Democratic change in an ancient society such as ours is fascinating to watch for purposes of study, but difficult to achieve. Obstacles sanctioned by custom can be very hard to dislodge. The entry of droves of impatient women to offer “abhishek”, or worship, at the “chauthara”, the sacred platform at Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, last Friday, which was the Marathi new year Gudi Padwa, is a case of success being logged after a bitter struggle.
The challenge mounted against what is thought to a 400-year-old tradition of denying women access to a special part of the ancient shrine was helmed by a young woman, Trupti Desai, of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, who conducted a dogged and at times dramatic struggle. The Bombay high court proved an invaluable ally, its ruling of March 30 instructing the state government to ensure equality before the law for women in matters relating to worship at shrines.
The judgment was broad, not referring to a particular shrine of any faith, but it had the desired effect. Nanasaheb Bankar, the vice-president of the Shani Shinganur Temple Trust, acknowledged that not allowing women devotees into the prohibited area would have been “contempt of court”.
It can therefore be argued that bowing before an independent judiciary, which cannot come about in the absence of a democratic system, was crucial to the breaking of bondage in this case, and that the custom could flourish for hundreds of years only in the pre-democracy age. It must nevertheless be noted that the challengers were up against not just the temple managers but many rural womenfolk of the area who had grown up regarding the custom as sacred tradition of which they were uncritically proud. The local women had foiled earlier moves of the insurgent women to enter areas that custom had rendered out of bounds for womenfolk.
This is a reminder that social change is not wrought in a day, and it cannot be taken for granted that the end of gender discrimination at the Ahmednagar shrine can automatically be replicated at other places of worship of the Hindu faith and others, many of which carry on with specific prohibitions for women unmindful that momentous change in many fields has been brought about in the era of modern democracy. The Haji Ali shrine of Muslims, which has seen an upsurge by Muslim women in recent times, is a case in point.
Speaking of social change, there is eloquent irony in the fact that while Indian women got the right to vote decades ago along with men folk and exercised that right with élan, the cultural and social right to pray at prominent sites of their faith continues to elude them in a glaring marker of gender discrimination.