To create an elemental shift in human consciousness, the feminist movement — not unlike other ideological movements — relies on sharing a common goal to define, establish and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal and social rights for women. Since the occurrence of the modern feminist movement in two major waves in the US from the late 19th Century till its fanning out into radical, socialist, cultural or liberal wings, history tells us that major goals were achieved only when there has been consensus and coherence sustained over a period of time.
That fact that the feminist movement is facing a global crisis now despite the advancement in millions of women’s lives owes a lot to the gaping fault lines. These fault lines — old and new — thrive on economic, cultural, legal, or even chronological differences between countries and have, of late, severely affected the fight over women’s rights and bodies. For developing countries like India, therefore, the key point is to understand that the battle against gender bias and cultural constructs requires a sustained effort.
It must be fought tirelessly.
Activism and campaigning must be paired with everyday efforts to eventually create a fundamental shift in society’s thinking and to challenge its deep-rooted misogyny. An intense but essentially spasmodic outrage over a Sabarimala or a Shani Shingnapur could be wonderfully suited to cockfights on TV debates. The supply of the outrageous is vast enough in this vast country to keep us in a state of ‘perma-scream’.
But it is unsustainable and ultimately, self-defeating.
The aim of these lines is to bring perspective to the heated debate taking place now in India over cultural traditions that are mired in gender discrimination. The context of the debate lies in two recent developments:
One, Kerala’s Sabarimala temple authorities have stuck to their stand — in the face of legal scrutiny from the Supreme Court — of banning all women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering temple precincts citing ritualistic practice and tradition. They claim deity Lord Ayyappa, who attracts more than 50 million devotees each year, is a sworn celibate. They do not want the apex court to interfere in religious practices.
Two, on Tuesday, Maharashtra police foiled a plan by 350 women activists to barge into Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district to break a 400-year-old tradition banning women from entering its sanctum sanctorum. The women activists from the Bhumata Brigade led by Trupti Desai planned to slither down a rope to land on the temple’s platform after alighting from a helicopter that will hover over the temple. (On Wednesday, however, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that he will be meeting representatives of the organisation to give their concerns a hearing)
Confrontation and outrage plays a crucial function in the battle against gender bias by turning society’s focus into a specific issue.
TV debates are generated and many storms are raised in teacups. The momentum that is generated is easily lost when stunts like invading a temple precinct isn’t backed by a sustained, de-politicised effort that seeks to end centuries of patriarchal social construct. A few TV debates and articles later, we revert to square one. The larger question that needs to be asked is whether this sudden activism against ritualistic practices in Hindu temples is a legit, genuine effort to break century-old traditions, or is it fuelled by a narrow motive to pile political pressure on a government that has been accused of indulging in cultural majoritarianism?
Dabholkar’s campaign in 2000
In 2000, Narendra Dabholkar and his Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS) launched a move to accord “dignity to women” by being allowed entry into temples. Led by the rationalist — who was later murdered allegedly by right-wing extremists — activists including artistes from theatre, film and grassroots leaders marched from Pandharpur to Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar to protest against the temple’s tradition which allows male devotees to go up to the platform to offer puja wearing a wet cloth but bans women from doing so.
According to a report in The Indian Express, party workers from BJP, Sena and other Hindu organisations joined hands to prevent MANS activists from gaining entry into the temple along with women who had come from across the state. “We were all arrested and spent two days in jail,” said MANS activist Nisha Bhosale. “Nearly 5,000 to 7,000 people from across Maharashtra had turned up — a majority of them being women,” she said.
While the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government maintained a studied silence, Dabholkar took the fight to the Bombay High Court.
Sabarimala’s current practice has behind it the sanction of a 1983 verdict of the Kerala high court directing the authorities not to allow women aged between 10 and 50 years. According to the Travancore Devaswom Board which manages the temple, the Thazhamon family whose members serve as Tantris and the Nair Service Society, which speaks in the name of the largest group of beneficiaries of the caste system, tantra does not permit women of menstruating age to enter the temple as the idol has been installed treating the deity as a perpetual bachelor.
Lack of sustained effort
As we see in each of these cases, temples follow decade-old ceremonial practices rooted in century-old social constructs. Despite Dabholkar’s efforts, the fact that we haven’t moved even an inch became clear when last November, nine small steps taken by a woman to enter and offer prayers at the Shani shrine was considered to be ‘breach’ of a 400-year-old practice. The temple committee suspended seven security guards and villagers performed a milk purification of the idol.
And it is preposterous to suggest that all villagers in this temple town are BJP or right-wing activists. The patriarchal mores lie so deep that even women (and probably more so) were the first ones to take umbrage of the ‘breach’ which they fear will bring calamity on their families. The simple reason why the commendable fight started by Dabholkar didn’t bring desired results because it wasn’t backed by a tenacious campaign that would seek to clear centuries of social cobwebs.
Why such a gap?
While the recent cacophony and helicopter stunts are great for attention-grabbing, they are doomed to fail in their primary duty — that of challenging the patriarchal hegemony over religion, its practices and ending stigmas against women. Things will remain as they are long after the last OB van of a TV channel has returned home. Whether Sabarimala’s skewed tradition or Shani Shingnapur’s regressive practice, we wake up every 15 or 20 years or so only when it is politically convenient for us.