The Supreme Court delivered a series of crucial judgments in the last few weeks. These judgments taken together can be seen as a positive step towards gender equity. Be it the scrapping of section 377 of IPC, section 497 or allowing entry to women of all ages in Sabarimala Temple, the judiciary did pave a way towards a more equal society.
An 800-year-old temple had the custom of restricting the entry of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years. The judgement in case of Sabarimala temple which granted entry to women of all ages has in a way encouraged similar demands from different parts of the country where women face such discrimination while accessing religious institutions.
The judgement reiterated Fundamental rights like the right to equality and freedom of religion. Women cannot be denied this right. Lord Ayyappa cannot be considered the God of men only. This judgement has led to a mixed reaction. While many have welcomes it, some are wary and see it as an interference in religious rights of people.
Many religious institutions prohibit the entry of women to areas which are largely believed to be sanctum sanctorum. Questions and doubts are being raised as to will the judgement on Sabarimala have a bearing on these other institutions also or not.
Of the many places which restrict the entry of women, the Barpeta Satra happens to be one. A large board outside the Satra clearly states that according to tradition—women will not enter the Kirtan Ghar and Manikut Griha. Established by Mahapurush Madhav Dev, this satra has traditionally barred the entry of women. Even local women have accepted this predicament.
However there is no such rule in many other satras which also promulgate similar ideas and values. Auniaati Satra in Majuli does not restrict the entry of women. In case of Satras, one cannot claim that celibacy of the Mahapurush was a reason for restricting entry of women. In fact Srimanta Shankardeva acknowledged family life.
The basis of restricting entry of women is the belief that women are ‘polluted’ when they menstruate and hence their entry will also pollute the sacred spaces. This very concept is the basis of restricting and regulating the movement and access of women. A woman is not supposed to pray when she is menstruating. But what about the other days of the month?
Why should she be completely restricted when the ‘problem’ is only about particular days? Isn’t it based on the belief that women are incapable of deciding for themselves or regulating their own movement? Hence a blanket ban on them till they reach the age of menopause is seen as a viable solution.
Even the very notion of purity and pollution on the basis of menstruation has been questioned. Movements like Happy to Bleed, awareness programmes about menstruation hygiene tried to challenge the taboo associated with a natural process like menstruation. In the case of Sabarimala, similar issues have been raised. That devotion to God has nothing to do with a natural process like menstruation. And discriminating against menstruating women is like treating them as untouchable.
The controversy regarding the entry of women in Barpeta Satra is not new. Many a time this custom has been questioned. But the authorities have time and again given the excuse of customs and traditions. In fact in 2010, when the then Governor J B Pattnaik visited the Patbausi Satra, he was shocked to learn that women were not allowed to enter the Satra. He then appealed to the Satradhikar to allow the women. And finally women were allowed to enter the sanctum of the Patbausi Satra for the first time.
However many other satras continue to be out of bounds for women. Every time this issue is raised, the excuse presented is that the women themselves don’t want such access. It is assumed that few women speak for all. Satras have been kept out of bound for not only women but people of different religions as well. Anybody who has studied the teachings of Srimanta Shakardeva would know that he never discriminated amongst people. His religion in fact tried to subvert the hierarchy of other religions and Vaishnavism believed in being inclusive of all.
Interestingly, according to local belief, Aai Sumati, the wife of the first Sattriya Mathura Das, had entered the shrine when it had caught fire, to save the religious texts from burning and to prevent the Akhand Jyoti from dying out. Such an incident would put to question the sanctity of the tradition restricting the entry of women. Earlier also prominent women like the ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Amrita Pritam, Nabaneeta Deb Sen and Mamoni Raisom Goswami have tried to breach the long imposed ban but with no success.
Sabarimala verdict’s success should be evaluated by the fact that how it impacts other religious institutions and their policy of segregation. In a country which vouches for equal rights of all, such discrimination is very outdated and is not acceptable. The verdict and its welcome by many has again faced another kind of criticism. It is a well known fact that religion continues to be one of the institutions which re-entrench patriarchal values. Every religion has earmarked a subordinate status of women. In such a scenario will the right to enter religious institutions be emancipatory for women?
Religious rights may not emancipate women and the real fight is against patriarchy ingrained in religion. But the very presence of discriminatory traditions and customs are problematic. The need of the hour is to challenge such traditions and at the same time familiarise women with the patriarchal facet of religion. No place should be inaccessible for women because of their gender. Be it the dargahs of Nijamuddin Aulia or Piya Hazi Ali or the Satras of Barpeta. Once it becomes accessible then women can choose whether to visit or not.
Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org