Recently, the Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) department decided to appoint women priests in temples. For this, women will have to undergo training in ‘Agama Sastra’. The waking up move has been proposed by Tamil Nadu minister P K Sekar Babu. He urged women in the state belonging to all castes in Tamil Nadu to ‘come forward’ for stipulated training if they are interested.
As usual, this has triggered the opposition and intellectuals to come up with debates regarding the new decision from the HR & CE department. Meanwhile, BJP has reacted to the decision by saying that from ancient days itself women had expertise in Agama Sastras and they already had engaged in doing poojas in temples.
BJP has never forgotten to remind the ruling government that ever since ancient times, people of all castes and women have been employed as priests in TN temples. However, the HR and CE department has decided to implement the progressive move soon after getting the final approval and support from Chief Minister MK Stalin.
While the readers can find more details on this news in the media, some points have to be discussed in the public sphere when such a hopeful measure is put up by the government itself.
As per the reports, people belonging to all the castes in the Hindu religion can now become priests.
So, will the secular government make sure Dalit women from marginalized communities also get the same chance to offer prayers without any sort of gender discrimination?
As of now, interested women are invited to fill the vacant posts for priesthood in the state. So, if ‘interested’, is it okay to enter temples and offer prayers if she is on her periods? Minister Sekar also said that the government has been considering five days leave for women to stay away from rituals during the time of menstruation.
The Dravidian party’s stand on this topic is highly appreciable but at the same time, the government needs to rethink whether the decision has broken the traditionally followed stereotypes. If yes, it is a good change. Patriarchy has a lot to do with period taboos and religious rituals. What if women don’t want these 5 days of leave? It is the responsibility of the government to reconsider the social acceptance factors. What has been preventing the state to clarify that period leaves are not meant to highlight the impurity of a woman but just a thing of physical relaxation? Well, the government also needs to break the period taboo stereotypes along with caste barriers.
Some concerns and questions raised by opposition parties include why is the government interfering with religious freedom? They even question the transparency of government for not addressing the religious discrimination in Christianity and Islam. Yes, it is necessary to address the issues of inequality in every religious sect, but the opposition parties and Indian born patriarchs can not simply normalize and swallow the good intention of a revolutionary move put up by any government.
However, it is relevant to ask whether secular governments can liberate all religions? Let us now give less care to ‘Indian born patriarchs and opposition, but let’s start thinking: Are churches secular? Are mosques secular? Are all holy places secular?
In Christianity, Catholics refer to priests as the Father and there is no equivalent to Father. The Pope said in January 2021 that the church has changed the law to allow women to do more things during holy mass but they cannot be priests. Pope Francis informed that he was making changes to increase recognition of previous contributions women made in the church. But at the same time, the ordination of women is not possible.
It is very disappointing to witness how religious leaders discriminate against women in the name of some unknown reasons. If they know the reason for such ignorance, they must say it.
Galatians 3:28 says: “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, men or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.”
If the Holy Bible says so, and if the promoters of patriarchy clearly admire and follow the words in the Bible, why are they ignoring this powerful quote in today’s life? Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus as per the Bible and that was one of the most important events in Christianity. What does that mean? It clearly shows the importance of Galatians 3:28, but why have our patriarchs failed to see this?
Being born and brought up in a Christian Orthodox family set up, I and my female friends had never been allowed to enter the sacred place of the altar. My childhood bid me goodbye with a lot of questions and doubts about our traditions. I learnt that only men are allowed to enter inside the altar and there is a boundary for women that has been set up by religious leaders. Women are allowed to offer prayers outside of that boundary.
They can sing and be a part of the choir team but unlike my male friends, I cannot enter the altar. Sadly, the tradition continues. I have always asked myself and my parents as to who sets these limits for women? Does gender equality have anything to do with the ordination of women as priests? What has prevented women from being at the altar? Is that because of menstruation we have been considered weak by the male-dominated priestly class? What is the whole idea of women empowerment in Christianity? Does anyone not want to obey Galatians 3:28?
I am always doubtful and confused while dealing with my church matters. I think that the church only needs a male figure as their saviour and representative, and hence the religious authorities abstain from making women priests. Anyway, I will not make any assumptions. I am saying what I’ve experienced so far.
What I will say is that there is a thought that exists in every religion-which is that women are inferior and should be subordinate to men.
What rights do Christian patriarchs have to talk about equality? Would the male-dominated priestly class be ready to take up the discussion on gender equality and women’s ordination as priests in the church in a thought-provoking, radical way? In the case of Muslims, they offer separate rooms for women to offer prayers. Islam has very strict rules against women praying in the same place as men. Some religions in India are still following Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is highly disappointing that FGM still exists in a state like Kerala which is standing at the top of the literacy rate.
In such circumstances where women have still been considered subordinate to religion, the significance of women priesthood in Tamil Nadu arises.
The HR & CE department’s decision to appoint women priests would hopefully bring inevitable changes in the ‘annan-thambi’ role, or ‘bhai-bhai’ relation between religion and patriarchy.
I clearly want churches, mosques and other religious institutions in India to replicate the praiseful step taken by the HR & CE department in Tamil Nadu. However, the Tamil Nadu government has to consider the involvement of women from lower castes, especially from the Dalit community. We cannot accept another instance of discriminatory and divisive attitude from a government authority.
The step taken by the TN government would be more appreciated if persons from the LGBTQ community get the same opportunity to offer prayers in temples as priests.
You may disagree with me on this, but I should say this with my conscience. The next question that comes up here is why do religious rituals fear women who bleed? A woman needs the authority to offer prayer inside the altar or pooja place while she is on her period. Please steer clear of the phoney argument that I am weak and impure during those days to offer prayers. If you say so, what is the scope of shouting for equality? Who is setting the limit? Who told you that you are weak while on your periods?
It is absolutely ridiculous to say that women are not biologically fit to offer prayers during periods. Women should be given the opportunity by every religion to offer prayers inside the sacred place during menstrual days. Tamil Nadu government should also rethink this while they are eager to deal with social acceptance factors.
At a time when period taboos prevent women from entering religious spaces, what transformation of women empowerment do you mean? In Kerala, after the famous Sabarimala women entry verdict, we have seen to what extent misogyny and religion can go hand in hand. After women got the opportunity to enter Sabarimala, some of the so-called believers came out from their comfort space and made character assassinations on those women who entered the shrine.
Opposition parties and patriarchal human products even addressed women as bad creatures not born to a disciplined family. In Kerala, we saw how religion and misogyny were employed during the time of assembly elections in 2021, thereby using the Sabarimala controversy. Those days were tougher to recollect. When can you stop the mixing up of misogyny and religion? I would rather say that misogyny is the byproduct of religion and patriarchy in this context. Don’t you feel pity when you see religious freedom going against fundamental rights? But I do.
Sometimes, the opposition asks questions on the discrimination women face in other religions and the government’s lack of interference in their religious matters? While living in a diversified social system, if the government brings suitable changes to one religious belief only, the significance of opposition voices will arise. So in that case, it is better from the side of the government to check all the known and unknown practices of gender discrimination happening in every religion.
Yes, religious institutions do have their own constitutional rights and they can profess, practice and propagate religious beliefs accordingly. But it is the duty of the government and constitutional authorities to prevent religion from committing any sort of injustices and divisive approach in the name of freedom. In that case, the government’s role is not about interference, it’s about safeguarding a citizen’s basic right.
In conclusion, I state that I appreciate the revolutionary decision taken by the HR & CE department in Tamil Nadu but I would also like to bring up some concerns. Can secular governments put a stop to the question of periods, while framing decisions on women’s ordination as priests? Another concern is regarding menstruation and worship. Will they allow a woman to offer prayers when she is on her period? If not, what do you mean by progress?
Dear male-dominated priestly class, if I am wrong, please change my thoughts. But you should have some sensible reasons to defend your points otherwise I will stand up straight to my opinion that every religion fears menstruation.
At this point, we have to take a side and should stand against the oppressor. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
In this case, the oppressor is a deep-rooted religious patriarchal mindset. Despite the critical condition, if you still side the oppressor, you are creating a disaster.