Newspaper article International New York Times

Leaning into India's Temples ; 'Dashing' Activist Leads the Campaign for Gender Equality in Religion

Newspaper article International New York Times

Leaning into India's Temples ; 'Dashing' Activist Leads the Campaign for Gender Equality in Religion

Article excerpt

Trupti Desai has emerged at the forefront of a growing campaign for gender equality in religion, leading women into the holy sanctums of temples.

When the priests learned to their horror that a woman had somehow slipped into the holy shrine of Shani Shingnapur Temple to pray late last year, they immediately began an elaborate purification ceremony, dousing the deity in yogurt and honey.

They then suspended a temple security guard for the laxity that allowed a woman to enter the shrine for the first time anyone could remember in its 350-year history.

The story might have ended there, had it not caught the eye of a 31-year-old activist, Trupti Desai, who to that point had limited her activities primarily to demanding rights for slum dwellers. That the priests would be upset came as no surprise to Ms. Desai, a practicing Hindu who fasts every Saturday. She was well aware that the Shani temple and many others forbid women to enter the innermost sanctums, believing that they are unclean because they menstruate or that they might disturb the celibate deity and priests.

But something about the frenzied cleansing spurred her outrage. "That was intolerable to me," she said. "God doesn't discriminate between men and women. Why should religion?"

Since that episode in November, Ms. Desai has emerged at the forefront of a growing campaign for gender equality in religion, leading bands of women into the holy sanctums of temples, often in the face of violent assaults by priests and others that have been recorded on cameras and broadcast on national television.

The public attention has forced the government in her home state of Maharashtra to enforce a court judgment allowing women into any part of a temple a man can enter. Last week, she crossed religious lines to join a peaceful protest with Muslim groups against the exclusion of women from the tomb of the Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai.

Her efforts have also shined an unaccustomedly bright light on two cases before the Supreme Court. One challenges the exclusion of women ages 10 to 50 from entering a sacred temple in south India, which Ms. Desai said she planned to visit this month and demand to enter.

"Religion is the final frontier in gender discrimination," said Indira Jaising, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court who is arguing both cases. "Now, the challenge is coming from the heart of these communities."

The Indian Constitution forbids discrimination, so women have generally received support in the courts. But they have faced tough resistance from traditional male hierarchies in translating those victories into actual rights.

That is where Ms. Desai comes in. She is hard to pigeonhole. Her traditional Hindu background confuses some longtime feminists who support her campaign but cannot figure out her motivations.

Vidya Bal, 80, a feminist and atheist who for decades has run a group fighting violence against women, said she had met Ms. Desai and found her to be a "dashing and bold lady." But she said she also found that they did not share the same "intellectual understanding" of women's issues.

Ms. Desai was raised in Pune, a bustling city a three-hour drive from Mumbai. She said her father left home for an ashram when she was a toddler, and her mother had to raise her and two siblings by herself. …

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