'Ritual purity, a great injustice to women'

Historically, shudras and atishudras are also treated as inferior beings

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:01 am IST

Published - November 30, 2015 02:35 am IST

On the death anniversary of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the great social reformer who dedicated his life to women’s liberation, a woman entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple to offer prayers, offending traditionalists and taking the shape of a revolution for the progressives.

This episode has polarised public opinion and generated a heated ideological debate, reminding us of the aftermath of the police action in 2010 against Jayamala who claimed that at 18, she touched the idol of Lord Ayyappa in the Sabarimala temple.

Protectors of tradition are angry that the 400-year-old males-only legacy of the temple is being challenged by a defiant woman.

There are woman who strongly believe that challenging such traditions has polluted the temple, and the temple trust conducted an elaborate purification ceremony as the temple had been ‘defiled’.

The mindset that supports the practice of ‘ritual purity and ritual pollution’ does great injustice not only to women but all those forced to deal with organic matters that emit an offensive smell, like garbage and human excreta, for instance.

Irrational view

Historically, shudras and atishudras are also treated as dirty, filthy and inferior human beings.

This mindset is extended to women too, as they menstruate. The manifestation of patriarchal control over women’s sexuality, fertility and labour in the form of exclusion of women from auspicious rituals has been challenged by the women’s rights movements and anti-caste progressive movements since the 19th century.

Menstruation is directly linked to reproduction, and denying women entry into a temple on the ground of biological characteristics crucial for the perpetuation of the human race is not only unjust but irrational as well. Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Pandita Ramabai, Dr Rakmabai Save and veterans of the social reform movement in the 19th century did not budge from their mission to fight oppressive customs, in spite of ferocious attacks from status quoists. We need to learn from this glorious history to avoid repeating such mistakes.

In the recent past, veteran feminists such as Pushpatai Bhave and Vidyatai Bal had organised satyagrahas to protest against women being barred from the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple. No rule can prevent women from entering any temple as it violates the fundamental right of women guaranteed by the Constitution.

Kudos to the brave woman who entered the Shani Shingnapur temple’s sanctum sanctorum to pray on Jyotiba Phule's death anniversary. She has continued Jyotiba’s heritage.

(The writer is the Director of the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy)

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