Women in religious places: Quick-freeze misogyny

j devika | Updated on January 19, 2018

Ground control The sacred steps leading to the Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala leju kamal

Deplorable patriarchal elitism continues to stymie gender equality at religious places

The question of equal rights for women in religions seems to have ambushed us with the eruption of activism and debate around Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala, temples where women are not allowed to enter, and the Haji Ali shrine, where women worshippers are not allowed into the saint’s mausoleum since 2011. For many, the widespread media interest in these issues is frustrating: indeed, there are hundreds of other desperately urgent issues pertaining to gender justice they have raised, which the media has largely ignored. Nevertheless, we should not despair — this is an unexpected opportunity to question the ‘timelessness’ of rituals and customs, which is inevitably raised by the patriarchal elite that controls most religious institutions.

The forest-shrine of Sabarimala has been in the news ever since the Supreme Court (SC) questioned the logic in its practice of excluding women of procreative age, in response to a petition from the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association. There can be no mistake that gender segregation is at the heart of the Ayyappa myth: Ayyappa is the son of two divinities most often associated with masculine attributes, Shiva and Vishnu. His companions were exclusively male; legend says that Ayyappa may marry — and young women may enter the shrine — only when Kanni-Ayyappanmar (literally, ‘virgin-male devotees’, but actually refers to male worshippers on their first visits) stop coming. Yet the female body remains an irritant in the myth: Vishnu, in the legend, had to take the form of a beautiful enchantress. Clearly, the pleasures of fluid gender in Hinduism are reserved for gods and celestial beings; humans must remain trapped in gender binaries. Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than at Sabarimala.

This means that mere entry of women will not fully resolve the patriarchal arrangement that shapes worship there. But there has been much support for the SC’s questioning. Sabarimala is unique in that men of all castes and creeds, ages, married and unmarried, rich and poor, are equally welcome there. All the more reason for women to demand space in that relatively inclusive community of believers. Also, the concern that more policing and other arrangements to ensure women’s protection will become necessary should only make women all the more insistent on gaining entry. Our presence will make Sabarimala a safer place for all. And it is common knowledge that the 41-day-long vow that men are expected to keep before proceeding to the temple is often honoured in the breach. Is it not a shame that the interest in keeping such impious men away is negligible, compared to the anxiety about keeping away many possibly pious women?

But many conservatives, both men and women, seem to have a different logic in their objection. They fear that the entry of women into Sabarimala will diminish devachaitanya — the inherent divine force of the deity. Definitely, this logic is one that is sidelined by modern rational argumentation and there may be good reason to consider it valuable. However, no matter how passionately one wants to recover popular counter-logics to rationalistic logic, it is impossible to defend the exclusion of women on the grounds of defending them.

First of all, rituals and practices believed to preserve devachaitanya are not timeless. There is evidence that these are altered in consultation with the tantri, the highest priest authority, and/or through the practice of devaprasna, an astrological consultation with the divine. The ‘responses’ have not been even. In 1991, the Kerala High Court ruled that the practice of allowing women in Sabarimala outside the main pilgrimage seasons should be ended in deference to devaprasnams that indicated Ayyappa’s displeasure at it. Women had been allowed to enter (but not climb the sacred steps) for more than 10 years by the Travancore Devaswom Board, a sanction impossible without the tantri’s nod. But there are other temples which once excluded women, yet subsequently opened their doors, such as the ancient Thiruvalla Sreevallabha Temple, in the same district as Sabarimala. It is inconceivable that this happened without a devaprasna and the consent of the tantri. Also, the ritual requirements for the pilgrimage have changed significantly, in my memory, since the ’70s.

Secondly, market logic suffuses much religion today, in which ‘quick-frozen’ local logics and practices are important instruments. Divine forces are most often fully and finally describable, manageable, and marketable now. Maintaining that they honour ‘timeless rituals’, is a major marketing stunt in all temples. Certainly, the ascendant Hindutva project does not fancy local counter-logics of faith. Interestingly, the VHP leader evoked here fears not about devachaitanya, but a ‘rational’, modern-protectionist concern — women’s safety. However, the Hindu right-wingers rarely wish to rub temple managers and religious conservatives the wrong way. The Kerala government may not be committed to saving local counter-logics either, but would pretend to do so. Even if the opposition to women’s entry from the Kerala government is the result of a cost-benefit analysis that reckons the gains from the move to be less than losses from added responsibilities, besides being a ‘safe bet’ politically.

It is lamentable that the severe ecological degradation of the forest-abode invites weak response. Access should be restricted to a fixed, manageable number of pilgrims of all genders. And it is sad that even myth and legend have been cut to size, burying the non-human. Few bother about animals — the tiger, so central to the Ayyappa legend. In sum, the question which humans should be let in there is not a trivial one, but it certainly will not save the poonkavanam, Ayyappa’s beloved Blooming Grove. This, indeed, is the counter-logic of faith that we need, one that cannot be quick-frozen for ease of marketing.

(j devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram)

Published on February 05, 2016

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