Shani Shingnapur controversy: Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to discriminate

As the Shani Shingnapur row intensifies, feminists are reminding us that “Freedom of Religion” is not a synonym for “Freedom to Discriminate”.

Anna MM Vetticad January 28, 2016 11:38:27 IST
Shani Shingnapur controversy: Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to discriminate

As the storm over Shani Shingnapur mandir in Maharashtra refuses to die down, others are brewing or ongoing elsewhere in the country.

The aborted attempt by protesters to enter Shani Shingnapur on Republic Day and break the tradition of not permitting women into the temple’s most sacred innards is clearly not the last we have heard on this issue. Meanwhile, next week, the Bombay High Court will listen to further arguments in the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan’s PIL against the denial of entry to women in the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. And on 8 February, the Supreme Court will hold its next hearing of a petition demanding a lifting of the ban on women, aged 10-50, from the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

Shani Shingnapur controversy Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to discriminate

Activist Trupti Desai (right) speaks to Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

The points being raised in all these cases are similar.

Those advocating the status quo use the cloak of faith and religious belief to justify discriminatory customs. At Sabarimala, for instance, it has been variously claimed that menstruating women are impure and/or could taint or tempt the celibate male deity of the shrine, Lord Ayyappa. As reported in Deccan Chronicle last November, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board which runs Sabarimala, went so far as to tell reporters at the Kollam Press Club: “A time will come when people will ask if all women should be disallowed from entering the temple throughout the year. These days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.”

Haji Ali trustees, on their part, reportedly told the Mumbai court that women being allowed near the grave of a male Muslim saint is considered a sin in Islam.

Those challenging the status quo, on the other hand, argue that such restrictions on female worshippers are discriminatory and that they have no foundation in their respective religions.

This brings us to a question even some protestors are skirting: If indeed a scriptural justification is available for such practices, should they be acceptable in a democracy? Is discrimination okay if your faith or holy book endorses it?

The answer, ideally, should be an obvious, in-principle no. The courts may be compelled to examine religious texts to minimise the number of toes they tread on in such combustive matters, but for society at large, it is inexcusable that in the 21st century, in a Constitutionally secular nation such as India, scriptures are being viewed as a legitimate arbiter in the matter of discrimination; and that there is, in the opinion of some citizens, such a thing as permissible discrimination.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which spells out the fundamental right to equality before law reads thus: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” There is no addendum to this Article that states: “…unless stated otherwise in the Bhagvad Gita, Quran, Bible or Guru Granth Sahib…”

That being said, the ultimate evidence of religion being a patriarchal construct comes from the fact that the male-dominated or male-monopolised leadership of many world religions often defy the principles and teachings of even their founders or selectively cite scriptures to indulge in discriminatory religious, social and cultural practices.

The Quran, for instance, commands believing men to “lower their gaze and guard” even as it lays out guidelines for women’s clothing (both debatable in themselves), yet it is the veiling of women that is practised – often with physical and legal force – across Muslim societies while the stricture against men is rarely cited. A woman’s alleged failure to evade the male gaze is even used by Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia to harshly punish women rape victims.

While the Muslim community faces widespread worldwide criticism for blatant discrimination against women especially in countries where Islam is the state religion, many among its critics are unwilling to introspect about the gender politics within their own religious groups.

The harsh truth that few people like to hear is this: all major world religions discriminate against women; some do it more, some do it less (let not political correctness prevent us from stating this clearly), but they all do it (let’s be clear about this too).

For instance, the Roman Catholic Church – the largest sect within Christianity – does not permit priesthood for women. Since only priests can rise in the hierarchy to become bishops, cardinals and ultimately, the Pope, the result is a men-only leadership. This goes against the very essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ who, common sense indicates, was a feminist as evidenced, among other things, by his refusal to condemn a woman for committing adultery. “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone” – his now-legendary response to the men who hauled her to him 2,000 years ago, was a stinging slap in the face of traditional notions of sexual morality and a revolutionary statement for the time. Yet 2,000 years later, the Church persists with its patriarchal power structure.

It goes without saying that for the men who dominate these religions, such debates are unwelcome and inconvenient. Every conceivable argument is therefore fished out to condemn all rebellion. The Hindu right in India, for instance, is working hard to instill a sense of victimhood among the country’s majority community in the context of the Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala controversies. A feeling is sought to be created among India’s Hindus that they and they alone are being targeted and that these movements are a “Western / Communist / feminist / Leftist conspiracy” against Hinduism. This falsehood needs to be urgently busted.

The fight against gender discrimination within Indian religious communities long pre-dates the current struggles involving Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala, and has never been restricted to Hindu practices alone. A landmark moment in this heterogeneous movement came in the mid-1980s with the Supreme Court verdict in favour of activist Mary Roy (mother of writer Arundhati Roy), granting equal rights in ancestral property to Syrian Christian women of Kerala along with their male siblings.

Around the same time as this was happening, when Shah Bano – a Muslim woman from Madhya Pradesh – won the right to maintenance from the Supreme Court, the Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre was widely criticised by liberals for diluting the court order with the enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, to please conservatives within her community. This episode is often cited by the Hindu right as a case of “minority appeasement”. They forget that Shah Bano – the sufferer in this saga – was herself a minority community member. If any appeasement can indeed be alleged, then it should be appeasement of orthodox male Muslims.

And that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day: a determination by men to retain control of their respective religions in the face of objections from rights-conscious women and their male supporters. While Shani Shingnapur, Sabarimala and Haji Ali signify the quest to control women’s access to places of worship, the brutal practice of female genital mutilation among the country’s Dawoodi Bohra Muslims – which more women are now speaking up against – is an effort to control women’s bodies.

Conservatives take shelter under the Constitutionally-granted right to Freedom of Religion while suppressing, marginalising and humiliating women.

Feminists across religious groups are reminding them that “Freedom of Religion” is not a synonym for “Freedom to Discriminate”.

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