Civics clashes with religion as women face bans from some Indian shrines

November 6, 2012

(The opinions expressed are the author’s own, and may not necessarily reflect those of Thomson Reuters)

Mumbai’s Sufi shrine Haji Ali Dargah Trust has barred women from entering the sanctum that houses the tomb of the Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. The reason: authorities said that they saw a woman visit the tomb in inappropriate clothing.

This might not be entirely surprising. The mosque and dargah – or tomb – sit on a tiny island in the waters off Mumbai that is connected to the mainland by a tiny causeway. It is one of Mumbai’s most well known tourist attractions, and many people from India and other countries walk past the mendicants and beggars, some of whom are missing limbs and often chanting, on the causeway to admire the architecture and the view.

The decision to ban women from the tomb reportedly is a year old, but came to light recently when a women’s group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan — the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement — visited the shrine in August. The group plans to write to state authorities to try to stop this from happening.

There are other instances of preventing women from visiting shrines and other holy places. The Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala in the state of Kerala bars the entry of women aged 10 to 50, the years in which they are most likely to experience menstruation. Last year, the temple high priest performed a purification ceremony there after a 35-year-old woman entered the shrine.

Women often are discouraged from visiting temples while they are menstruating because they are considered “impure”. In some households, women cannot enter kitchens or prayer rooms in their own houses while menstruating. Women in some rural areas are required to bathe and then enter the house during their periods. Hindu women also are not allowed to partake in cremation rituals or go to the cremation grounds.

Different rules for men and women is as old as religion. In a country with many patriarchal societies, women have largely accepted these rules, regardless of religion. In many parts of the world, this has gone in hand all the other traditions that much of the world today recognises as snubs or discrimination. Without education, most women in India didn’t necessarily know that they could question these rules. Despite the lack of education that many children still have, it is odd that women in a modern democratic country should be treated the same way now.

These bans, you could argue, deny women the right to publicly practice their faith. That doesn’t stack up well with the constitution, which says that Indians have the right to declare their faith openly, and have the  right to perform the duties, rites, and rituals prescribed by their religion – even if they have different rules for women.

Politicians refrain from speaking out on discrimination, however, because there’s little to no upside in upsetting large voting blocs that comprise men who have no problem with the rules. Religious conservatives have generally objected to laws or international covenants in this area because they say that the strictures mock or contradict their beliefs and religious laws.

Women have over the centuries complied with these customs, and there is no doubt that there are women who comply either because they want to or because they don’t have any objection. The point is that they have a choice, even if not every woman realises this.

This is, of course, civic law bumping up against religious law. In India, perhaps more than in many other countries, there is no easy reconciliation. While the government of India promises individual choice as a facet of religious freedom, it also takes more steps than many other countries to try to protect the sensibilities of the adherents of the many religions that have taken root within its borders. To offend one faith, especially to the perceived advantage of another, is something that the government tries to prevent. Taking offense on religious grounds is, as a result, a graver problem than in many other places, and it does get noticed.

But in a case like the Haji Ali dargah, whose rule could be taken up in other mosques or temples, India has much to lose in terms of its civic freedoms. Maharashtra’s government and the government of India have a lot to lose if they allow this ruling to stand.

(Monsoon clouds gather over Haji Ali mosque during heavy rains in this 2008 file photo. Reuters: Punit Paranjpe)

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