Gender Bias in Temples and other Places of Worship

“Incredible India” is home to many incredible traditions. There are several thousand different sects following different customs, having their own deities and places of worship. These include temples for Gods, animals, saints, celestial bodies, and even actresses and politicians! The rules followed at many of these are often strange, and usually, follow from local customs and age-old traditions that are explained only by legends and folklore. While some of these verge on lunacy, each of them add a different shade to the portrait of India and are part of her charm. There rise, from time to time, voices that call for “rationalizing” these traditions and making them “fair”. The most recent of these is the demand by many activists and so-called rationalists to end gender bias in temples and other places of worship after reports emerged that a temple in Maharashtra performed purification rites after a woman mounted the elevated platform on which the idol is placed (and performing puja according to some sources). There was also a similar controversy, a few years back, on women being not allowed at Sabarimala. In my view, these demands are stupid and irrational, and the rest of this article elaborates this perspective.

Not allowing women aged between 10 and 50 to enter Sabarimala can be considered as a gender bias in temples and other places of worship
Spot a woman in this sea of devotees. Women aged between 10 and 50 are not allowed into Sabarimala

To start with, why should “rationalists” even care about who is allowed into a temple and who isn’t, or who gets to do what as a part of a religious rite? After all, aren’t these the very people who do not believe in God, and much less in going to temples and performing religious rites? So shouldn’t they just stay out of matters of faith, and mind their own business?

A common counter to this argument is that temples are public places and thus denying entry to anybody based on gender, race, religion, caste or creed violates a constitutional right, opening up the debate for non-believers. However, the premise of this argument is flawed, in my opinion. Places of worship are owned and managed by individuals, or groups of individuals from a community. So they should have the right to restrict access to their private property as per their own rule.  How different is this from making a beauty salon exclusive for men or women?

Coming to the comments and concerns of genuine believers who feel that the system is unfair to them (or other believers), these too can be answered by extending the first point further. Going to a temple and the religious observances related to that temple are based on the same tradition of which the rules governing entry to and allowing or prohibiting specific practices in that temple are also a part. For a person who respects that tradition, the best course of action is one that does not violate its sanctity.

It’s not like there is a dearth of temples for women to go to; and if there still aren’t enough, more can be made. Nor is it the case that traditions exclude only women. Some of them are for men, some for women, and some for both. Attukal Pongala is an important temple festival in which millions of women take part each year, but is not open to men. I am yet to hear of a man who has a problem with this “unfair” tradition.  In fact, there is a much stronger case for ending this bias in Attukal Pongala since the festival is held not within the temple grounds, but engulfs the entire city and brings it to a standstill. (At this point I should probably make it clear that I do not approve of festivals that involve people without respecting their choice, but that will be the subject of another post).

Traditions, as we have them now, have evolved into their present form. It makes no sense to freeze them or make them rigid – for if they stop evolving and keeping up with changing times, they might just wither away. But the change has to come from within – from those who understand these traditions, their meaning, rationale and value, and not from those who refuse to appreciate their significance.

At the end of the day, if you are playing a game, play by its rules. If you don’t like the way it is played, appeal to those who are in charge. If they see your point and take it into consideration, well and good. If not, you are free to come up with a game of your own, with all rules laid down to your liking. Either way, it is not for those who do not even like the game to dictate the rules for it.

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