Challenging Patriarchy in Religion

The idea of women and non-Brahmin priests is not new.

In 2006, the DMK set up training centres for non-Brahmins. In Maharashtra, training centres for women were first established in Pune and Ahmednagar. In Mumbai, Anjali Kale, now 82, founded the Rudrani Purohita Mandal in 1990 and has trained 250 women priests, including her daughter Kshama Mangesh Joglekar, who has a day job at the Life Insurance Corporation. “I sought her out because I believe that if women don’t support women then who will?” said Manisha Nadkarni, a Mumbai-based gynecologist who has been using Joglekar’s services for over a decade.

Scholars say Hinduism does not ban women from becoming priests. But over time, patriarchal notions have seeped into some practices —prohibitions on women during “impure” menstruation, for instance. These are being challenged by younger feminists and the Sabarimala judgement that lifted the ban on women of menstruating age was hailed as a landmark in feminist jurisprudence.

Women priests are adapting to changing times but are treading with caution. When couples ask Mumbai-based Anagha Mule, 70, to officiate at their weddings, they often ask her to do away with rituals they find abhorrent: The bridegroom’s feet being washed by the bride’s mother, or the kanyadaan. She is happy to accommodate those requests. “I understand that a woman is not a thing to be given away,” she said. But, if she’s asked to go to a home that already has a male family priest, she won’t go as she doesn’t want to take away another person’s livelihood, she said.

While a growing number of women are finding acceptance as private priests who conduct rituals, they are almost never seen in the larger, public temples. Now, the Tamil Nadu government has acknowledged their right to do so. It’s not as if women are waiting to storm the breach, but the move certainly signals the beginning of the end of another male stronghold.

This article first appeared in The Hindustan Times on June 26, 2021