In a groundbreaking move last year, for the first time in its 45-year history, the Saptashrung Gad Trust appointed a woman trustee on the board of Shree Saptashrung Niwasini Devi Temple in Maharashtra. Five years ago, the trust board of Shani Shingnapur Temple appointed its first woman president. But there is little to rejoice because these are exceptional cases and the majority of temples in India lack appropriate representation of women in managerial boards. Ayodhya Temple being the latest example where all the 15 trustees are male. It is quite dismaying since women have been the marginalised gender facing religious discrimination from eternity.
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The composition and appointment of trustees are usually governed under the respective state Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) legislation. States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have laws mandating reservation for women on the Board of Trustees. Andhra Pradesh is the latest entrant (in 2019) where women have been given 50 per cent reservation in the temple committees. Inclusion of women in temple committees was one of the most significant promises of the election campaign of Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy.
Laws of many states like Puducherry and Odisha do not prescribe reservation for women in the temple committees. Although Tamil Nadu provides reservation for women in the Board of Trustees, it does not lay down such a provision in case of state-level advisory committee. The committee is constituted under the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959 to advise and guide the state government on the matters of temple administration. Absence of women at the highest level of decision-making is disappointing.
Apart from the HR&CE legislation, temples are also governed under individual temple Acts. The Puri Jagannath Temple in Odisha has a special law called Shri Jagannath Puri Act 1955, which stipulates the superintendence, control and management of the temple. These functions are carried out by Shri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee, but the Act does not incorporate provision on women in the committee. Laws governing Siddhi Vinayak Ganpati Temple in Maharashtra and Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir also suffer from a similar omission.
In Muslims, the Waqf Act 1995 mandates women representation under Section 14 of the Act. Likewise, the Golden Temple administered by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee under the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 provides women with the right to vote and election to the committee.
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Barring Kerala, even in states mandating reservation the proportion of women in temple administration is extremely low. For instance, Tamil Nadu HR&CE department has not appointed the Board of Trustees in the past five years. In its absence, a ‘fit person’ has been tasked with the responsibilities of the Board, and such a person is usually a male. Like temples, the position of women in the administration of mosques and Grudwara is also not very encouraging.
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Patriarchy and power behind exclusion
Central to the exclusion of women from religious spaces is the idea of the impurity of a woman, and a patriarchal perspective that sexualises the very presence of a woman, deeming her to the status of a mere seductress who will corrupt the holy men. The tale of Eve, who ushers in the fall of mankind by lewdly seducing Adam into sin, is a recurrent theme across various religions. A historical lens, as adopted by feminist anthropologists such as Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth, points towards the introduction of the idea of ‘impurity’ as a tool to reinforce male supremacy, especially in relation to a woman’s menstrual cycle. The stance is hypocritical.
While the Vedas revere menstrual blood as the ‘giver of life’, religious spaces have often used women’s biology as a tool to disempower and exclude them from religion. Strange as it may sound, the festival ‘Raja Parba’ celebrated in Odisha every year observes the menstruation of mother earth, considered equivalent to the menstrual cycle of a woman. The occasion marks the celebration of a woman’s power to reproduce. It is believed that mother earth menstruates during the three-day festival. As a mark of respect towards the Earth during her menstruation days, all agricultural work comes to a standstill. Similarly, the Ambubachi Mela is an annual fair held at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam. It celebrates the menstruation course of Goddess Kamakhya.
The coexistence of pious glorification of women as embodied in ‘Kali’ with the misogynistic exclusion of women from performance of religion at all levels is simply a convenient narrative constructed by patriarchy. The sanctity of religious spaces is defined through sanctions on the presence of women, making women and religion apparently antithetical to each other. A further possible explanation behind this hypocrisy could be gender-based power play perpetuated by patriarchy.
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Need State intervention
Amid the controversial temple entry cases, talk about uniform civil code and the frequent debates around women empowerment, the State should make it mandatory for every religious institution to give adequate representation to women. Unlike the legislative and executive branch of the government, the issue of women reservation in temple committees is gaining momentum in the judiciary. In 2018, the Supreme Court heard a plea seeking inclusion of woman in the management of the historic Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple in Maharashtra. Thus, there is an underlying need to dismantle gender stereotypes attached to religion. Doing so can provide the legitimate right and liberty to Indian women.
Dr. Amar Patnaik @Amar4Odisha is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG bureaucrat with a Master in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and an academic with a PhD in management. Views are personal.
Why has the author excluded any mention whatsoever of the lack of women heading mosques and churches? When will we have a lady Pope or a lady archbishop for India? What about oppressive Islamic customs like the burqa or triple Talaq? What about Catholic opposition to birth control measures? I do agree with the author that asking for ladies to be part of temple boards is a good idea, but why is there absolutely no mention of other religions? This is a lopsided article.
Arre bhaiya the article was written for temples but the author did said that the government needs to step up and provide reservation for women in all religious institutions. Also it is better that he didn’t said anything about other religions cause he doesn’t represent them. He being a hindu can only talk about his religion right? Instead of going through this victimhood complex it’s better to find progressive voices from all religions and amplify them. Rather than saying waha pe ye hota hai yahan pe ye hota hai.
World over diversity in religion is not allowed. In india Siya Rama or Umapati have become Jai Shri Ram or Har Har Mahadev. Male patriachy means women are meant to be indoors, under control with honour of family intact if woman are 4 steps behind male head of family. All the shane is only for woman with men being shameless.
Why no female Christian pope or female muslim maulana? Is sermonizing reserved to Hindus only?
Good point. This situation should change. Please also tell us how many women are involved in the administration of churches, mosques, waqfs, and huge church properties. Your argument should not be limited to Hindu institutions only.
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