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A daughter fights: When a Parsi woman marries a non-Parsi man

Goolrookh Gupta is fighting for those Parsi women who have been denied religious rights because they married non-Parsis. Will the Parsi community support her?

india Updated: Feb 12, 2018 10:30 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
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Goolrookh Gupta, daughter of Adi Contractor, a former member of the Valsad Parsi Anjuman (VPA), Gujarat is fighting for Parsi women who have been denied religious rights because they married non-Parsis. She says she moved a PIL in the Gujarat High Court in 2009 to guarantee her right to attend her parents’ funeral rites in the Tower of Silence, the place where Zoroastrians leave their dead. (Kunal Patil / HT Photo)

Parsis, say Parsis themselves, love eggs and court cases but not necessarily in that order. Perhaps, they are the same thing really. For what is a court case if not an attempt to break an egg over someone else’s head?

Goolrookh, daughter of Adi Contractor, a former member of the community trust in Valsad, Gujarat, says she moved a PIL in the Gujarat High Court in 2009 to guarantee her right to attend her parents’ funeral rites in the Tower of Silence, the place where Zoroastrians leave their dead. She did this when two of her childhood friends, who have married outside the community like she has, were stopped from sitting in at their mothers’ funeral ceremonies in the verandah of the Tower of Silence. They were made to sit in a waiting room with non-Parsis, more than 5 km away.

Goolrookh Contractor wed Mahipal Gupta under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, in 1991. (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

“When I raised the issue, Sam Chothia, the present head of the Valsad Parsi Anjuman (VPA), said allowances would be made for me. But I felt why only me? Is it because I was a trustee’s daughter? Everyone should be allowed to enter,” says Goolrookh. “So I went to court. I have the means, I thought I must fight for those who can’t.” According to an interim order, Goolrookh and her sisters have been allowed to participate in their relatives’ funeral rites. If the court finally rules in her favour (she is awaiting dates for the final hearing), other Parsi women can no longer be stopped as well.

Chothia suggests Goolrookh is an unlikely candidate for fighting the case for the rights of Parsi women; that Goolrookh is not even Goolrookh; “when she became Neha Gupta, she became Hindu; she is not a Parsi any more” (see box). There is, so far, no law, on levelling allegations. So in between Valsad and Mumbai, or wherever there are Parsis, eggs are flying –– from all directions.

April 12, 2010: Shiraz sends a letter to the BPP saying Goolrookh had changed her name to Neha but remains a practising Zoroastrian. Goolrookh says she changed her name as she was unhappy with the short form ‘Golu’ people used, and she continues to be a Zoroastrian. "Priyanka and Priya are ‘Hindu names’ but many Parsis give their children these names. Does that make them less Parsi and turn them into Hindus?"she asks.

Becoming outsiders

In the one-horse town of Valsad, Adi Contractor had done well. One of the richest Parsis in town, he was a land-owner; he also owned a hotel. His wife, Dinaz, a daughter of another prominent Parsi family of Valsad, the Shroffs, was a prominent entrepreneur. Adi had even been a trustee of the community trust, the VPA. Adi and Dinaz’s three daughters –– Shiraz, Goolrookh and Kamal — went to the best schools, became independent professionals, and married outside the community in the ’90s.

At her wedding reception, Goolrookh wore a white Chantilly-lace sari into which she had stitched in some pink flowers so as to throw in some colour in her all-white look to please her in-laws. Goolrukh, says her friends, is always ready to be amicable – within reason.

“As a family, we also did add some to the Parsi pool you know,” says Goolrookh in half-jest. “Children of women like me who marry non-Parsis are out… they are not considered Parsis. But our brother did ‘marry in’ and have kids,” she says sitting across a table in her living room in Mumbai. But had he wed a non-Parsi, his children would still be considered Parsi, courtesy the over 100-year-old Davar and Beamon judgment that attempted to define a Parsi as the progeny of a Parsi man.

Goolrookh says her daughter was keen, when young, to have her Navjote done to be initiated into the Zoroastrian faith. “But when she saw me fighting for my identity she gave up the idea. She was put off by a religion to which you had to beg for admission,” she says.

Goolrookh’s husband, Mahipal Gupta, who has been listening to the conversation, adds that all those who are asking for “proof of Goolrookh’s Parsi-ness should know she is more Parsi than them. She never goes to bed without praying to the sadreh-kushti (the sacred girdle worn by Zoroastrians under their clothes) even if we return home at 3 am.” That these private and domestic details now need to be public is tragic. But it also underlines why Goolrookh’s personal story and her stand is no less important than her case.

“My husband says, ‘God made man, but man made religion…. But it is just that some men are trying to mould it as they please,” says Goolrookh.

The flip side: women and men, in Goolrookh’s own community have begun to speak up against the various levels of gendered discrimination in the community.

Vispy Wadia, a community activist in Mumbai. (Kunal Patil/HT PHOTO)

1. Parsi women who get married to non-Parsis, are not allowed to enter the sacred fire temple and the waiting area designated for Parsi mourners at the Tower of Silence, which are mostly Trust property.

Khurshed Dastoor, a high priest of the Parsi community, who is the Zoroastrian representative on the National Commission for Minorities says his position has always been “if a Parsi girl marries a non-Parsi under the SMA she has all the rights to continue her religion, attend the holiest of our fire temples and attend funeral ceremonies – and these, in any case, have been in place in the community…. Goolrookh and other women were allowed to do so by the earlier VPA till this new board of trustees came along. This particular board stopped it, not the community.”

(The above ban from entry into religious places, however, varies from city to city and Trust to Trust.) The entry ban also applies to the non-Parsi spouse and the child of a Parsi woman married to a non-Parsi, even if the child’s Navjote ceremony has been performed. Some priests recognise the Navjote of such a child; some don’t.

“The Calcutta Anjuman, for instance, has been very liberal in admitting women who have married outside the community, their kids and non-Parsi spouses in the fire temple and Tower of Silence premises; but they have a high priest from Mumbai who has put his foot down,” says Vispy Wadia, a community activist. Sending the priest back is not an option as chances of a replacement are dim. Few Parsis want to be priests these days. (According to The Parsis of India: Continuing at the Crossroads, a four-volume, 2017 survey authored by TISS scholars, of the older respondents, 63 per cent gave importance to religion in their lives compared to 35 per cent of the young.)

2. When a Parsi man marries outside the community, his children are allowed inside the Fire Temple, but his spouse isn’t. When visiting a fire temple, the non-Parsi spouse is made to wait outside. “In Iran, my husband [a Christian] can enter a fire temple,” says entrepreneur Smita Godrej Crishna, industrialist Jamshyd Godrej’s sister. “In India, he can’t.”

Noshir Dadrawala, a specialist in charity law, Mumbai, at his office in Mumbai. (Kunal Patil/HT PHOTO)

From Smita to Goolrookh, most Parsi women who have ‘married out,’ feel that children of such marriages do not get the full benefit of the intrinsic progressiveness of the religion.“No Zoroastrian scripture distinguishes between men and women. But when children see their mother discriminated against, their own understanding of the religion becomes biased and they never feel a connect with the religion, that, in fact, is a very enlightened one,” says Godrej. “We are losing precious children this way. If the community wants to be narrow, it’s a pity. But the religion should not die out,” she adds.

3. The Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), the apex body of Parsi Zoroastrians, allows women married outside the community to vote and even stand for BPP elections but does not allow her children to enter the fire temple. No such rule applies to the children of men marrying non-Parsis, provided the child’s Navjote ceremony has been performed, says Noshir Dadrawala, a specialist in charity law and good governance practices for non-profits.

Adi and Dinaz Contractor, Goolrookh's parents at their in residence in Valsad, Gujarat. (Kunal Patil/HT PHOTO)

These examples of arbitrariness have led to reformist initiatives and the building of alternative solidarity networks. Smita Godrej is active with the Association of Inter Marriage Zoroastrians (AIMZ). Goolrookh is part of the association. Mumbai Parsis such as brothers Vispy and Kerssie Wadia have started the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism. One of its recent initiatives has been to set up a fire temple in Pune that allows entry to non-Parsi spouses and children of Parsis who have married outside the community.

Inter-marriage is common among Parsis now. According to figures published in the magazine, Parsiana, there were 97 marriages among Mumbai Parsis in 2017, for example, of which inter-faith marriage was 40 per cent.

Goolrookh was the fourth Parsi girl from her lane at Mota Parsivaad in Valsad to marry out. So did her best friend, Binaifer, who now lives in Mumbai. “In our neighbourhood, we had never been brought up to fear outsiders,” she says. Goolrookh married a Marwari businessman. Binaifer married a Bohri Muslim chartered accountant. “Girls who married outside the community earlier too attended community religious functions, they might not have been welcomed but they were not stopped. Goolu’s stand, we hope, will open up many more avenues….”

Actor Cyrus Broacha in Mumbai, a prominent face of the community, feels Trusts needs to be inclusive and reform must come from within the community. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT PHOTO)

Actor Cyrus Broacha, a prominent face of the community, says the unspoken ostracisation that Parsi women who marry out face will impact the community in the long run. “The orthodox section of the community is only interested in one part of the race,” he says.

What racial purity?

The racial purity argument, says Goolrookh, is also flawed as the community accepts the children of non-Parsi mothers married to Parsi men. “When we throw out one Parsi woman, we throw out the future generation,” she says. “The truth is new blood coming in, makes the gene pool more dynamic. The more you throw people out, the choice of partners for Parsi women are less.”

The 2002 census results showed a drop from 84,000 to 69,000 among Parsis. In Mumbai, the population is under 40,000 today, says Parsiana editor Jehangir Patel. “Thirty-five per cent of the population is above 60 years of age. People want to join and participate in the religion…we must be the only religion that says ‘please don’t’,” he says.

Jehangir Patel, editor of the Parsiana magazine, at his Mumbai office. (Kunal Patil/HT PHOTO)

In defining god as one, Zoroastrianism was the world’s first rebel religion. “But I’m not trying to be a rebel,” says Goolrookh. “For me right is always right, wrong is wrong. At the heart of various Trusts’ attempts to put stumbling blocks, and not admit women in positions of authority such as is the case with VPA, or give them rights on a par with men is the fear that women will then demand control of Trusts. And by extension, control what is done with Trust property.”

Goolrookh’s fight, at present, is a courageous but a modest one. At present, it is about re-establishing the civic rights of women who have married out – such as admission to socio-religious places – with the force of law. If she next picks up the cudgels for the children of mixed unions she will be overturning the very definition of who is a Parsi, and will thus open the floodgates. And that is when the fight will get even more interesting.

1991: Goolrookh Adi Contractor of Valsad, Gujarat, marries Manipal Gupta under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, so as to continue to practise her Zoroastrian faith after marriage.
2009: Goolrookh’s father, Adi Contractor was a trustee of the Valsad Parsi Anjuman (VPA). Goolrookh writes angry letters to VPA on getting to know that two of her childhood friends, who had married outside the community, had been stopped from attending their mothers’ funeral ceremonies. Goolrookh says earlier Trusts had allowed her and others; that she herself had entered the Tower of Silence and the Fire Temple in Valsad in 2003 when her maternal uncle, Jahanbax Chavda, also a former VPA president, passed away. This, the VPA denies. In future should such women enter those premises it says "action" will be taken. Chavda’s wife, Zarine, gives an affidavit in the Gujarat High Court confirming Goolrookh’s presence at all the ceremonies. She had been married for 13 years by then.
Jan 16, 2010: Goolrookh files a case in Ahmedabad High Court to establish the right to enter the fire temple in Valsad and to be present at her parents’ funerals (they are in their 80s), and subsequent ceremonies.
March 18, 2010: Five members of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), the apex body of the Parsi Zoroastrains in India, pass a resolution to "discontinue with immediate effect the hitherto practice of making available the Towers of Silence for the disposal of the dead to Parsi ladies who have undergone inter-caste marriage."
March 30, 2010: Goolrookh’s sister and advocate Shiraz Patodia Contractor sends a letter to the BPP protesting its resolution and demand Goolrookh’s right to avail of funeral ceremonies at the Tower of Silence on her death.
2012: Gujarat High Court rules that if a Parsi woman marries a non-Parsi, she would lose her religion. The reason, says the High Court, was that in all faiths, on marriage, a woman’s religion "shall merge into...that of the husband". This, many legal experts say, is against the very rationale of why the SMA was brought into being.
Dec 7, 2017: According to an interim order passed by the Supreme Court, Goolrookh Gupta and her sisters can enter the Tower of Silence to offer prayers and participate in rituals in the event of the death of a family member. The case is waiting for its final hearing and verdict

First Published: Feb 09, 2018 20:38 IST