After mounting a spirited challenge to centuries-old traditions, Indian women have gained access to the inner sanctum of a key Hindu temple that had prohibited them from entering for hundreds of years, and are spearheading a movement to have similar bans overturned in other temples and a historic mosque.
When 31-year-old activist Trupti Desai set foot on the platform where the deity of the Shani Shingnapur temple is placed, it was hailed as a huge victory for gender equality in a country where large strata of society remain patriarchal.
Desai’s entry in Ahmednagar in Western Mahasrashtra state this month, along with a small group of other women, marked the culmination of a high-profile campaign that she launched five months ago on hearing that priests had conducted a purification ritual in the temple after a woman offered prayers to the idol.
After police foiled Desai’s attempt to literally parachute from a helicopter onto the raised platform of the open-air temple earlier this year, women activists mounted a legal challenge to the ban.
The Mumbai High Court ruled in their favor, saying it was a fundamental right of women to access any place of worship where men are allowed, and that authorities should facilitate their entry into temples that ban them.
After some resistance, the temple trustees finally threw open the inner sanctum to women. It has not happened easily; the activists had to enter armed with a court order and protected by a ring of policemen because they faced angry counter protests by locals who wanted to protect the temple from what they felt was its desecration by women.
“Many people had said that 'til the sun, moon and stars exist, you will never be able to set foot here. I am very happy that women’s power has won, and tradition has lost,” said Desai after tasting victory.
She said her movement does not target religious practices; it aims to fight the notion that women have a lesser status. Most Hindu temples allow women, but a handful of prominent ones have shut the doors on them.
As the campaign to change the status quo gains traction, women have set their sights on other temples with similar restrictions. At least two - the well-known Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik and Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur - lifted their bans on women this month.
But the battle is not over, as similar campaigns are playing out in other parts of the country. The most high-profile one is for access to the famous Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala state in Southern India, which does not allow women of reproductive age to enter the temple. The ban is born out of the belief that menstruating women are impure.
The Supreme Court, which is due to rule on a challenge to that centuries-old custom, has said it will the test this restriction on the basis of the constitution.
“What right does the temple have to forbid women from entering any part of the temple? Can you deny a woman her right to climb Mount Everest? The reasons for banning anything must be common for all,” said Justice Dipak Misra, one of the three judges said during a recent hearing.
Temple authorities have defended the tradition saying the deity being worshipped is a celibate.
It is not just Hindu temples that are coming under pressure to allow women. Muslim women petitioners have challenged a ban on them in the mausoleum at the 15th century Haji Ali Dargah, one of the country’s most prominent mosques in Mumbai and a famous city landmark. The restrictions were imposed in 2011 by trustees who said allowing women in the proximity of the tomb of a revered saint is "a grievous sin" in Islam.
Zakia Soman, the co-founder of a Muslim women’s rights group (Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan), questions the ban, saying both men and women are allowed right into the holiest place for all Muslims in Mecca.
She said they went to court after efforts to have a dialogue with the trustees made no headway making it clear that as women raise their voice for equality, “these people are getting even more regressive than what they are. We cannot just allow this to pass, we have got to fight it.”
Women’s rights advocates describe the movement to enter places of worship as an important milestone in the quest for gender equality. They say what is significant is the campaign took root in a relatively small town and not in the big cities, where such battles are usually waged.
A professor of sociology at Delhi University, Mala Shankar Das Kapoor, points out that these campaigns have been drawing nationwide attention.
“A lot of more people will realize that these things need to be stopped, so that gives the women who have been deprived a little more courage to stand for their rights and express themselves. All this adds to the confidence of women asking for equality,” she said.