The Right to Pray Movement and Feminist Politics in India

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by India Watcher

The women’s movement in India entered a new phase in late 2015 and early 2016 under the banner of the Right to Pray movement.  During this time, large numbers of women protested that they were barred from entering a few prominent temples or from setting foot in the inner shrine on grounds of impurity.

The Nirbhaya (“Fearless”) movement after the Delhi gang rape of December 2012 saw women declare that they did not deserve violence, that they had a right to life and to safety, and that their bodies were theirs to own. With the Right to Pray movement, women now declared that they were proud of their bodies and of their natural, biological processes, disowned the forced sense of shame, and, even more, insisted that they had equal cultural rights.

The Right to Pray Protests

The Right to Pray movement gathered strength when the Board President of the historic Sabarimala temple in Kerala said in November 2015 that he would consider letting in women between the ages of 10 and 50 if someone invented a machine to detect the “right time” for a woman to enter. The wrong time, of course, was when the woman was menstruating, since in Hindu tradition, a menstruating woman is considered impure and polluting. The Sabarimala comments inspired 20-year-old Nikita Azad to write a long open letter to the Board President asking how menstrual blood could be impure if it helped nourish the child in the womb. She received a huge wave of support in the social media under the hashtag #happytobleed.  “Didn’t he come wrapped up in the same impure blood?” asked Meena Kharatmal on Twitter.

The Indian Young Lawyers Association, a signatory to a petition filed with the Supreme Court against the Sabarimala practice in 2006, had to deal with multiple death threats to two of their lawyers before and during the Right to Pray protests in January 2016. While the Supreme Court hasn’t yet reached a verdict, a lawyer of the court mentioned that forbidding women entry could be seen as a violation of Article 25 of the constitution – the Right to Freedom of Religion.

In 2012, a controversy broke out over the fifteenth century tomb of the sufi saint Haji Ali.  The Trust of Haji Ali Dargah (Haji Ali Tomb) in Mumbai discontinued the practice of allowing women to enter the inner shrine citing “grievous sin” as the reason for the ban.  In 2014, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court challenging this decision. The Muslim women’s groups in Mumbai gathered for public protests against the decision of the shrine late in 2015 at the same time as the next Right to Pray controversy – the Shani Shingnapur temple protests — making this movement a cross-religion phenomenon.

The Shani Shingnapur temple (Temple of Saturn), in the village Shingnapur, in Maharashtra, does not allow women on the sacred open-air platform housing the idol, because of a variety of non-proven reasons, including alleged radiation from the idol that is harmful to women. In November 2015, a young a woman breached the barricade around the central idol resulting in a severe reaction from the temple authorities. They organized purification rituals with milk for the idol and suspended several security guards. Trupti Desai of the Bhumata Brigade (Mother Earth Brigade) in Maharashtra, organized a massive protest to end the discriminatory practice in December 2015. Desai threatened to jump onto the platform of the sanctum sanctorum from a helicopter but was prevented by the local police. She and her team of protesters are currently in talks with the state government and the temple authorities.

Reactions to the Right to Pray Protests

Critics of the movement on the right insist that traditions originating from hundreds or even thousands of years ago have an inherent logic and must be honored. Women can worship at other temples that allow them entry if the tradition is not to their liking.  While the Hindu right has been trying hard to show the Vedic identity as scientific and rational and feelings of national pride as superior to other traditional affiliations, they do not support the Right to Pray protesters who place their constitutional rights to equality and worship above tradition and culture.

Political critics on the right view them as non-religious women who just want to make a noise about the right to equality or, worse, serve the hidden agenda of the center-liberal Congress Party to get back to power.

Liberal critics prefer to view the issue as going beyond the right to pray to the right to access all public spaces of “educational, historical, cultural value” as well as spaces of “natural beauty.” Feminist critics say that the Right to Pray protests are sporadic and do not lead to a fundamental change in patriarchal attitudes. General critics point out that other issues are more important such as violence against women, including rape within marriage, a protection not yet guaranteed by the Indian criminal law, female foeticide, and dowry deaths.

Change at the Grassroots

The watershed Nirbhaya gang rape case of December 2012 in New Delhi transformed women’s fight against violence at the grassroots.  While institutional changes were slow and convictions as rare as before, women were now reporting assault incidents at much higher rates than in the year before the Delhi gang rape case. The number of arrests increased substantially, all political parties put women’s safety issues prominently on their manifestoes, the media spotlight on rape and sexual harassment now meant that sexism was no longer acceptable and issues of violence against women no longer invisible during prime-time news.

The Nirbhaya movement also had a significant legal impact through the following laws:

The biggest change before and after 2012 has been that women are now ready to step up and fight for themselves rather than wait for institutions to act on their behalf. While there may be little social change in attitudes concerning purity and pollution towards women, the Right to Pray movement has generated a new and very public discourse on topics that have been taboo for thousands of years.  New and traditional media provided saturation coverage of the protests.  Women spoke and acted with a new assertiveness and pride about their self-worth and the sacredness of their bodies. The word “period” or “menstruation,” which was sometimes not even whispered in traditional homes, was now being discussed freely in debates and news discussions beamed to every home. The fundamental question of how a woman could be considered impure was raised at last.

India Watcher

India Watcher earned a Ph.D. at UIUC

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