Women's right to enter a place of worship
Author : MyLegalWork Staff
India is a culturally rich country with diverse religions. It pays homage to this culture with rigour and pomp, following age old traditions and practices. The common thread that runs through these traditions and practices, irrespective of the religion one belongs to, is the place of worship.
What do you mean by a place of worship?
A place of worship is a structure within which people belonging to a community come together to perform certain devout acts, and conduct religious studies or activities . The place of worship is a religious location sacrosanct to Indian religion.
Is everyone allowed to enter the place of worship in India?
Half of the population is barred from entering many such places of worship all over the country. The basis for such a bar is only one - your gender. It doesn't matter how respected you are in the society or how you are as a person, the only bar to entering a place of worship is if you are a female. And the surprising fact is that almost 60 years after the Constitution granted women the right to vote, many women are only just starting to question why they are not allowed to enter their choice of place of worship.
But why is that? The roots of this can be traced back to the fact that though women were given political rights along with the rest of the world, their place in the family remained abysmal. Women suffered because of the patriarchal system in every facet of their lives, ruled first by their fathers, then by their husbands and lastly by their sons. Women have been on the receiving end of atrocities like Sati, female infanticide, forced marriages, dowry, domestic violence, rape and even prostitution. So it never dawned on them, busy as they were fighting for their basic rights, that not only were they being reduced to slaves in their houses, but they were also being deprived of their religious freedom.
Do all the religions in India bar women from entering a place of worship?
India has numerous religions and each religion has sects and sub-sects of traditions and practices. Certain sects may not hold an objection to women entering a mosque or a temple and some religious leaders also promote a progressive view. The problem arises when some religious saints take an 'unforgiving and rigid' stand, which influences the societal notions. Keeping this in mind, it would be correct to say that yes, all religions bar women from entering a place of worship in some way or the other.
How did the movement start?
Women have been protesting against religious inequalities since a long time. The efforts of select women against the orthodox religious community gained momentum when a women entered into the Shani Shingnapur shrine, only to have it cleaned rigorously by the priests when they learned of it. There were many such cases throughout the country, but this case caught the eye of activist Trupti Desai, who was outraged at the frenzied cleaning. Since then Desai has been at the forefront for the growing campaign for the demand of equal rights for women in religion. Desai has been accredited for bringing together the entire women population as well as select men who believe that the bias against women is unfounded. Many locals and priests have threatened her with bodily harm and death threats but she has not been deterred from her path.
Which are some of the shrines that do/did not allow women to enter and why?
Some of the places of worship that bar women from entering either completely or in certain areas are as follows.
- Lord Ayyappa Temple, Sabarimala: Women between the ages of 10-50 years are not allowed. Reason cited: Menstruating women are impure.
- Patbausi Satra, Assam: Women of all ages are not allowed. Reason cited: Temple purity needs to be preserved since menstruating women are impure.
- Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai: Though the Dargah allows women to enter, they are not allowed entry within the inner sanctum and cannot come close to the grave of the revered saint. The 2016 Bombay High Court judgement stated that women must be allowed entry into the inner sanctum.
- Shani Shingnapur: Women were restricted entry within the inner sanctum. Reason cited: 400 year old tradition.
- Many other small temples in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan also place similar restrictions on women.
Most of the temples that do not allow women do so on the reasoning that women are 'impure' because they menstruate. The 'worldly' priests do not seem to understand that the reason they are standing there is due to women who gave birth to them, which is supported by menstruation- their very reason for calling women dirty. After all, there cannot be a God who hates women.
Are my rights violated if I am not allowed to enter a place of worship?
Yes, many of your fundamental rights are violated namely, your right to equality, your right against discrimination, right to life and personal liberty, and your right to worship the religion of your choice .
Women are supposed to be treated equally by the law. What kind of equality would it be if women were not allowed to walk where men can? Under the Constitution, no individual can discriminate on the basis of religion. Therefore, legally, priests cannot reason that their religion bars entry of women into the shrine. Law also provides the right to all to practice their religion. An integral and sacrosanct part of religion is formed by visiting the place of worship. By not allowing women, the 'temple authorities' are not allowing women to practice their religion freely. Thus, it can be said that, under law the stance of the priests and temple authorities hold no merit.
Priests usually argue that age-old traditions are an integral part of our culture. Sati, child marriages, honor killings and dowry were also part of this culture. They were removed, rather amputated, for the betterment of society and are now seen as regressive and patriarchal practices.
There are many who still feel that women do not deserve to enter a shrine because they are dirtying the holy grounds. What needs to be understood is that dalits were treated in the same oppressive manner. This is as baseless as that. However, it is truly gratifying to see women of all religions coming together to fight for each others rights. Women's rights activists are hopeful that the highest court of the land will take cognizance of the injustice done to them and help rectify centuries of oppressive male domination by adjudicating in favor of equality.
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