In a victory for women's rights activists and those fighting against gender bias in traditional institutions in Maharashtra, temples in the state can no longer deny entry to women citing age-old traditions.
The Bombay High Court on Friday ruled that it is the fundamental right of women to go into places of worship and the government's duty to protect that right.
While many know of the Bhumata Brigade's high-voltage campaign led by Trupti Desai, challenging the ban on the entry of women in the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district in the state, the women whose Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the issue was heard by the Bombay High Court on Friday have practically remained unheard of.
A month ago, senior advocate Neelima Vartak and social activist Vidya Bal, represented by advocate Kalyani Tulankar, filed a PIL challenging the prohibition of entry of women in temples in the state. The PIL sought implementation of the provisions of the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956.
The Maharashtra government has said that it will work towards enforcing the law that provides six months in prison for preventing anyone from entering a temple. The provisions of the Act however will not apply in cases where temples in the state do not allow people, irrespective of their gender, inside the sanctum sanctorum.
Calling it "a great step towards gender equality", Vartak, a Pune-based advocate, said, "The incidences of such discrimination against women had increased in spite of a state law because it was not implemented." That problem has now been solved, she said.
Tulankar, representing the petitioners, said that the penal provisions in the Act will deter gender discrimination in temples.
Vidya Bal, a founding member of the NGO Nari Samata Manch and editor of Miloon Saryajani, a Marathi magazine, congratulated the court for taking up the "concrete" issue quickly and giving a positive ruling.
As the Shani temple issue raged on, Vidya said, a suggestion by Tulankar made her and Vartak file the PIL.
She also criticised a comment made by Maharashtra Rural Development minister Pankaja Munde last year justifying the ban. "She (Munde) said that it is a non-issue, which it is not. It has been a long standing symbolic issue," Bal said.
Speaking about similar campaigns led by women in other parts of the country, Bal says that fighting for oneâ€™s rights in a male-dominated society is not an easy one, right from the grassroots.
For someone who has been involved in the field of gender equality for close to three decades now, Bal has been called among several other things "a home breaker" for challenging the patriarchal family set-up in India.
"Violence is one of the biggest issues that women face today, a lot of which they face at home. But when we speak against it, some think that we are trying to break the family," she added.
The issue of discrimination against women in temples in Maharashtra, specifically the Shani Shingnapur temple, came to fore late last year after a woman entered the sanctum sanctorum to offer prayers in "breach" of a 400-year old tradition which barred women from entering the platform where the idol is kept.
Not only did temple authorities suspend seven security personnel, a purification process was also performed by villagers following the incident.
This drew a lot of flak from several quarters and women activists of the "Ranaragini Bhoomata Brigade" launched a campaign in January this year to breach the ban at the temple.