THE tradition is said to be 400 years old; the inner sanctum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra, India, is not open to women. If a woman does enter the sanctum, priests have to ‘purify’ it again. This is what Trupti Desai saw several years ago, when the temple trust cleansed the sanctum with milk after a young woman had entered the area where an idol of Lord Shani is installed.
This year, on Jan 26 — India’s Republic Day — Trupti Desai led hundreds of women to surround the ancient temple. Their demand was that women be permitted to enter this and all other Hindu temples in India and that there should be no discrimination in worship.
India’s Republic Day was not the first time that Desai, who is described as a deeply religious woman and is the leader of the group called Bhumata Ranragini Brigade (Women Warriors of Mother Earth), attempted to storm the temple. A previous attempt in December was stalled when villagers prevented the women from entering the temple compound. This time, the numbers of women were greater, and the event received wide coverage in the Indian media.
Leading the march, Desai told the media: “We are going there to offer prayers. Permission is not needed for worship. Nobody would stop us since we are going to worship. Even if somebody would stop us, we would answer using the Gandhian method. We will hand them a rose.”
Twitter hashtags #righttoworship and #righttopray have seen responses from both supporters of the movement and Hindu conservatives who do not want the rituals of the temple to be changed even if they prevent half the country’s Hindu population from worshipping there. They include the priests of the temple and residents of the village who thwarted the women’s attempts to enter the temple in December.
This time, the women were prevented from entering the temple grounds by a large number of policemen who apprehended the protesters, including Trupti Desai, in the town of Supa, which is near the temple. Section 144, which prevents public gatherings, was imposed in the area around the temple so that no further attempt to storm it would be made.
The situation in India presents a novel opportunity for Indian Muslims to demonstrate gender egalitarianism in their community.
The debate stirred up by the women, however, has continued. On either side are varying interpretations of the Hindu scriptures, with one side insisting that nothing in the religious texts prevents women from worshipping and the other that preserving tradition requires maintaining a ban on women at temples where they have not previously been permitted.
Then there is the tension with Indian constitutional principles. Article 25 of the country’s constitution promises every “person” the right to “freely profess, practise, and propagate religion”, making the barring of women from certain religious institutions a legal issue.
Two days after the Republic Day protest by Hindu women, Muslim women joined the chorus for equality, holding placards outside Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah, which instituted restrictions on the entry of women in the tomb area in November 2012.
At the time, Rizwan Merchant, a spokesperson for the dargah, said that women were permitted to pray at the shrine but not to enter the area where the saint was buried because women generally are not allowed in and around graves.
In 2014, there was a constitutional challenge to the dargah’s right to exclude women as per the 2012 restrictions. The legal issue was whether Article 25, which grants every person the right to free worship, trumps the rights granted under Article 26 of the Indian constitution, which provides religious denominations (which would include Muslims) the right to manage their own religious affairs. Another petition is due to be filed by Muslim women who plead that religious institutions including shrines and mosques that take the taxpayers’ money be required to comply with Indian constitutional tenets permitting all people, regardless of gender, to pray.
The situation in India presents a novel opportunity for Indian Muslims who can demonstrate the gender egalitarianism of their community by announcing the abolishment of all gender discrimination on entry to mosques and shrines.
As some notable Indian clerics such as Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the leader of Delhi’s Jamia Masjid, which is the largest mosque in India, have said: “Islam gives permission for women to enter and pray inside.” Others have also brought attention to the fact that no such limitations exist on Muslim women at the holy places of prayer in Makkah and Madina and that there is no injunction in the Holy Quran that prevents women from entering and praying in mosques.
While Indian Muslim women (much like Pakistani women) do not usually visit mosques on a regular basis, their presence and admission during Haj has long been held as the ideal of permitting and encouraging women’s presence in sacred spaces. The current debate provides room for this egalitarian aspect of Islam and Muslims (increasingly maligned and discriminated against in the Indian context) to show themselves as an inclusive community to India’s Hindu majority.
Trupti Desai and the Hindu women that support her are not going to end their campaign that ensures that Hindu women can pray at whichever shrine or temple they choose. Their campaign is a venerable one that recognises the fact that women have an equal right to sacred space and parity in spiritual practice. That Muslim women have joined the campaign suggests a venue for solidarity among South Asian women that has not been previously explored.
On the Muslim side, tradition has long been in favour of inclusion and equality, but it is up to Indian Muslim leaders to give voice to this, to make a public announcement of an end to all explicit and perceived restrictions on Muslim women so that they can avail themselves of equality in faith that Islam grants to them.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2016