Several bizarre stories pertaining to women have been making the headlines lately. The Haji Ali Dargah Trust while presenting its case in the Bombay High Court to retain the ban on women entering the sanctum sanctorum justified their stance by stating that "women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the mazaar thus showing their breasts." They also went on to say that the safety and security of women is at stake since they will be vulnerable to sexual harassment if they are allowed to enter. Thankfully, the Bombay High Court in a landmark ruling allowed women to pray inside the Dargah. In another story, India's Culture Minister reportedly advised foreign women to not wear short skirts or go out alone at night. He later justified his comments by saying that it was only an advisory to ensure the safety of women.
When a mother's milk is like amrit for a baby, what is so shameful about breasts?
While the context of these statements is different, at the core they all stem from a very deep-rooted patriarchal system. Many men and women subscribe to this mindset and it is therefore extremely arduous to change. Whether it is keeping women out of a place of worship or advising them on what to wear, at the heart of all of this is a desire to control how women should live their lives. Sometimes this control comes in the form of "friendly" advice to keep women safe. On other occasions, it comes in the form of a ban on the pretext of religion and tradition.
The statements made by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust are a case in point. Their argument about women wearing wide-neck tops and displaying their breasts while bending down is one of the most ridiculous I have heard in a long time. Firstly, they obviously do not think that women have the intelligence to decide for themselves what appropriate attire for a place of worship is. I very much doubt that women who go to the Haji Ali Dargah will be interested in wearing revealing clothes such as those being imagined by the Trust members. Women go there to offer prayers, not to titillate men. Secondly, if one assumes for a minute that during the process of bending down some women might show their breasts which I must emphasize again seems highly unlikely, what is so sinful about it? What is our problem with breasts after all? They are a perfectly natural part of a woman's anatomy. The perversion does not lie in a woman with bare breasts, it lies in the minds of some people. I am sure some of the Trust members would have been breastfed. When a mother's milk is like amrit for a baby, what is so shameful about breasts?
No matter how liberated a woman is, her own safety is paramount, so women do end up self-policing which is a shameful reflection on our society.
A similar argument is made for keeping women of menstruating age out of temples so that the deity is not distracted or his celibacy can be maintained. Menstruation is also a completely natural biological process. If we can celebrate the ability of women to give birth, why is menstruation treated with such disgust? I also fail to understand how any god can be distracted by his own creations. The problem is not with god or religion. The problem is with the self-proclaimed custodians of religion who pick and choose customs as per their convenience. They also justify their regressive views and actions in the name of religion. If god created men and women it is inconceivable that he or she would want them to be treated differently.
The comment by the Culture Minister about not wearing skirts or not going out alone at night is ironically quite practical in the current environment, which is extremely unsafe for women. When I go out on the streets of Delhi I do not feel comfortable wearing a skirt even though the fact is that avoiding the male gaze is often impossible even when covered from head to toe. Also, I definitely hesitate being out alone at night. No matter how liberated a woman is, her own safety is paramount, so women do end up self-policing which is a shameful reflection on the society we live in.
It is extremely patronizing to tell women that "we" are allotting you a certain space within a temple or "we" will protect you. Who is the "we"?
The problem, however, is that when a minister makes such a statement it only reinforces the mindset that it is the actions of women that determine their safety. The reality is that what a woman wears has very little to do with how safe she will be on our roads. So many acts of sexual violence are committed against children or even babies so the nature of clothing has nothing to do with it. Violence against women has more to do with the ability to dominate them, as opposed to sexual gratification. There are far less violent and perfectly legal ways to attain the latter. The minister would be better off advising men to respect all women, Indian or foreigners.
It is also extremely patronizing to tell women that "we" are allotting you a certain space within a temple or "we" are here to protect you. Who is the "we"? Men do not have to grant rights to women. Constitutionally and being human beings themselves, women already have these rights.
On the one hand, we revere women in the form of mothers or equate them to goddesses and on the other we deny them the most basic rights. For a society that talks incessantly about culture and values, are we really that respectful and tolerant? Every time I write an article on women's rights I get viciously trolled and abused online. Instead of harping on values, we need to actually embody them and walk the talk. Women are not lesser human beings and by virtue of that fact they deserve the same rights, respect and freedom to make their own choices that men do.