Women across the spectrum, from public personalities to working professionals, have time and again questioned the discriminatory practice of religions towards women based on menstruation. Maharashtra has had a long history of battles for women’s right to entry in temples and the Shani Shingnapur episode is the latest, in which a woman stepping onto the platform of the deity on Saturday triggered much frenzy and led to the suspension of the guards on duty.
Observers say what is possibly needed are steps and protests with political backing to bring about a much-needed, if a rather delayed change.
A case in point is Kolhapur’s Mahalaxmi temple, where women were barred from entering the sanctum sanctorum until 2011. “When we raised the issue, our idea was that a devotee should not be discriminated on the basis of gender. Even our gods do not believe in it, then why should we? Women should also be allowed till the point men are allowed to access,” said Shiv Sena MLC Neelam Gorhe, who had raised the issue, while pointing to the irony of restricting women in a temple dedicated to a goddess.
Following sustained agitation, a decision to allow women inside to perform ‘ abhishek’ with men was taken in 2011 after a meeting between the then Minister of State for Home Satej Patil, the district collector and temple trustees.
Taking the fight further, Ms Gorhe said she will be raising the issue in the upcoming winter session of the State Legislature. “Legislations alone cannot change mindsets; the rules these trusts have made for temples and mosques must be reviewed again, and government can play a big role in this,” she said.
The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) led by murdered rationalist Narendra Dabholkar had also agitated for the cause. “The opening up of the Mahalaxmi temple to women vindicated the decade-long struggle. It has proved that irrespective of ideological labels and political brownie points, different people can rally together for a just cause,” said Hamid Dabholkar, son of the late Mr Dabholkar.
Lawyers and activists on Monday condemned the Shani Shingnapur incident. “It is ridiculous that menstruating women are not allowed in places of worship. There was an incident in Satara in which women forcibly entered a temple despite being barred. Women themselves have to come forward and protest,” said Gayatri Singh, a human rights lawyer.
Another rights lawyer, Mihir Desai, called for State intervention. “Ultimately, the Supreme Court has to decide on the issue. Women not being allowed inside places of worship violates the right to equality. In my view, the State government should interfere because these temples or dargahs, or any other place of worship for that matter, are public places available for the public to visit. So, you cannot discriminate on grounds of gender and allow respective boards and trusts to control it,” he said.
Closer home, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan took the Trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah to court for restricting the entry of women to the inner sanctum (mazaar). In a response to the PIL, the Trust in an affidavit filed earlier this year cited menstruation as one of the reasons for barring women’s entry into the mazaar. It stated that many religions impose restrictions on women due to menstruation, which is perceived as ‘unclean or embarrassing’.
Petitioner Noorjehan Niaz said: “It is not that people are unaware of menstruation, but some want to continue with the myths and religious beliefs. The Haji Ali Trust gave a number of reasons, and menstruation was one of them," she said, adding, “Being clean or unclean is my business. Women have to believe that menstruation has nothing to do with purity. Education is one way to create awareness. Courts too have to take a stand,” she said.
A member of the Haji Ali Trust refused to comment, saying the matter was sub-judice. “We have made our position clear before the court that the women’s demand is not correct,” he said, adding even men are not allowed inside the dome. “It is the ‘mujawar’ who puts the ‘chadar’ on the tomb. Menstruation is a natural process and women are exempted from offering the ‘namaaz’ during periods. Men do not have this exemption. Every religion has its rules. In some religions, women don’t even enter the kitchen when they have their periods,” he said.
The Haji Ali Dargah. The trustees of the board earlier this year cited menstruation as one of the reasons to bar women from entering the mazaar. The dargah is visited by about 15,000 people every day. Photo: Vijay Soneji
The ban on women entering the sanctum sanctorum of Kolhapur's Mahalaxmi temple was lifted in 2011 after widespread protests.About 10,000 people visit the temple every day. Photo: Special Arrangement