The recent order of the Bombay high court allowing the entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah was a big victory for gender equality. The order came in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Noorjehan Safia Niaz of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in 2014.
Another women’s rights activist, Trupti Desai, had successfully agitated to demand an end to restrictions on women who were not allowed to enter the Hindu temple Shani Shingnapur, breaking a 400-year-old tradition.
Both are examples of women taking up the cause of gender justice, but it doesn’t stop at that—women are increasingly in the forefront of fighting for social causes that concern citizens in general.
Take the case of Sumaira Abdulali, well known in Mumbai and the rest of the state for her constant battle to reduce noise. She runs Awaaz Foundation and is a familiar figure in the city, walking around with an audiometer, especially during festivals, when noise volumes rise abnormally, causing severe distress to people, especially the old and unwell.
Swati Patil of the Utkarsh Mahila Samajik Sanstha fought long and hard to reduce risks to youngsters during the Janmashtami festival when dahi handis – human pyramids to break the pot – were rising to extreme lengths, resulting in injuries and fatalities every year. Her efforts were rewarded when the Supreme Court laid down strict regulations that no pyramid could go over 20 feet.
At the heart of these litigations lie mundane issues of civic responsibility and public safety. However, the backlash generated in the wake of these petitions and court orders, chiefly from political parties, has been patriarchal in nature.
The question therefore arises: When it comes to festivals, do male members of the society value tradition over public interest and safety?
“I have said time and again that I have nothing against dahi handi. My objection is against this competition in which the pyramids go higher and higher,” says Patil, who had filed the PIL in 2014. Last month, the Supreme Court fixed the permissible height of human pyramids at 20 feet. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena openly defied the apex court’s order, reportedly building pyramids up to 40 feet. Pictures of govindas (dahi handi participant) wearing t-shirts with slogans such as “I will break the law” were being circulated on social media. Opposition by the MNS and Shiv Sena has to be seen in the context of the upcoming civic body elections in 2017.
“Political activists created an atmosphere that we are against festivals,” says Patil. “The issue of height of tiers was very small. My PIL was not for the two lakh govindas, but their 10 lakh family members. The mother most worried when a boy falls off a pyramid. I met the parents of 11-year-old Sujal, who was injured after he fell from the dahi handi’ pyramid last month. No one understands their pain. Nearly, 90% of the pyramid teams adhered to the court verdict. Attitudes are changing. I am sure in 2017 there will be full compliance of the orders,” she says.
Petitioner Sumaira Abdulali found herself in deeper trouble when she approached the Bombay high court with cases of violations of noise pollution norms. With her Muslim name, she faced a barrage of abuses on Twitter, which gave a communal colour to the simple issue of noise pollution.
“The messages or tweets increase around this time of the year, when there are a string of festivals. Noise pollution is a civic issue, not a religious one. I have measured noise levels during all religious festivals and at political rallies. The reports are online, in the public domain. Yet there are questions such as what about loudspeakers from masjids. I have complained against azans (Islamic calls for prayer) from masjids and stopped one near my house. And yet the same canard is repeated again and again till you get tired [of clarifying your position]. This is a way to demoralise you,” she points out.
Abdulali feels the position of ‘primary care giver’ that is ascribed to women in a patriarchal society, possibly makes them sensitive towards issues. “It is not black and white that only women are concerned about noise pollution or safety in the case of dahi handi. But they still remain the primary care givers for infants, children and old people. So perhaps these issues are more obvious to them.”
Courts are aware that tampering with the nature of religious festivities could be a deeply sensitive issue. Also, women’s experiences of these festivals could be distinctly different from those of men, given their limited presence in the public sphere itself.
Varsha Ayyar, sociologist at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences observes, “During my fieldwork in Mankhurd, one of the lowest income areas in Mumbai, I have seen there is widespread joblessness, insecurity and a sense of hopelessness. So there is much excitement about festival celebrations. Festivals are events now. They have event managers, DJs and sponsorships. There is a lot of expenditure, specific t-shirts are made, which are often sponsored by some politician. From any low income neighbourhood to posh localities in Juhu, there is a festival checklist everyone is following.”
“Women complain of young boys being taken away for dahi handi. From what I have seen, women tend to be more concerned about family members, whereas men tend to see these celebrations as a vent for their sense of hopelessness and work insecurity. For that short time, men feel that they can claim the city streets; they feel they have some sense of power, even in small areas, across caste groups. Since their daily experience is of powerlessness. Women are outsiders in this set up. They can participate, but are victimised too. Most accidents, such as those during dahi handi, impact them more. The woman has absolutely no control over her child. If a woman loses her child or working husband, it is her personal loss at many levels. Besides, is there any kind of insurance for the govindas, because of the risk involved? No politician would be interested in any accident insurance,” Ayyar explains.
She sees the display of slam bang celebrations as a manifestation of the masculine. “For example gatari and dahi handi, which are celebrated in August or September, are constructed as masculine events, a spectacle that is meant for men. Women are add-ons; they are the audience” she says.
The women’s movement in India has historically taken up issues which concern the society at large, thus constantly expanding the ambit of feminist narrative.
“Women have raised concerns about displacement and environment through people’s movements and judicial activism. The famous Olga Tellis case was about the rights of pavement dwellers, in which her appeal to the Supreme Court was converted into a petition. Women have been at the forefront of social transformation for many years, since the independence struggle. After the 1950s, they turned more towards social work, but post 1980s they have been marking a strong presence in political and legal domains,” noted activist-lawyer Flavia Agnes says.
After the landmark Haji Ali verdict, the fight is far from over for these women. While Niaz’s BMMA awaits the stamp of Supreme Court, the movement further plans to take up issues such as triple talaq and halala (a woman divorced through triple talaq has to remarry and consummate the marriage before getting divorced again, to get back with her former husband), and demand the codification of Muslim personal law. Niaz believes that the state and its democratic institutions have a responsibility towards Muslim women, when they seek their support. None of them have any plans to give up fighting for causes they believe in – religious or secular.