Our political class must pay more attention to gender equality
The SC judgment on Sabarimala will open the doors for other Hindu places of worship to do away with their exclusionary practices whether it be restrictions on women or certain castes.It would be good for Hinduism, for social cohesion, for our economy and for the physical and mental well-being of women.columns Updated: Sep 29, 2018 22:01 IST
The Sabarimala judgment will create deep divisions among Kerala’s Hindus for some time. I say this with some certainty after listening to my mother’s views, which echo the conservatism that still runs through this highly literate society. Malayalis of all religions are happy to wear their faith on their sleeve even as many profess to be card holding members of the Communist Party. My mother feels that it is not worth annoying the powerful deity just to prove a feminist point. Though why the right to equality should be dubbed feminist is beyond me.
On another scale, you may recall that the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the governing body of the iconic temple made a bold decision to employ women as barbers to carry out the famed head shaving that is part of the temple’s rituals. But there was much opposition on the grounds that menstruating women should not enter the premises of Lord Venkateshwara’s abode or, indeed, come into contact with the devotees. This raised a problem: how can anyone tell when a woman is menstruating? So the solution was to restrict women from this job altogether. However, the temple does not restrict the entry of women for worship.
In almost all religions, the restrictions that come with faith seem reserved for women. Women cannot be priests in the Catholic faith and the clergy is almost exclusively the preserve of men. When two brave women qualified as qazis in UP, there was an uproar from the male clergy that this was unIslamic. It is not, but the qazis faced a great deal of social opprobrium. But let us stick to Hinduism for now. Sabarimala is just a reflection of the traditionally inferior role that a woman played in Hinduism. Of course, the courts have been exemplary in coming up with judgment after judgment in favour of women; our laws are all based on gender equality; and Indian women themselves have fought and got their rights on so many issues. But it would be good if prominent voices were to question some of the practices and beliefs which hold Hinduism back with relation to women’s rights. It was deeply disappointing that just before what was a seminal shift in thinking on the part of the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, he made a remark that a woman had a contractual duty to look after her husband and the home in return for which the man would protect her. I wish he had talked about some of the more pernicious aspects of Hinduism, which can do with some rethinking, given how far women have come today.
For example, child marriages which are still conducted despite laws banning them were for the express purpose of passing on the responsibility for the girl to another family. The girl is often considered a social and economic burden on the parents. Sex determination tests and sex selective abortions are again practised much more among Hindus than other faiths since the son is the inheritor of the family name and business with some exceptions.
Widows in Hindu society are considered unlucky, the women often thought to be morally complicit in the death of their husbands. Many of them are abandoned or have to live constrained lives, as penance for the alleged ill luck they have bought the family. I could go on. But this is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom. The judiciary is doing its bit. Now our politicians and custodians of cultural organisations like the RSS must put their minds to making Hinduism a truly modern and inclusive religion. To come back to Sabarimala, there is nothing in the scriptures which decrees that the celibate deity will take umbrage at women in their fertile years entering the temple. This was probably formulated by a cabal of priests.
The judgment will open the doors for other Hindu places of worship to do away with their exclusionary practices, be it restrictions on women or certain castes. If they do not seriously look into this, the courts, over time, will force them to change. It is pity that a political class which keeps referring to women as goddesses and superior beings cannot pay more attention to gender equality. It would be good for Hinduism, for social cohesion, for our economy and for the physical and mental well-being of women. Who can object to that without sounding regressive?
First Published: Sep 29, 2018 18:25 IST