Trupti Desai and the women of the Bhumata Brigade performing aarti at the sanctum in the Shani Shignapur Temple is a historic sight. This development has a tremendous significance in the history of independent India and in so many ways history of the world. One of the greatest sources of patriarchy is religion thanks to the exclusionary practices, customs and traditions that ostensibly emanate from scriptures. Women have been subjugated across faiths, cultures and geographies for centuries. And as we all know, the rationale or justification is always invented from some religious source. For, people are believers; both women and men are believers and accept whatever is served in the name of religion. The patriarchs understood this important truth early in history. And needless to say, they exploited this reality to the fullest. When Bhumata Brigade or Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan demand equality as Hindus or Muslims they hit at the core of this patriarchy. Not surprisingly, they are disliked even despised by the men of religion. They want no challenge to their authority over religion.
We are told that religions of the world – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism all arrived with a message of love and humanism. The message was for entire humanity cutting across race, gender, class, caste. But in reality religions have been reduced to serve the ends of patriarchal control over the lives of women all over the world. The male custodians made religion their sole prerogative and decided what customs, practices and systems to be followed by all. The flaw is in the very design of religious customs and practices. No wonder the male custodians gave supremacy to males in these customs and practices and ensured extra measures to deny equality to women and to put them in a secondary position. Men appointed themselves in charge of the lives of entire communities.
They appointed themselves as some kind of intermediaries between God and followers. They began to speak on behalf of God and gave a free play to their own conservative mindsets, self interests and hegemony. They appointed themselves as arbiters of religions, administrators of places of worship, methods of worship and evolved a nearly full-proof plan of control. It has proved to be a really effective plan. Religions world over became institutionalized and men presided over the institution. They invented all kinds of arguments about women being impure, weak and therefore inferior to men. They invented myths, anecdotes, verses, practices, divine injunctions to establish that woman are inferior. They continued to exclude women based on this concoction of religious sanctity and frailty of women. It is important to mention that these patriarchal custodians of religions always found allies in the rulers down the ages. Be it kings, emperors, shahs, maharajas, sultans – they all were in cahoots with patriarchal clergy of all denominations. They jointly furthered institutionalized religion and exercised hegemonic control over ordinary people. What is most shocking is that this nexus between men of religion and rulers has continued in the modern age too. It has been a feature of a vibrant democracy such as ours. The developments at Shani Shignapur hit at the core of this nexus and this hegemony.
Let us analyse the recent developments of the Shani Shignapur issue to throw some light on the patriarchal nexus. When Bhumata Brigade made their first attempt to barge into the sanctum at the temple, they were forcibly prevented by the police and the local administration. The temple trustees and local politicians reacted with outrage over the attempts to “ break the 400 year old tradition”. Women groups from Maharashtra knocked at the doors of the Bombay High Court. Bhumata continued its struggle through various means and public pronouncements. All through this turmoil, the politicians or elected representatives either chose to remain silent or talked ambiguously or even on the side of the status quo. Following the directive of the Bombay High Court to allow all – women as well as men in the chabutra, Bhumata women once again reached the temple only to be brutally prevented by the police. The High Court order notwithstanding! The police were doing whose bidding? Why were the law enforcers blatantly working against the court order forget protecting and enabling the order to be implemented! And what was the district administration doing while this violation was taking place in full public view? Finally, it took a bunch of local men to barge into the sanctum and perform a puja. It was only after the men had broken the norms of the “400 year old tradition” that it became possible for Trupti and the women to get entry! This was a shocking display of solidarity of the patriarchs!
Attempts by women and democratic minded men over equality in religion have met with mixed success in the past in India. They have not been able to make that structural change so necessary to fight patriarchy and uphold womens’ position. Even the courts have been not so forthcoming in the past. But the scenario is changing rapidly and the courts are stepping in where the elected representatives are dithering on their Constitutional obligations of gender justice.
Some time during the struggle the temple trust appointed a woman trustee to head the trust. Another example of the tricks that patriarchs play! The question is she can be appointed trustee but would they allow her to enter the sanctum and perform the puja? Would they allow her to lead the aarti and the prayers? The question needs to be posed to all the custodians of religion. When will there be a woman Pope? When will there be a woman Shankaracharya? When will there be women Imams leading namaz? Will that day ever come? Going by the developments in India these days over Shani temple and various other places of worship that day is not impossible to envisage. Such is the significance of what has taken place at Shani Shignapur temple.
Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz are co-Founders of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan