Scent of a Woman
Temple is less rooted in bias and relatively more enlightened than many others. But does one sort of progressiveness obliterate another kind of prejudice? Asks Barkha Dutt.india Updated: Jul 01, 2006 00:08 IST
We made the generals feel like geriatrics -- old men with older ideas -- when they dared suggest that our soldiers liked going stag. Our outrage pushed the Defence Minister into declaring that India’s army was ready to change with the times -- women could be considered for combat. And the anger spawned some unlikely paratroopers against prejudice -- it was Sushma Swaraj who led the battle from the frontline. Indian women, it seemed, were ready to storm any frontier.
Not quite. Not at all.
In the India of 2006, a temple described as an ‘unmatched instance of religious tolerance’ keeps women firmly outside the circle of benign benediction -- at least women between the ages of ten and 50. An array of excuses is provided by the influential temple board that controls the hill shrine of Sabarimala: Lord Ayyappa was a bachelor god who made the hill-top his home after a vow of celibacy; the eight-kilometre arduous trek through the thick forests surrounding the hill isn’t suitable for women; the 41-day penance before the pilgrimage is far too strenuous for them; allowing women to mix with millions of male pilgrims would create a law and order problem; and menstrual blood would stain the sacred spirit.
So, we will fight for the right of women to fly fighter jets; we will argue that women can jump into trenches, march up mountains and brave bullets; and we will bark at the suggestion that our monthly period is a biological barrier to physical equality.
But when it comes to religion, we will silently accept the tyranny of tradition.
Look at the absurdity of the most recent controversy. An astrological invocation declared that the deity was distressed by, among other things, the presence of women in the inner sanctorum of the temple. A yesteryear heroine ‘confessed’ that she had violated rules and managed to sneak in and touch the idol’s feet, 19 years ago, way back in 1987. She then asked for ‘forgiveness’.
Temple authorities do not think saying sorry is quite enough; legal action is being threatened against the actress and a ‘corrective purifying ritual’ is being unveiled. The astrologers have a master plan for how to cleanse the soul and spirit of the soiled temple -- a temple pond will be built; the deity will be dressed in new ornaments; all commercial establishments will be removed from the complex. All this will take two years and many lakhs of rupees to accomplish. But at least the Lord will be happy again, and the temple scrubbed clean of the lingering shadow of female presence.
Isn’t it strange that not a single woman politician of worth has spoken up against the institutionalised discrimination? Even more ominous is their silence at the obvious subtext of the controversy -- menstruation is a bad word, a bodily shame that must be isolated and contained.
Isn’t it a matter of some irony that this has unfolded in a state governed by non-believers? The Marxists, scornful of religion and rituals by definition, have simply chosen to look the other way, saying it is for the temple to set its own rules. This, despite the fact that the temple is partially funded by public money -- the state of Kerala gives the temple board Rs 8 lakh every year in grants. Surely that makes the temple accountable to basic constitutional standards of equality?
And what about ordinary people? You and me; how do we feel?
Some of the arguments I have heard are bewildering and even more problematic than the non-response of the political establishment.
Our own newsroom erupted into a fierce debate over my proclamation that this was a temple of prejudice and should be reported as such.
It came down to a few familiar debating points.
The first and foremost is the assertion that Sabarimala is perhaps the most inclusive of all temples in India; that it dares to break down the entrenched caste hierarchy by throwing open its doors to men of all castes; even non-Hindus are allowed in. The temple does not discriminate on the basis of religion, unlike say, the Jagannath Temple in Puri, where even Indira Gandhi was not allowed to worship after she married a Parsi.
So yes, the temple is less rooted in bias and relatively more enlightened than many others. But does one sort of progressiveness obliterate another kind of prejudice? If we are appalled by temples that close their compounds to Dalits, we have a right to be just as angry at a temple that denies women the right to worship. One right doesn’t erase another wrong, and to be so selective in our outrage is a twisted sort of political correctness. It’s a bit like saying that the Indian army is more secular, honest and incorruptible than any other public institution, so when we accuse it of being bigoted against women, we are being unfair and unreasonable.
Fact is, both are simultaneously true. And so it is with Sabarimala.
Some see the criticism of the temple’s no-woman policy as ‘Hindu-bashing’. Would I have reacted just as vociferously if the controversy had erupted in another faith? The implication in the accusation is obvious -- in India, liberals like myself steer clear of pronouncements on minority religions.
I would feel just as strongly about the rights of Muslim women to be imams; Christian women to be priests; and Sikh women to perform the seva at the Golden Temple. Nor do I buy the argument that people like myself have no right to take a position on matters of faith, since we are too far removed from the world of the believing, too urban and rootless to have an informed understanding. Admittedly, I’m not religious and my relationship with God is a deeply personal one. But does that mean that I cannot take a position in demanding certain absolute values of equality; values that should rise above the specifics of region, religion or race?
Change is always resisted; never accepted easily and rarely smooth. Small wonder then that all across the world the mostly-male practitioners of religion are facing the same sort of challenges; the wall of obscurantism they have erected between God and ordinary believers is being chipped away, bit by bit.
And are we, in India, content to remain silent?
The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 firstname.lastname@example.org