Source: The Guardian
As a girl, Noorjehan Niaz remembers visiting the famous Muslim shrine of Haji Ali and walking down the long causeway off the coastline in south Mumbai, pushing through the throng to the inner chamber of the mosque where the grave of the 15th century saint lies. Here, her parents taught her to press her head against the grave and shower rose petals on to the green silk draping it.
In 2011, as an adult, she was shocked to find the entrance shut. She was allowed into the mosque’s other areas to pray but the shrine’s trustees had decided that only men were allowed inside. “The trustees said the ban was aimed at ‘protecting’ female worshippers from sexual attention because, when they bowed, the pallu [loose end] of their saris fell, exposing their chest area which aroused the men who might be looking at them,” says Niaz.
She later discovered from the trustees that another reason for the ban was that it was a “sin” for women to go near the grave when they were menstruating.
As co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, BMMA), Niaz refused to accept the ban.
The BMMA filed a petition in the courts demanding the ban be lifted and pointing out that even saints were born from wombs. Three years later, this bitter legal battle is reaching an end, with the Mumbai high court expected to announce a verdict on 18 January. If the judges rule that the ban must be lifted, it will set a precedent for others fighting discrimination against women in places of worship.
In India, it is only in churches where men and women enjoy equal rights of worship. Temples and mosques practise discrimination routinely. In November, a Hindu temple in Maharashtra suspended seven security guards after a female devotee stepped on a platform to worship an idol. Women are barred from the platform and temple priests performed a “purification” ceremony to rid it of the “pollution” the woman had caused.
Many Hindu temples prohibit women who have their period from entering. The Sabarimala temple in Kerala goes a step further – since it is impossible to know whether a woman is menstruating, it has banned all women aged between 10 and 50. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the board that manages the temple, said women will be allowed to enter only after a machine has been invented and installed to detect if they have their period.
Similarly, at the shrine of the saint Nizamuddin Auliya in the Indian capital, Muslim men and women start the journey to the grave on foot together. When they reach the final section, where they remove their shoes, buy wicker baskets of rose petals and walk down winding narrow steps towards the grave, they separate. The women stand behind a carved stone screen. The men go inside to the grave and place consecrated shrouds over it.
Aisha Hassan, a 35-year-old teacher from Agra, stood behind the screen, saying a prayer as her husband and son went inside. When asked if it was unfair that women could not touch the grave, she said, “I don’t mind if I can’t go in. I’d like to but these are century-old rules that have come down to us and we must obey them.”
In this conservative society where internet pornography is popular and sex columns in the newspapers discuss masturbation and premature ejaculation, talk of menstruation is taboo. So many Hindu and Muslim women have internalised the notion that it is unclean that they voluntarily stay away from temples and mosques when they have their periods.
But the outcry that followed Gopalakrishnan’s comments turned the tide. Indian women began shouting from the rooftops that menstruation is not unclean, polluting or shameful.