History has squarely discriminated between the two genders that have come to dominate public space. Female contribution to social life, whether it be through denial of voting rights during the suffrage movement, or discriminatory practices espoused by religions across the world, has been made invisible. But women in India, emboldened by access to media and medium of communication, and a partial faith in a democratic judiciary, are now fighting an uphill battle for reclaiming public spaces.
September 2018 verdict by the Supreme Court of India revoked the Kerala Sabarimala Temple’s ban on women below the age of 50 from its premises. The ban was primarily on women of menstruating age, and was put in place to protect the celibacy of the deity in the temple, Lord Ayappa. Such is the discrimination that the Supreme Court had to clarify and verbalise the fact that menstruation was a natural biological process and to deem women impure for the same was unconstitutional. Ex-CJI Dipak Misra said while delivering the verdict that patriarchal beliefs were not more important than equality in devotion. “Religion cannot be the cover to deny women the right to worship. To treat women as children of a lesser God is to blink at constitutional morality.”
However, while reviewing its verdict, the Supreme Court has referred the decision to a larger 7-judge bench for deliberation along with pleas on discriminatory practices by other religious communities. These include the question of allowing women to enter mosques and practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community. Many of the recent Supreme Court judgments have had to do with providing women agency on their life and conduct.
Consequently, women have taken to take to the streets to make themselves visible, place themselves in the path of adversity for a war that will be fought long after them. To destroy the hegemonic pattern of knowledge and culture, Hindu, Muslim women and those from the marginalised sections of the society are using social media to orchestrate their appearance in various public spaces, including places of worship. Women are also using media for dissemination of their grievances; recently they took to Facebook and Twitter with images of themselves holding a placard or a sanitary pad, to end the taboo around Menstruation.
For years, temples have used tradition to keep women out. The celibacy of deities is used as an excuse to keep women excluded from such spaces, denying them the opportunity to practice their right to worship. What these women bring to the movement of gender equality in India is their right to be visible and evidence that they will, sadly, have to climb this hill alone. Political parties, who use such expeditions as fuel for their own ambitions, will never fully commit to their cause. This was evidenced by CPM and LDF’s resistance in giving security to young women going to the Sabarimala shrine the way it did in the last pilgrim season.
Right to Pray activist Trupti Desai has been at the forefront of the struggle. In 2016, several hundred women took part in a march, led by her, from Pune towards the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, that houses a 350-year-old temple which does not allow women to enter the sanctum sanctorum. And in 2018, when she came to attempt the Sabarimala climb, Trupti Desai was stopped at the Cochin International Airport and had to return from there itself. Her fight, and those of many other women and people from marginalised communities, shows the urgent need to take the struggle for equality to the streets.
For feminism to succeed, equality must be intersectional – doing away with injustices of all kinds, be it race, creed, gender. India’s #MeToo movement was riveted with differences of opinion on the methodology of the monumental undertaking by women who chose to come out of the shadows and look their accusers in the eye. But it was monumental nonetheless. To fight for the right to enter a shrine goes farther than simply practicing a constitutional right; it is essential to normalise the idea of equality that is often met with resistance in a patriarchal majoritarian country like India, whose fabric is tattered by growing communal and gender-based violence. Yet women have sent out one strong message, irrespective of the backlash to Sabarimala, to #MeToo- they will no longer be cowed into a corner.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.