Until 2011, 57-year-old Khatun Sheikh used to regularly visit the Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai, and offer prayers at the sanctum sanctorum. Today, she, or any other woman is not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Likewise, 32-year-old Trupti Desai has been struggling for the past two months to gain access to the platform of Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. She claims that until a decade ago, women were allowed on the platform. This claim, however, has been strongly contested by the temple trust. Similarly in Mumbai, 51-year-old Huzan Banaji feels Parsi women should not be discriminated against and should be given the right to stay in their religion even if they choose to marry outside the community. Many Parsi women have mobilised themselves around this issue in the recent past. These three women are representatives of three different religions, with a common demand. All they want is equal treatment from their respective religions. On the other side, the religious trusts and leaders heading the institutions believe that such steps do not signify the true “emancipation” of women.

“How will giving or denying access to women at Shani Shingnapur’s platform solve any real problems faced by women today? How will it lead to women’s empowerment?” asked Sairam Bankar, ex-trustee of Shri Shaneshwar Devasthan Trust. He is also the Police-Patil of Shani Shingnapur.

While Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is keen that the controversy gets resolved amicably, with neither the agitators nor the religious trustees keen on that, the struggle is likely to intensify.

In a series of tweets, Fadnavis posted this week, “In the Indian culture and the Hindu tradition, women have always had the right to worship. Change in traditions has been our culture. Discrimination for visiting a place of worship is not our tradition. The temple administration should take lead in amicably solving these issues through discussion. The District Collector and the Police Inspector have been instructed to establish communication and avoid confrontation. The elders in the society should take initiative for this,”

Immediately, the Shani Shingnapur temple trustees held a press conference, putting the ball back in the state government’s court. “We are a trust formed as per the rules of the Bombay Public Trusts Act, 1960. The state government thus has suo motu powers to change the rules it wants to amend. It can change whatever rules it does not agree with. At the same time, those who do not agree with such amendments are free to knock on the doors of the court and file a writ petition,” Bankar told The Sunday Guardian.

He also questioned the government’s authority, and indicated that such “interference” in matters of religion might lead to the disobedience of the government’s orders. “Government has powers. But for how long will they last? If they interfere here, they will have to interfere in many other matters, in case of other religions too. This may lead to people questioning the government’s authority,” he said, mincing no words about the public sentiment in Shani Shingnapur.

Traditionally, Shani Shingnapur in Nevasa taluka of Ahmednagar district is known as a pilgrimage centre, where the village does not have any doors or locks. The villagers believed that Lord Shani protected thefts from thefts and other such crimes. However, in the past few years, complaints of thefts have been registered there. Today, the village is in news again for standing against the women protestors who wish to enter the foundation or the chauthara of the Shani temple.

The trustees of Shani Shingnapur have claimed that at present, even men are not allowed on to the platform on which the Shani stone has been installed. “We passed a resolution on 9 March 2011, barring everyone except the priests from going on the platform. The condition today is that neither men nor women can go on the platform. How is this discrimination?” a trustee asked.

However, Trupti Desai of Bhumata Ranaragini Brigade, the group which is at loggerheads with the temple administration, asserted, “This claim is a complete lie. Even today, any male who gives Rs 11,111 is allowed to go to the platform for the abhishek. He can be dressed in any clothes, he may be drunk. But he is not barred.”

The devasthan’s own website says, “After a pure bath, men should go to the deity’s foundation dressed in a wet cloth. Women cannot go to the foundation.”

When asked why women are barred from entering the chauthara, the manager of the trust said, “There are references in the religious scriptures which say that the idol should not be touched by women. Generally, only the priest should perform the religious rites, as he is a baal brahmachari (celibate),” said Sanjay Bankar. At present, the septuagenarian Saraswatinand is the chief priest who looks after the religious affairs of the idol.

Sanjay cited the references of Mudgal Puran and Brahma Puran to back his point about the ban on women’s entry. “The Mudgal Puran says that an installed idol should not be touched by a shweta. Shweta also means woman. Even in Brahma Puran, which describes Lord Ganapati, it has been mentioned that the idol should not be touched by women. When it comes to God Shani, he is a very angry God. Everyone tries to save himself from the vakradrushti (angry eye) of Shani Dev,” he said.

But Trupti Desai said that she remembered visiting the foundation as a child. “Among the protestors, there are many women who had visited the foundation in their youth. Manisha Tilekar visited the place in 2006. In the 400-year-old history of the temple, if women were allowed earlier, why aren’t they allowed now?” she asked. The trustees vehemently denied the claim.

Shani Shingnapur temple came into existence around 400 years ago, the trustees said. According to local legend, a stream brought a rock to the place and a divine vision made the villagers aware of it. “When someone tried to poke a stick into the rock, it started bleeding. That night, the villagers saw a divine vision, which told them that the stone was an avatar of Lord Shani. The vision also asked the villagers to send an uncle-nephew duo to lift the heavy stone. The bullocks of the cart too should be uncle and nephew, the vision said,” a trustee told The Sunday Guardian. This story is detailed on the website of the trust as well.

When asked about Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand’s recent statement that Lord Shani should not be worshipped at all, as he is not a God, Sanjay fumbled. “What he says is right. Shani should not be worshipped at all. That is why even we, the residents of Shani Shingnapur, do not have Shani bhagwan’s photographs in our houses. That is also why we say that the devotees should not touch the holy stone structure. But you should pray before the God. After all he is the protector,” he said.
The temple trust’s chairperson, a woman, has consistently opposed the protestors. Anita Shete has said that tradition demands that women stay away from the foundation of Shani Shingnapur. The temple website too quotes a 100-year-old village woman as saying, “In my mind there is absolutely no complaint about this, no hesitation, I am always happy. When husband and children went to the foundation and took a glimpse of God Shani, it was the same as my taking it. There is no difference between them males and us females. Whether the darshan is taken from there near the deity or from down here, there is no difference. Faith depends on the happy mind. And so, when we take the glimpse of God from below here, we find peace of mind.”

Trupti Desai’s Bhumata Ranaragini Brigade has said that it will pursue the matter with the Maharshtra Chief Minister, failing which it will keep sending volunteers every day to the foundation, seeking entry.
In Mumbai, the members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) await the order of the Bombay High Court next week to decide on the future course of action. “The move of banning women from entering the sanctum sanctorum is completely un-Islamic. We will fight it tooth and nail. If need be, we will protest and try to enter the sanctum sanctorum,” a woman protestor told The Sunday Guardian. The BMMA has extended its support to Desai’s Bhumata Ranaragini Brigade.

The Haji Ali Dargah trust has cited various reasons like women’s own safety, for barring them from entering the sanctum sanctorum. Women were allowed entry until 2011. Activists claimed that the custom changed after new members joined the trust.

“The trust’s statement that women might get groped by men when they enter the sanctum sanctorum is unfortunate. I wonder why men are not protesting this. Does this mean that every male devotee entering the sanctum sanctorum is a potential rapist?” asked petitioner Noorjehan Niaz. She has moved the Bombay High Court seeking the revocation of the ban.

“Islam has given women equal rights. The soul has no sex. God is not discriminatory. This ban is un-Islamic,” Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, professor of Islamic Studies, told The Sunday Guardian.

The trust is reported to have told the Bombay High Court that in Islam, it’s a “grievous sin” for women to be in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint. The trust has also raised questions about women visiting the dargah while menstruating.

“What is the logic behind such statements? I would say, if you don’t have the courage to introspect and criticise your own religion, you don’t have the right to criticise any other religion,” said Feroze Mithiborwala, a scholar and activist. Accusing “political Islamists” of acting against the tenets of Islam, he said the need of the country is to engage in a deeper debate about religion.

“Until the intellectuals and clergy decide which tenets are right and which need to be discarded (including anti-women tenets), we cannot arrive at a solution,” he said. “There are so many Hadis which are patently anti-women. Today, the crisis within Islam is so stark that you cannot run away from it,” he said.

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