Reclaiming ourselves and our spaces from religion

India celebrated its 70th Independence Day on August 15. Yet, women, comprising 48.7% of population (2011 census), are still fighting for basic right to 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 has been not so long when Supreme Court of India had to intervene to end the discriminatory practice that prohibits women in India from entering places of worship. 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. It might sound amusing to many that this is a fight in a country, where, the dominant religion is Hinduism, a religion that reveres and worships many female Goddesses.

The socially practiced 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 discriminatory practice of disallowing women to enter temples and mosques has continued for years. The practice has been accepted by generations as a part of culture. The new age feminism largely talks about liberty to dress in western attire, drinking, partying, revolutionary facebook posts and hashtags on feminism, many times becomes oblivious to the very basic struggle for right to reclaim spaces. The fight for equality in religion is relevant not only for ordinary religious women but also for the atheist feminists. Women need to collaborate collectively for each other, be it on religious, social or economic front. Any attempt confine women their gender is a sheer violation of human rights.

The religion who claim that women are impure because of her periods blood or deny entry to places of worship because their presence might become distraction for male worshippers, need to make major amends in their thought process. Male gaze is the problem of men and their weakness, which cannot be blamed on women. The physical anatomy of women to bleed is a natural and not an acquired process, or we can say women were created that way. The periods to me implies the strength and uniqueness of woman to bear a child, which certainly can never be inferior or cause of discrimination.

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 raditions. 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. The loopholes in local history, tradition and culture further perpetuate the gender gap placing the man as superme entity and above women. Festivals like Rakhsa bandhan (a Hindu festival where sisters tie a thread on brother’s arm and seek protection and safety in return) and Karvachauth (another Hindu custom where wife worships the husband and fasts for his long life), are subconscious demonstrations of male supremacy. Similarly, the practices of “talaq-e-Bidat” (triple talaq), “nikah halala” and polygamy in the Muslim community need to be declared illegal and unconstitutional. 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 gender neutral 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.

Women need to identify and speak up against socially entrenched derogatory customs. ‘Loiter’ is brave effort at reclaiming public spaces, that encourages women 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. We all need to fight back against treating women as “the other”, socially and physically subordinate. We need to end the gendering of public and personal spaces, whether implicitly or explicitly.