Debate over Religion Vs Women’s Rights is back in focus after the detention of over 350 women by the Police in Maharashtra. Hundreds of women activists were stopped by the police when they attempted to enter the Shani Shingnapur Temple situated in Maharashtra to challenge its 400-year-old tradition of allowing only men to enter its main shrine. After a public outcry of the incident, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra has urged the temple authorities to hold a dialogue with the activists.
Women activists argue that in the 21st century different and progressive thinking is required. However, temple authorities maintain that the men-only tradition has stood for centuries and it would be wrong to change it. On the other hand, opposing this argument, women activists say practices like sati have ended or changed for the better; hence tradition is no excuse for continuing with regressive practices.
More interestingly, the incident comes at a time when women cutting across religious lines are challenging centuries-old taboos the world over. It is not just about women’s right to enter a temple. Muslim women are questioning discriminatory religious laws. Elsewhere, Christians are challenging the Church’s rules on abortion and contraception. There is also a petition demanding that women be allowed into the Haji Ali dargah. In many places of worship, there are areas that women cannot access for different reasons, prime among them being ‘purity’. These are age-old practices and only now are women coming together to challenge it, through on-ground activism, social media campaigns and petitions.
Going a step further in the raging debate over gender discrimination at Shingnapur, and at Sabarimala where women of a certain age group are not allowed, activists say religious trusts must amend such patriarchal practices, built up by gender prejudice rather than any principle of worship being vitiated. This is an argument that goes beyond even the constitutional rights as enshrined in Articles 14 and 15 and involves a higher natural principle of gender equality, which must be upheld. A huge change in attitude is called for if a genuine change of heart is to take place soon.
The constitution of India allows to everyone to follow religion of their choice and also allows anyone not to follow any religion. While the Constitution protects religious freedom, clause 2(b) of Article 25 allows the state to intervene in religious practice. The Untouchability Offences Act threw open temple doors to all castes, and many states passed laws extending those rights to all classes and sections of Hindus. Women activists question; if temples have no right to bar dalits or untouchables, why should they be allowed to bar women? Hence, it is the responsibility of the government to mediate and try to solve the issue.
But, institutions like Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala argue that they are defending particular customs of their own. But traditional taboos against women cannot pass constitutional muster, unless the guardians of the tradition demonstrate that discrimination is an “essential practice” for the religion. The chief minister has taken the right call, speaking up for the women and saying that traditions should evolve with time. The fight is now clear: who controls religion? Women across faiths are asking this question. The answer might not be palatable to all. The world has changed and religious institutions need to move with the times and ensure there is no discrimination.