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Barred From Worship Sites, Indian Women Fight Back

A woman's movement challenging a centuries-old practice of denying women entry into the most sacred areas of worship in Hindu temples and Muslim shrines is generating a heated debate across India.

Women pilgrims at Mount Abu
Women pilgrims at Mount Abu
Bismillah Geelani

NEW DELHI — At Hazrat Nizamuddin shrine in this Indian city, a group of musicians is performing a Qawwali, or a Sufi devotional song. Hundreds of men and women, including many foreigners, are seated in a circle around the musicians listening attentively to the Urdu and Persian lyrics.

The song is in praise of the 14th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia, who lies buried in the shrine. It is one of the world's most famous Sufi shrines, and equally popular among Muslims and non-Muslims.

Afzal Nizami, the shrine's deputy administrator, says its doors are open for all. "The Sufis came with the message of peace, love and brotherhood, and these are concepts that humanity will always need in order to survive," he says. "The Sufis spread their message from shrines like these, and it was for everyone. So anyone, whether believer or atheist, has always been welcome here."

But while anyone is free to visit the shrine, entry to the most sacred space — the grave of the saint — is restricted to men. Women are prohibited from entering.

"Every system has its own way of functioning, and this is the way it works here. It has been like this for centuries," Nizami says. "The reason basically is Islam does not allow intermingling of men and women."

Similar practices of excluding women are observed at many other shrines, mosques and Hindu temples, prompting strong voices of protest to emerge and challenge these archaic notions.

The movement of women demanding access to worship sites gained momentum after an announcement at the Sabrimala Temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A centuries-old tradition there allows only women who have reached menopause or girls who have yet to reach puberty to go inside the temple. To enforce the rule and to essentially ensure that women who menstruate never darken the temple door, authorities wanted to install a machine at the gate to scan women devotees.

Blood, and guts

The plan drew outcry, inspiring an online women's campaign called "Happy to Bleed." And attorney Bhakti Pasricha filed a lawsuit against temple authorities accusing them of discrimination against women. She calls the idea "humiliating."

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Photo — Nevil Zaveri

Activists like Nikita Arora have used sanitary napkins as placards with slogans against gender inequality. "Bodily functions should not be offensive," she says. "Men should not be in a position where they judge women for going through something that is so natural. It's about time that we stop letting men make decisions for women based on their bodies."

The campaign spread across the country and soon took the form of street protests with women storming temples and shrines demanding their right to worship freely.

Fifty-year-old Asha Devi joined one such protest recently in the western state of Maharshtra. "This is injustice," she says. "Why can't women go where men can? How are we different? We are also created by the same God. He created us as equals. This can't go on anymore."

The issue has exposed deep divisions within Indian society, between traditionalists and modernists.

Hindu religious leader Acharya Ajay Sharma insists that tradition is supreme and that modern values must be ignored. "What we do following our whims and wishes is arbitrary, but what we do following scriptures and tradition is wisdom," he says. "Men and women are not equal. They are different, and their rights are defined. Women enjoy special rights and special protections. But they can't always have it both ways."

Several women's groups have approached courts urging legal remedies to end the discriminatory practices, but some warn that confrontation could create even more divisions.

Madhu Kishwar, editor of the monthly women's magazine Manushi, believes that consultation and cooperation is the only way to usher in real change.

"These traditions will have to go, but the change cannot be forced from outside," she says. "It has to come from within. There should be a dialogue between the devotees and consensus to change something. If we force our way through law, police or any other means, we will only make the change even more difficult."

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