On Thursday, the Bombay High Court directed the state government to allow the entry of women into temples. This comes after observations made by a division bench of Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice MS Sonak on Wednesday that "There is no law that prevents entry of women in any place. If you allow men then you should allow women also. If a male can go and pray before the deity then why not women? It is the state government's duty to protect the rights of women."
These directives by the Bombay High Court can go a long way towards legally protecting equal rights of women in terms of access to public spaces. One of the most visible faces in this fight for right to pray is Trupti Desai, President and founder of Pune-based Bhumata Brigade — an activist group which shot to national fame after fighting for the rights of women to pray. Not new to social work, the gritty, outspoken activist has been working towards the betterment of women for over a decade.
The right to pray movement gained momentum in November 2016 when a woman pushed through the barricades at the Shani Shingnapur temple and entered the inner sanctum and offered her prayers — something women are not allowed to do. Temple authorities immediately performed a puja to 'purify' the deity. "When I heard that, I thought there was something deeply wrong. We, women also pray and are believers, why must they pour milk and 'purify' the deity? Simply because a woman touched it? It felt wrong," says Desai and it was this feeling that plagued her and propelled her into action.
Desai planned to oppose this discriminatory practice of not letting women inside temples. Along with volunteers and close to 350 activists, Desai marched to the Shani Shingnapur temple to protest, where she was detained. It didn't let her down, because she then decided to drop down on the temple from a helicopter to make her points and voice heard. "The police stopped us, they imposed Section 144, but it was not just me who wasn't ready to back down, it was all the other women with me. They were fearless and assertive," she says.
Desai had no idea that this movement would become so important — down south in Kerala, Sabarimala Temple's Dewaswom's comments about installing machines to keep a tab on women's menstrual cycles sparked an online debate. In Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah — the ban on women's entry to the inner sanctum added to the fodder too.
A national conversation emerged as to what gave the right to a few men to decide women's access to God. If men and women were created as equals, why must their access be limited and at the mercy of religious boards/trusts that comprise entirely of men? "Is sadi mein, mahilayein kandhe se kandha mila ke chal rahi hain, agar maasik chakr ki baat hai toh woh prakritik hai (In this day and age, women are working along with men, if it is about menstruation, then that is natural)," she says. The restrictions are a way for men to sustain the rule of patriarchy, feels Desai. "We are not against tradition, but against wrong practices. Take for example, the Sati Pratha or Kesh Mundan, we have done away with those," she emphasises.
Desai says, "Mujhe bas awaaz uthana tha (I just wanted to raise my voice)," however she is aware that gaining entry into temples is not the only fight. The key is to create awareness — "there are many who do not know about the concept of equality, or that it is guaranteed by our Constitution. Our organisation is working towards this and perhaps this is how we can consistently keep the momentum of the movement alive," she says. She is glad that she has received positive responses from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the Bombay High Court. "We will keep winning," she says in a tone that exudes confidence and grit.