling should have been implemented by the administration. We will file a police complaint against the chief minister and the home minister,” Ms. Desai told reporters in response to the opposition. On the other hand, caretakers claimed that such customs are part of traditions that go back centuries. “Our age-old tradition cannot be violated. Our village has decided that women cannot be allowed into the inner sanctum,” a villager told news channels. Temple officials, also claimed that the ban was actually “to protect women”. Last year, temple priests carried out an elaborate ritual cleansing after a woman managed to gain entry inside and offer prayers.

According to the Indian Express, Hindu leader Shankaracharya Swaroopanand also claimed that “women should not feel triumphant about visiting the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra. They should stop all the drum beating about what they have done.” Criticising his statement, Communist Party of India leader Brinda Karat said such views were incompatible with reality and the Indian Constitution. Karat said the “thinking itself is far removed from reality, from India’s Constitution, from people of India’s experience, that just has to be rejected”.

Like their Hindu peers, many Muslim women in Mumbai are also demanding that they be allowed to pray in the sanctum of a famous shrine. Since 2011, access to the shrine of 15th century Sufi saint Haji Ali has been restricted, with women being allowed entry into mosque’s other areas to pray while it was decided that only men were allowed inside. Similarly, at the shrine of the saint Nizamuddin Auliya in the Indian capital, women stand behind a carved stone screen while the men are allowed access to the grave and can place consecrated shrouds over it.

However, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) has refused to accept the ban. The BMMA filed a petition in the courts demanding the ban be lifted. “Entry of women in close proximity of grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin in Islam,” the trustees of the iconic Haji Ali Dargah told the Bombay High Court. Cleric Umer Ahmed Iliyasi also said the demand is “un-Islamic.” “Women can pray in their homes, but Islam does not allow them entry especially in graveyards and dargahs (shrine),” according to NDTV. However, many have come in support of the movement. “This fight is not against religion but against patriarchy in our society. Five years ago, they would allow woman to enter the Dargah. I wonder what drastic change has taken place for them to change the rules now,” said Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy, one of the primary patrons of the Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye movement. Supporting his statement Islamic Studies Scholar Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali stated that Islam gives women equality while addressing around 100 women gathered in Mumbai, raising slogans and holding up banners.

While both movements have identical purposes, one distinction is clear between the two cases in court. According to Firstpost, the Indian Constitution explicitly states that laws regarding Hindu places of worship are an exception, as no similar clause exists for other religious places of worship. Even Article 15 of the Constitution which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, gender et al in public places, it does not include “temples or places of worship” as public places. While this does not eliminate constitutional protection for Muslim women who wish to access segregated religious place, the case for desegregation can be made on the constitutional guarantee of equality rather than on a specific statutory provisions regarding entry to religious institutions.

Hearing a petition, the High Court had earlier asked the trustees of the shrine of saint Haji Ali, to reconsider the ban that prohibits women’s entry into the ‘sanctum sanctorum’. However, the Indian Constitution and particularly Article 26 of the Constitution confers upon the trust a fundamental right to manage its own affairs of religion. Thus, such interference is uncalled for by any third agency,” said a letter from the Dargah trust to the High Court bench according to NDTV.

While the struggle for religious desegregation in India seems arduous, rulings in favour of allowing women equal access to the Shingnapur temple have set a precedent for other petitions. While several temples in India preserve the tradition of barring entry to women, the case of Shingnapur highlights growing calls for religious desegregation in India. This struggle for equal access to religious institutions has also ignited a wider debate on women’s rights in the country, with the hashtag #RightoPray trending on Twitter. Young women across India have also launched a Happy To Bleed campaign on Facebook to protest against the segregation of menstruating women by temple authorities. Thus, this reconciliation between feminism and religion in India has become a phenomenon capturing the interests of many across the world.

(The views expressed are that of the author and The IST holds no responsibility, whatsoever)

About the Author

Nishtha is a student and has keen interest in Feminism and related issues and developments

Share this :

About Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar is an accomplished journalist with over 38 years of experience in the profession in various capacities. He was a sub-editor in Patriot and later Chief Sub-editor in The Hindustan Times, New Delhi. He has several published articles and reports in Patriot and HT. Published reports in The Blacktown Sun in Sydney. He had also been a tutor in journalism in the University of Western Sydney. He is currently Editor at The Indian Sub-continent Times, Sydney.

View all posts by Ashok Kumar →

Leave a Reply