After nearly five years, women will be able to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Mumbai's Haji Ali dargah -- in about two weeks to be precise, the time it will take the dargah trust to build a separate entrance for women, according to reports.
There's much to cheer about in this move, even though it had to be extracted through a protracted legal battle. The Supreme Court had to uphold an earlier Bombay High Court ruling, challenged by the trust, for the reality to finally sink in. The trust had to be coerced into being adopting a "progressive" stance. Humanity couldn't make a dent on social mores, nor change the hearts of the arbiters of religion.
Ironically, no divine injunction prescribes discrimination based on gender. Denial of equal rights to a site of worship, sometimes even the right to worship itself, are imposed by traditions grown redundant with time. With the historic victory for women at Haji Ali, all eyes will be now trained on the Ayappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala, where a similar struggle for equality is on.
Following an archaic custom, the temple does not allow women, between the ages of 10 and 50, that is those who are in the "menstruating age" bracket, to enter its premises. As far back as 1991, a division bench of the Kerala High Court had upheld this restriction, which was subsequently challenged by lawyer Indira Jaising, representing members of the Happy to Bleed campaign. Social activists like Trupti Desai, who have lobbied for the entry of women into Haji Ali, have taken up the cause as well, and have been campaigning for the reversal of this regressive custom.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, in spite having once supported the removal of the ban, said before the Supreme Court in July that it would stand by the affidavit filed by its predecessor, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) regime, to regulate entry of women into the temple. In a few days, the LDF changed its mind again and went back to its earlier position, favouring women's entry into the temple.
The see-saw of political opinion on the matter hasn't affected the authorities who run the temple in the slightest. Only a few days ago, a high priest of the temple said status quo should be upheld in the case, which means, "The belief of the people is important, not controversy," to quote his words. So, belief should supersede the logic that operates in the spheres of social justice and rights. The law of tradition, in other words, is more important than the law of human dignity and respect.
Unsurprisingly, nothing short of the iron hand of law is often able to break the stalemate in situations where religion seems to prevail supreme. And sometimes that too proves ineffective in the face of faith.
Recently, the death of a 13-year-old Jain girl in Hyderabad, following a 68-day-long ritual fast, resulted in an FIR against her parents, but religious leaders from her community were by and large outraged that her family were being blamed for the tragedy at all. They could see no wrong in the family following the diktats of their religion, whatever its human cost. (According to the latest reports, no murder charges have been pressed against the parents.)
There are some silver linings though. In April, the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra had to allow women in after spirited protests from activists. The Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik also let men and women pray inside its inner sanctum. When temple trustees decided women would only be allowed for an hour each day if they wore "wet cotton or silk clothes while offering prayers in the core area", their comment was widely criticised by civil society.
If these signs are anything to go by, no amount of political and religious collusion would be able to keep the doors of Sabarimala closed to women for very long.
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