By Atiya Anis:
India celebrated its 70th Independence Day on August 15. Yet, a section of the population still fights for equality. More than sixty six long years after the Indian Constitution was adopted, discrimination continues to exist. Not only in personal space, but also within the institutional mechanisms of the country.
It confuses me whether to celebrate the court ruling on Shani Shingnapur Temple and Haji Ali Dargah or be ashamed of our legacy of hypocrisy where women are worshipped and at the same time considered impure and unfit to enter places of worship. If displaying hypocrisy was a sport, I am sure India would lead from the front. The ban on women entering the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah is in direct contravention of Article 14 (Equality before law), Article 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Indian Constitution. If there is discrimination within a state of the country, even if it is inside a religious institution, it no longer remains only the concern of the institution or community. It becomes a national issue. The women all over the world and especially in India will always be thankful to the Court’s ruling against this oppressive religious practice. This is the start of bringing about structural change in the world’s oldest and complicated institution called religion, which no one dares to question.
The practice continued for years, with us being unperturbed. Modern day feminism largely talks about liberty to dress in western attire, drinking, partying, revolutionary facebook posts and hashtags on feminism. This trend of urban feminism, embraced by the middle and upper classes, is oblivious of the struggles of the rest of the population. Religion still holds much relevance to majority of ordinary women who derive their strength from God to fight for their numerous struggles. Many women I know rubbished the issue questioning why do they even need to go inside the temples. But is ignoring it the correct approach? Would it not lead to increased confinement of women to more such spaces? I totally agree with this fight for the right of space. It is not only about temples or mosques; it is about the unfair attempt of confining women and snatching away their human rights.
The insensitive and protective practice was justified by the Dargah by claiming that this saved women from physical discomfort and sexual harassment. The justification offered demonstrates the highest level of misogynic attitude. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), as many as 2. 24 million crimes against women were reported from 2005-2014. Thankfully the Dargah committee responsible for the patriarchal ritual is not a part of India’s governing body, otherwise all women would be exiled to an inaccessible, isolated Island, to make it safer for women.
‘Loiter’ is another brave effort at reclaiming public spaces. Women are encouraged to ‘loiter’ around in public spaces. It bravely protests against the exclusion of women from public spaces. The movement started from Aligarh Muslim University and is gradually spreading all over India. Attempts like these need to gather a broader base to dilute any further attempts on women’s freedom. Treating women as “the other”, as socially and physically subordinate has led to gendering of public and personal spaces, whether implicitly or explicitly. These loopholes in local history, tradition and culture that perpetuate this gap require intense scrutiny. Festivals like Rakhsa bandhan and Karvachauth, which have attained social are subconscious demonstrations of male supremacy. Similarly, the practices of “talaq-e-Bidat” (triple talaq), “nikah halala” and polygamy need to be declared illegal and unconstitutional. But there is something that makes people speechless when it comes to questioning their faith.
Religion has the power to silence even the dissenting believer. Fear of the unforeseen, intricate customs and traditions coated with religious dictates have long played the role of establishing and perpetuating the economic and political power and hegemony of one class over the other. With time, religious institutions have taken the shape of bureaucratic institutions with its sets of non-negotiable rules. A normal person caught in the cobweb of everyday struggle hardly finds time and energy to come out of the myriad of binding rules and dictates. It is interesting to note that all religions have contradictory interpretations and the upholders of faith are ready to kill and die for their unique religions, yet the status of women in all remains subordinate. Women who fall outside the accepted roles are treated as outcasts and subject to punitive treatment. These are uncomfortable questions that need reflection before we bow down to the rusted customs and traditions.
Many believe that he word “religion,” which comes from the Latin word religare, means “to tie, to bind.” This etymology of the word very well explains the power religion has over people and the communities. It also justifies how religion has been used to perpetuate social inequality. The origins and evolution of Dowry goes back to Hindu marriage traditions. Stridharama, found in Hindu texts , is the money which the parents provide to their in-laws after their daughter’s marriage. We can get similar innumerable instances in every faith. In Muslim communities only the veiled women are deemed symbols for tradition, piety and culture. Any attempt to modify these traditions is seen as a move to assimilate and destroy their Muslim identity.
While discriminatory religious practice can create huge divide and dissent. Feminists and religious actors need to explore common grounds to reach a consensus on putting forward the development agenda. A religious sermon may be practically valid thousands of years ago but may not be suitable for the present times. We would all agree that with each passing day, we all develop new perceptions and broader understanding, in personal, professional and social life. It should be equally true for the social norms and cultural practices to keep pace with changing times.