Forging a path for women into shrines

Forging a path for women into shrines

Although the courts safeguard women's rights, they are miles away from being translated into practice

Forging a path for women into shrines
When the priests learned to their horror that a woman had somehow slipped into the holy shrine of Shani Shingnapur temple to pray late last year, they immediately began an elaborate purification ceremony, dousing the deity in yogurt and honey.

They then suspended a temple security guard for the laxity that allowed a woman to enter the shrine for the first time anyone could remember in its 350-year history.

The story might have ended there, had it not caught the eye of a 31-year-old activist, Trupti Desai, who to that point had limited her activities primarily to demanding rights for slum dwellers. That the priests would be upset came as no surprise to Desai, a practising Hindu who fasts every Saturday. She was well aware that the Shani temple and many others forbid women to enter the innermost sanctums, believing that they are unclean because they menstruate or that they might disturb the celibate deity and priests.

But something about the frenzied cleansing spurred her outrage. “That was intolerable to me,” she said. “God doesn’t discriminate between men and women. Why should religion?”

Since that episode in November, Desai has emerged at the forefront of a growing campaign for gender equality in religion, leading bands of women into the holy sanctums of temples, often in the face of violent assaults by priests and others that have been recorded on cameras and broadcast on national television.

The public attention has forced the government in her home state of Maharashtra to enforce a court judgment allowing women into any part of a temple a man can enter. This week, she crossed religious lines to join a peaceful protest with Muslim groups against the exclusion of women from the tomb of the Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai.

Her efforts have also beamed an unaccustomedly bright light on 2 cases before the Supreme Court. One challenges the exclusion of women and girls of ages 10-50 from entering a sacred temple in south India, which Desai said she planned to visit next month and demand to enter. The other concerns the right of Muslim men to divorce their wives by uttering the word “talaq” 3 times.

“Religion is the final frontier in gender discrimination,” said Indira Jaising, a senior SC advocate who is arguing both cases. “Now, the challenge is coming from the heart of these communities.”

The Constitution forbids discrimination, so women have generally received support in the courts. But they have faced tough resistance from traditional male hierarchies in translating those victories into actual rights. That is where Desai comes in. She is hard to pigeonhole. Her traditional Hindu background confuses some longtime feminists who support her campaign but cannot figure out her motivations.

Vidya Bal, 80, a feminist and atheist who for decades has run a group fighting violence against women, said she had met Desai and found her to be a “dashing and bold lady.” But she said she also found that they did not share the same “intellectual understanding” of women’s issues.

Desai was raised in Pune, a bustling satellite city. She said her father left home for an ashram when she was a toddler, and her mother had to raise her and 2 siblings by herself.
Even as she studied home science in college, Desai was drifting into social activism, fighting with local authorities to ensure that slum dwellers in her area received the government benefits to which they were entitled.

Before long, she became a leader in an anti-corruption protest against a local bank, and in 2010, she formed an organisation called the Bhumata Brigade, or Mother Earth Brigade, to take on a range of issues. Along the way, she married a businessman, and she now has a 7-year-old son. Desai does not speak English, so she spoke in Hindi.

After reading about the episode at the Shani temple, she raised the issue with her Bhumata group, and they immediately supported the idea of a campaign to enter the sacred sanctums of temples.

On December 20, Desai and several women drove 3 hours east to the Shani temple and tried to enter the shrine. They were stopped by security guards, and it immediately drew national attention. When Desai asked local authorities for help, they responded by calling a curfew for 2 weeks and barring the women from the area.

Right to worship
Separately, 2 other women, also from Pune, won a court order directing government officials to ensure women could enter the same places of worship as men. Armed with that order, Desai returned to the Shani temple on April 8, and this time the police escorted her into the inner sanctum, which she entered unimpeded.

Within a week, she was at the Mahalaxmi Temple, dedicated to the goddess of power and dating to the seventh century. The Devasthan Management Committee, which oversees the temple and more than 3,000 others, decided to allow her to enter, said Shubhangi Sathe, 36, the committee secretary.

But the priests had other ideas. They “got violent and there was a scuffle between her and them, and they beat her and the other women up,” said Sathe, who reviewed television footage of the brawl. She said 5 temple priests and 2 others were arrested.

“We were lucky to get out alive,” Desai said. Undeterred, Desai continued her journey several days later, driving 5 hours north to the next target, Trimbakeshwar temple, an exceedingly holy place because Lord Shiva is represented there in the Hindu holy trinity, together with Brahma and Vishnu.

When Desai and a handful of other women arrived at the temple before sunrise, they found a contingent of 40 police officers gathered around the ornately carved black stone building. But the officers were there not to block the women but to ensure their entrance.

At the edge of the inner sanctum, a hush fell as Desai and her group waited with a clutch of police and temple officials for the clock to strike 6 am, when they would be allowed into the inner sanctum. Suddenly, voices were raised, and Desai rushed back, with several women in tow. The trustees, sticking to temple rules, had insisted that her clothes be wet before entering.

Within minutes, she returned, her clothes damp, and she stepped through a low rectangular doorway into the tiny sunken room that is the sanctum.

When Desai emerged a few minutes later to a crowd of journalists and police officers, the first rays of sun were lighting up the golden trishul, the spear of Lord Shiva, on the temple roof. “I felt the pure joy of being close to God,” she said, smiling. “That force directly empowers you. That’s why women must get inside.”

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