Are we all equal in the eyes of our Gods? Apparently yes. (S)He is supposed to be omnipotent and benevolent, irrespective of whatever your faith is.
But does this God care if you are a man or a woman or a transgender person? Strangely yes. If the headlines that Sabarimala is making over the entry of women into the Ayyapan temple are any indication. And it is not just about Sabarimala. I have been rudely nudged out of a dargah where I went with such faith. There are Parsi temples where non-Parsi women who have married into the community are not allowed.
Places of faith restrict entry of devotees depending on several parameters: caste, clothing, colour of skin, and child-bearing ability. And there are other places which give you VIP access to see your God sooner, if you have the ability to pay a bigger largesse.
Religion discriminates. At times subtly, at others overtly using the ruse of tradition or custom. Sometimes your menstrual blood makes places of worship impure. At other times, your pheramones distract men and Gods from their penance. But can one turn a blind eye to the abuse of nuns in churches, and of women devotees in ashrams? At all times that accusing finger for disrupting divinity is firmly pointed at women.
In 1882, Vijayalakshmi, a young widow who was sexually assaulted, aborted her infant in Pune. The patriarchal system sentenced her to death. An orthodox daily called Pune Vaibhav published an article lamenting the ‘immorality of widows’. Distraught and furious over this, fourteen year-old Tarabai Shinde responded in her debut article called Stri Purush Tulana(A Comparison of Men and Women). The article is a revelation about the lives of women in that era. I reproduce a part of that essay which has Tarabai angrily questioning the hypocrisy of the system:
“Let me ask you something, Gods! You are supposed to be omnipotent and freely accessible to all. You are said to be completely impartial. What does that mean? That you have never been known to be partial. But wasn’t it you who created both men and women? Then why did you grant happiness only to men and brand women with nothing but agony? Your will was done! But poor women have had to suffer for it down the ages”
The public, the legislators and the judicary are often hesitant to tinker with religious beliefs. It is touchy territory. And when the politicians craftily jump into this, there is often a darker motive to divide and rule.
A part of me wants to ignore all these archaic customs and beliefs. Why should I care about a God who doesn’t want to see me? I’d rather go to a kinder God who welcomes me. Is this a battle big enough to matter? Certainly, there are larger issues which deserve more attention. But then this battle for gender equality in religious matters is perhaps more symbolic than a need to receive a particular God’s special favours.
Today is Savitribai Phule’s birth anniversary. She was one of the foremost social reformers of the 19th century, working relentlessly for the emancipation of women. Through the ages, women have had to fight all forms of misogyny. They have had to struggle for their right to get an education, for their right to vote, for their right to remarry, and for their right to dignity.
Religious practices are often a garb to continue subtle forms of exclusion. As Justice Chandrachud said: “This is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries. To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at constitutional morality.”
It is time for the tide to turn. Patriarchy needs a wake-up call.
(Featured photo: On 2nd January 2019, more than five million Indian women formed a 620 km long ‘women’s wall’ to pledge for gender equality against discrimination in religious practices.)