The conflict within: Parsis and gender rights

One of India’s most progressive communities faces conflict between liberal and orthodox viewpoints on women’s equality

May 22, 2017 12:04 am | Updated May 25, 2017 09:50 pm IST - Mumbai

India’s vulture crisis, which started in the 1980s, caused the Parsi Zoroastrian community to reconsider one of its practices. Traditionally, the community does not bury or cremate its dead; instead, corpses are laid out in a Dakhma, or Tower of Silence, for carrion birds to consume. The steep decline of the vulture population meant that bodies would just slowly decompose.

In January this year, this was being debated at the Samast Anjuman (a community organisation) in Navsari, Gujarat; 160 voted on whether a burial ground should be allotted. An overwhelming majority, 156, chose change.

There was one peculiarity in this progressive event: no women voted.

In fact, minutes before the voting, Pervin Surti, who travelled from Mumbai to witness the voting, was asked, rudely, to leave. “I had no idea that women were not allowed there,” she says. “I was shocked, because in Mumbai, women don’t face such discrimination.” Yazdi Kasad, secretary of the anjuman, says that women never had rights to attend meetings or vote: “We are simply following the rule that have been set by our predecessors. No woman has every questioned us or expressed that she has a problem.”

There are over 69 anjumans across the country (29 in Gujarat), and while some have women trustees or even heads, most follow patriarchal traditions unchallenged.

Parsi Zoroastrians (which does not include Iranis, co-religionists, but descendants of a later migration) are one of India’s tiniest ethnoreligious communities, with around 57,264 members as per the 2011 census (down from 69,601 in 2001), but they have punched above their weight in many ways. They are also regarded as one of the country’s most liberal communities.

In one respect, though, Parsis — or at least the orthodox within the community — seem to fit the Indian stereotype when it comes religious practices: gender inequality.

Legal battles

The children of a Parsi Zoroastrian man married outside the community can become Parsi, but the same is not true of the children of a Parsi woman married to a non-Parsi. Some women in the community have questioned the practice and taken the matter to the courts.

Kolkata resident Prochy Mehta’s daughter married a Hindu, but her grandchildren regularly visited the Anjuman Atash Adaran, the only agiary (fire temple) in the city. But since 2013, when a new priest took over, the children were not allowed admission. In a case in the Calcutta High Court, Ms. Mehta asks, can children of a Parsi mother and a non-Parsi father enter a fire temple? Isn’t the practice of preventing such children from entering religious sites discriminatory? “All I am asking for is equal treatment for Parsi women,” Ms. Mehta says. “Children who have navjote (the Zoroastrian coming-of-age ceremony) performed, but belong to intermarried Parsi women, are not allowed into the agiary, while children of Parsi men married outside don’t face this discrimination.” Ms Mehta says that her case is not just for her grandchildren but for all Parsi children. “Our girls should be able to choose freely, without fear of community censure. Surely, this is not a right reserved only for men.”

Left out: Children of a Parsi mother and a non-Parsi father are not allowed entry into a fire temple, whereas those born to a Parsi father and non-Parsi mother are allowed in. A case in the Calcutta High Court challenges the practice as 'discriminatory'.

Left out: Children of a Parsi mother and a non-Parsi father are not allowed entry into a fire temple, whereas those born to a Parsi father and non-Parsi mother are allowed in. A case in the Calcutta High Court challenges the practice as 'discriminatory'.


Goolrukh Gupta, from Valsad, Gujarat, had seen a Parsi friend, married outside the community, not be allowed to attend her parents’ funerary rituals. Ms. Gupta, who too has married outside the community, wrote to the Valsad anjuman demanding the right to enter the Valsad fire temple, and to be allowed to enter the doongerwadi (the place where death rituals are performed) when her parents — both now 84 — die. She was refused. She then petitioned the Gujarat High Court; in 2008, the HC ruled against her, stating that when a woman marries outside, she is deemed to have taken the religion of her husband. Ms. Gupta’s advocate, her sister Shiraz Patodia (who has also married outside the community, as has their younger sister), says, “In law, there is no such thing as deemed conversion.” She says that the rules set by the orthodox in the community are barbaric: “Parsi women seem to have second-class citizenship.” The case comes up for a final hearing in the Supreme Court in the first week of August.

The precedent

More than a century ago, Sir Dinshaw Petit filed a suit against the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) challenging the validity of the trustees and contending that the funds and properties under the Punchayet could benefit those born into other faiths who have converted to Zoroastrianism. R.D. Tata, who had married a French woman, also joined as a plaintiff in this case that came to be known as Parsi Punchayet Case of 1909. His wife had embraced the Zoroastrian religion and had had a navjote ceremony. Mr. Tata said that this meant she could enter an agiary, and be consigned to the Tower of Silence after her death. There was an uproar from orthodox Parsis. The HC ruled in favour of the orthodox.

“The judgment laid down by judges Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beaman stated that a Parsi can only be so termed if he or she is born of a Parsi father,” says Jehangir Patel, editor of community magazine Parsiana . “It’s been over 100 years now. Unfortunately, no woman has taken up the issue in a big way.”

In a 2016 editorial, Mr Patel wrote that Parsi women have tolerated discrimination for over a century. He asked, “Why are there no Parsi Trupti Desais? How can our community today be bereft of courageous women when in the past we had the likes of Madam Bhikaiji Cama who first unfurled the Indian flag, Mithu Petit who supported Mahatma Gandhi, the Captain sisters, Perin, Goshi and Khurshid, who were active in the freedom movement, and countless others who have taken up social, political and economic reforms?”

Advocate and former BPP trustee Homi Ranina says, “A woman, belonging to any religion, becomes a Hindu once she marries a Hindu man; this is what the Hindu law says. In the Goolrukh Gupta case, the Gujarat High Court too considered the same law before giving a judgement. In fact, the HC’s judgment is based on a Supreme Court decision in the case of Valsamma Paul vs. Cochin University. The women who have gone to court are in a way trying to go against the principles of Hindu law.” Before changes in Parsi practices, he says, perhaps Hindu law must be amended first.

Men only

The religious orthodoxy aren’t the only ones who seem to consider Parsi women second-class citizens.

The Ripon Club in south Mumbai, based on the English concept of a gentlemen’s club, had been founded for the community in 1884 by stalwarts like Sir Phirozeshah Mehta, Jamshedji Tata and Sir Dinshaw Petit. It has around 900 members today, of which 100 are women. But female members are technically ‘lady associate members’ — most of them are either wives or daughters of male members — without voting rights.

Simin Patel, historian and blogger, had been visiting the club on her father’s membership for years. In December last year, there was an extraordinary general body meeting of the club, to discuss the sale of one floor of the premises to raise funds. As someone deeply invested in the club, “because it is a beautiful historical space, I went there to be a part of the meeting because I wanted to know the fate of the club.” But she was asked to leave. “Why can’t a woman have full rights as a man?” Ms. Patel asks. “Why can’t she vote and have a say in the running of the club?” She points out the double standards in the club advertising in community newspapers asking more Parsis to join, but excluding half the community from membership.

Xerxes Dastur, a trustee of the club, says that ‘lady associate members’ enjoy all members’ privileges, as do that wives of members; “The only question is about not having the right to vote or stand for elections.” After years of promising that women will be allowed equal membership, the club is changing. He says, “We are in the process of changing our constitution within this year so that women can also become regular members.”

Another prominent community organisation, Parsee Gymkhana at Marine Lines, has similar rules. A notable exception is Dadar Parsee Gymkhana, which has a standard membership, irrespective of gender, and all its 1100 members can vote and contest elections.

No scriptural backing

Vispy Wadia, who with his brother Kerssie started the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism (ARZ) to fight discrimination towards liberal Parsis, says, “Zoroastrianism roots for total equality. Even prophet Zarathustra in his sermons has always addressed men and women together as na va nyari . There has never been any gender discrimination.”

Mr. Wadia’s theory is that Parsis were influenced by the Hindu caste system when they landed in India. “We came into the alien land. We saw Hindu customs and traditions and thus began protecting our religious places from others, just like the Hindus did. But if you go to Iran, there is no discrimination whatsoever. Anyone and everyone is allowed to enter a fire temple.”

Faced with dwindling numbers, liberal Parsis like Mr. Wadia are debating these matters and others, like whether women can be priests and carry out basic religious activities like tending the to the fire and assisting the main priest given that the number of priests has also drastically shrunk.

But for the orthodox in the community, changes like those Ms. Mehta, Ms. Gupta and Ms. Patel want are drastic, even unthinkable.

The orthodox view

The head priest of the Byculla agiary, Ervad Bajan, says that a Parsi is someone born to a Parsi father and a Parsi mother. “Our institutions are exclusively meant for Parsi Irani Zoroastrians and by that definition, children born to a couple with either one of the parents from other faith cannot be considered Parsis and cannot access these institutions.” He says it is wrong that children of a Parsi father married outside get access to them. Over 1500 years ago, he says, the reason Zoroastrians came to India was, “We had the choice to convert to Islam but we chose to escape and protect our religion. That is how important it is for us.”

Gender equality a buzzword

Parsis believe in gender compatibility, not gender equality. Thus speaks Khojeste Mistree, former Bombay Parsi Punchayet trustee and Zoroastrianism scholar, who says that this view is based on intense study. “Gender compatibility means a man recognises the strengths of a woman and the woman recognises the strength of a man,” he says. “If a man behaves like a woman it’s bad news, and if a woman behaves like a man it’s bad news.”

On barring entry to religious sites for women married out, or not considering their offspring Parsis, Mr. Mistree says that Parsi Zoroastrians are patrilineal, and the ‘religious seed’ is passed on through the father. When a woman marries out, “She has to listen to her husband or, if he is not very religiously inclined, then her in-laws. Naturally, the woman has to bow down to them. In an oriental environment that we live in, the women have to make much more adjustments than men. That is the ground reality. Even in an emancipated marriage, the woman has to do many more things than the man.”

The court cases, Mr. Mistree thinks, will devastate the community. “Unfortunately, secular judges, who don’t have sufficient studies to merit a response which is right for the community, will decide the cases.” He says that judges will probably decide on the grounds of a ‘buzzword,’ gender equality. “It’s fashionable to talk about gender equality, but is that ground reality? Does one throw away customs and traditions for the sake of a notion that comes from outside the tradition? Religion is custom and practice, with a spiritual dimension attached to it. This dimension is unique in flavour to each religion. I don’t think you can mix it.”

Ethnic purity

Medioma Bhada, a retired naval commodore, says that the Parsis are what they are because they have been ethnically exclusive. “These are our beliefs that have been there for centuries.” He insists the community has never subdued women in anyway. “There is no question of discrimination here.” On the court cases, he says, “All of a sudden we are hearing these voices of women who are married outside but want to remain Parsis. Why? What’s wrong in being a good Hindu, Christian or a Muslim? I wonder how the husbands allow it to happen.” He says that his sister and brother both married Hindus, and they and their children are very much a part of the family. But, he says, “My sister’s children are being brought up as Hindus. She very well knew that would happen when she took the step of marrying outside.”

Mr. Mistree feels that intermarriage could mean Zoroastrianism will die. “When one marries out, one is ethnically weakening the fabric of our community. Let’s say a Parsi marries a Hindu; obviously, the Hindu culture is going to come into the house. So, the first generation of such a couple is going to be only 50% Parsi. Rough statistics show that the second generation will be 25% Parsi and the third about 12.5%. By the time the fourth generation comes in, the Parsi ethnicity has disappeared completely. If one wants to preserve the community and its ethnic identity, then marrying out spells a disaster.”

Mr Mistree says that the rebels want to piggyback on what their forefathers had built, but changing the rules. “The Goolrukh Guptas of this world are not concerned about what is good for the community in the long run. They are just interested in making a point. If these girls feel so passionate about being Zoroastrians, let them create a new fire temple. Let them create a new order. Why bring in alien customs and culture to a community not equipped to handle it? Start you own institutions just like the Jews did.”

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