Why the #MeToo movement should include women’s spiritual rights

Why the #MeToo movement should include women’s spiritual rights
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If you haven’t been paying particularly close attention to the journey of women’s rights in India, you might have missed two significant stories that have been unfolding.

The first is the advent of the Indian #MeToo movement and with it the battle for women’s rights over their bodies. India’s pervasive culture of sexual violence and abuse drew international condemnation with the 2012 rape and murder of a Delhi university student. At long last, it seems that women are emboldened to step up and confront their abusers.

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Over the past few weeks, the #MeToo movement has brought down several powerful figures, such as former newspaper editor M.J. Akbar, who was forced to resign as deputy foreign minister after more than 20 women, including an NPR journalist, accused him of sexual bullying and rape.

The second significant story is unfolding at the steps of an 800-year-old temple and it’s about women’s spiritual rights. For a month now, women have tried to exercise their right to worship at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, but when they have attempted to climb the holy hillock where the temple complex sits, they have been barred from entering by mobs of angry protesters.

The temple, which houses the shrine of Lord Ayyappa, is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. More than 30 million devotees flock to the temple every year, making it the world’s second-largest pilgrimage destination after Islam’s holy city of Mecca.

For centuries, women and girls of menstruating age — 10 to 50 years old — were not allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple because their presence was considered defiling. That was the case until Sept. 28, 2018, when India’s Supreme Court struck down the entry ban to give women of all ages the right to worship at Sabarimala. But when the temple doors opened on Oct. 17 for the first time since the court’s decision, things on the ground had not changed.

As I write this, tensions are still running high around the Sabarimala temple complex. The Kerala state government has deployed a phalanx of police officers, among them women constables, to contain the situation and employed drones and helicopters to monitor the surrounding forests. The few women — including a journalist — who have tried to enter the shrine have been turned away or forced to prove they are 50 or older by the temple priests and protesters. These same protesters have attacked police escorting the women and pelted stones at news teams covering the story. On top of the violence, the temple board has appealed the Supreme Court’s decision and managed to schedule a hearing at the high court for Jan. 22.

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Though at first glance they might seem unrelated, the women challenging their sexual abusers and those trying to enter the Sabarimala temple are both confronting the same issue — the pernicious belief that women are not equal to men. This notion, so prevalent in our world, is the ideological foundation of so much sexual violence and gender discrimination. It’s behind the India’s gender-select abortions, Bollywood’s so-called casting couch, child marriages and the “triple talaq” instant divorce practice, which was just recently criminalized. Child marriage, unfortunately, remains a reality but legal developments, such as last year’s Supreme Court ruling that designated sex with a minor as rape, have provided some protections for vulnerable girls.

As a Christian bishop who has spent the better part of the past 20 years advocating for the rights of India’s most vulnerable people — the Dalits, also called “untouchables” — I am encouraged to see the #MeToo movement gaining traction, albeit slowly. Justice for Dalits, especially Dalit women, has been a central calling for our churches. Through our health care, economic development, education and anti-trafficking programs we have seen thousands of women across India who have been sexually exploited, or are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, gain financial independence, recover their health and assert their constitutional rights.

But what we have noticed in this process is the power of recognizing and recovering one’s human dignity. In fact, for us this is where it all begins, because we believe dignity is not a condition to be granted by society but something that is endowed by God upon every human being — regardless of caste, economic status, place of birth, race or gender.

While the #MeToo movement is challenging (though not exclusively) how men treat women in the workplace, the struggle at Sabarimala temple takes the fight a step further because it  challenges how men fundamentally see women. Do men and women have equal spiritual rights? If so, both also should have equal physical rights and be treated with the same dignity. In the world of faith, how we see each other determines how we treat each other.

By the way, this is a question all religions must confront. After all, women worldwide are more likely to identify with a faith, and in many countries they are more faithful at praying and attending religious services, according to Pew Research.

As the #MeToo movement grows, it would do well to embrace the fight for women’s spiritual rights. Because if we recognize we are spiritually equal, we must recognize we are equal in every other respect.

The Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.