During a visit to the beautifully painted heritage havelis of Shekhawati in Rajasthan, I was struck by the gendering of space inherent in traditional architecture. The home complex is laid out in layers determined by the need to limit access to visitors from the outside in, and to women from the inside out. The women who lived in these havelis a century or so ago, were not in want of material comfort. They existed within the structures of home and family, governed by prevalent patriarchal norms that impacted their access to everything — the “outside world”, education, conversation, people, and so on.
One gets a sense of how inhibiting to the flowering of human potential such restriction can be, in the memoirs of Devaki Nilayamgode — Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman (OUP India, 2011). She recounts her childhood in a traditional Namboodiri home in Kerala in early twentieth century. The very term antharjanam meant “those who live within” — because they lived inside the illam or home, confined to the innermost courtyard, their lives severely restricted by their physical isolation, made worse by caste taboos.
Conditional access, or non-access, conditions the mind and what one believes about oneself. Beginning from within the home, the saga of inaccessibility, and by extension unavailability, spreads outwards to include public spaces and places of worship. Whether they were farmworkers or homemakers within familial set-ups, women were always expected to adhere to degrees of differential access in the name of tradition, ritual, norms and laws.
Temples like Ayyappa Swami’s at Sabarimala, for instance, denied entry to all women of menstruating age, some Sufi shrines bar women from entering the sanctum, and male ascetics of orders such as the Sri Swaminarayan sect consider the sight or shadow of a woman taboo. In addition, there are countless examples in religious literature through the ages, including the Buddhist canon, where women are characterised as “lustful” and their allure likened to that of gold — kanchan-kamini, the twinning of gold and woman — which the ascetic must shun.
Male ascetics and devotees of “celibate” male deities must ask themselves this question — is lust inherent in the body and presence of a woman, or is it a product of their minds? And if it is indeed a function of their own minds, wouldn’t they do well, as spiritual practitioners, to focus on the patterns of their thoughts, rather than expend their energies on banishing women from their sight?
Backed by the Constitution of the country, women have begun to demand equal access to places of worship. From being confined to a section of their own homes, to stepping out and seeking equal access to all spaces — physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual — is a journey that is perhaps just beginning for many women in India. As the veil lifts, inner potential too will find a more complete expression. That is our hope as women, as equal citizens, and as spiritual beings seeking inner empowerment.