Why Indian women weren't allowed to pray in a Hindu temple

Women activists were stopped from entering the Shani Shingnapur temple sanctuary on Saturday after obtaining a court order allowing women to enter Indian places of worship.

Jayanta Dey Shani/Reuters/File
Policemen patrol past Hindu devotees as they wait in a queue to pray at a temple during the Mahashivratri festival in Agartala, India, March 7. Women activists tried to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple Saturday after obtaining a court order, but they were stopped.

A protest for women's rights suffered a setback on Saturday when police stopped them from entering a traditionally men-only sanctuary in a Hindu temple.

The female activists were testing a court order that allowed them to enter the sanctuary in a temple that has become a touchstone for a rising debate over women's rights inside Indian houses of worship

"These are man-made traditions," the protest leader Trupti Desai told the BBC. "God does not differentiate between man and woman. He was born of a woman too."

Most Hindu temples do not ban women, but the authorities over certain temples have cited centuries of tradition to ban women partly or entirely from houses of worship in India. Such temples – and a mosque in Mumbai – have become focal points for the women's rights movement in India, as women challenge bans against them in public protests, on social media, and in court. 

The Shani Singnaupur Temple entered the debate over women's rights to worship last year, when a woman broke an "age-old tradition" to use the sanctuary during prayer. The temple authorities responded by launching an elaborate "purification ritual" to cleanse the sanctuary, the India Business Standard reported. When the controversy attracted national attention, priests banned men and women alike from approaching the temple platform. 

"It is a matter of protecting the faith of devotees," Sambhaji Dahatonde, a member of the villagers' action committee that seeks a court order against the women activists, told the India Business Standard. 

An order from a judge said on Wednesday that entering temples is a fundamental right of Indian women, and no law prevents women from entering a temple where men are allowed, the Hindu news source reported.

"If a male can go and pray before the deity, why not women?" judges D.H. Waghela and M.S. Sonak said in the ruling from Bombay. "It is the State government’s duty to protect the rights of women.”

The Shani Shingnapur Temple, located in a village of the same name in Maharashtra, is unusual in that it has neither a roof nor walls. Believing in the protection of the temple, the villagers build their homes without doors or locks and trust in its power to prevent crime, according to its website. The presiding Hindu deity Lord Shanidev is represented in a large black stone, covered with garlands. It rests on a single platform, which is what the activists hoped to gain access to. 

Ms. Desai led 26 women from the Bhumata Brigade, a women's rights group, in a march to the temple compound on Saturday. Private security guards and villagers from the surrounding area met them in the compound to stop their march, and police intervened to prevent any clashes between the activists and locals. The police detained the activists, moving them to a safe area outside after the villagers barricaded the temple, the Associated Press reported. 

The activists view the protest as another step in their ongoing push for women's rights. Desai said afterward she would file a complaint over the day's proceedings to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had already expressed support for their cause. She also plans to file a police complaint against the villagers at the barricade. 

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