I am a PhD. candidate at Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. I hold an M. Phil. degree in Women’s Studies from JNU, a Master’s degree in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi and a B.A (Hons.) degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. My research interests include space, faith-practices, religiosity, visual and material culture and public history. I am the co-founder of Zikr-e-Dilli, a digital repository of material-spatial memories, history and narratives of the city of Delhi. Its ongoing project ‘Living Museum of Delhi’ documents, preserves and interprets the richness and depth of the city of Delhi through its inhabitants’ memories around city-space and materials (https://zikredilli.com/).
Since the last 5 years (M. Phil. followed by Ph.D.), I have been working on women and religious space in contemporary India; engaging with questions around law, bodies, segregation and piety. My research focuses on how women have engaged with ‘prohibited’ religious spaces in India, particularly in the Shani temple in Shinganapur, Maharashtra, Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, Maharashtra and the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala. I chose these three locations for my research because of a noticeable spate in the entry-based women’s movements in India since the year 2014. Indian courts have engaged with religion, space and gender in these cases. The constitutional and judicial framework has interpreted the question of women’s entry in religious spaces alongside conflicting religious demands. Though the temples in Sabarimala, Shinganapur and the Haji Ali dargah have had different historical trajectories, diverse regional and geographical cultures, all three of them saw both organized and unorganized agitations by women to access the prohibited religious space.
Apart from engaging with the embodied experiences of women in these religious spaces, my research aims to understand what is a religious space and how does it change with the assimilation and segregation of women and how does law and state configure religion, religious space and women’s bodies.
India’s democratic politics has undergone significant shifts in last three decades that can be traced to the period of 1989-91. From the neoliberal restructuring of the economy to the rapid rise of Hindu nationalist organisations, the idea of Hindu rashtra (nation) changed the contours of politics and society. This interface between politics and religion brought forward a difficult set of questions with multiple implications for women’s rights in India. Over the years, feminist debates around Uniform Civil Code (UCC) changed around the conflicting categories of personal law, identity and gender. During this period, the debate on religion in the women’s movement shifted towards an attempt to work for religious reform from within. Any kind of engagement with the categories of women and religion in the contemporary times is affected significantly by the extreme growth of Hindu nationalism in the country. One needs to continuously ask what does it mean to be a believing woman in this moment or what significance does a religious space hold. The engagement of Hindu Right-wing parties with the question of women’s entry in the Shinganapur and Sabarimala temple is one of the episodes in the larger creation of a homogenized Hindu identity in contemporary India.
In the Shani temple at Shinganapur, the ‘holy’ platform of Shani and the rock-structure of Shani comprised the spaces which were inaccessible to women. In November 2015, a young woman breached the barricade around the central idol resulting in a severe reaction from the temple authorities. The Shinganapur temple board organized purification rituals with milk for the idol to purify the sacred space. Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, a Pune based women’s organisation led a massive protest to end the discriminatory practice in December, 2015 and further on January 26, 2016. Social activist Vidya Bal took up the legal cudgels, filing a public interest litigation (PIL) against such prohibition at the Bombay High Court in March 2016, along with advocate Neelima Vartak. The 400-year-old ban preventing women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shinganapur temple was lifted by the Bombay High Court on March 31, 2016. In June, 2012, the trust of Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, Maharashtra discontinued the practice of allowing women to enter the inner shrine of the Dargah. Prior to this, women were allowed to enter the inner sanctum and pray in this 15th century shrine. In November, 2014, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court challenging this decision of the trust. In Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, women belonging to the reproductive age-group of 10 to 50 are not allowed to enter or participate in its annual pilgrimage because Ayyappa, the deity worshipped here is considered a celibate deity.
In these three cases, physical spaces are observable and thus permit researchers to document how gender relations are created, maintained, or transformed in religious institutions. The enactment of religious identity is an intersectional process requiring women to negotiate multiple, competing identities. In their negotiations with different religious spaces, women at times come in direct conflict with men trying to occupy the same spaces. The activities of women in a religious space where the entry of women is restricted alter the sacred character of the space by the mere presence of their bodies. What is sacred and what is not attain a different meaning in this context. Women’s physical mobility becomes a subject to scrutiny and regulation in a ritual space. The delineation of sacred spaces conveys an understanding of gendered spaces.
While my doctoral research focuses particularly on three locations, I am broadly interested in gender, religious space, material-visual cultures, public history and museum studies.
Book Chapter: Gupta, Anukriti. “Visualizing Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum” Media, Culture and Ethics. Ed. Sangeeta Sharma et al. India: Macmillan Publishers India Private Ltd, 2018. Pp 1-9.
Academic Journal: Gupta, Anukriti. “Several Scripts, Several Scribes: The (Un)Making of Taslima Nasreen” Women’s Link Journal (ISSN: 2229-6409) Vol. 25(2) April-June 2018. Pp 40-47. Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies, JMI, New Delhi
“Law, Bodies, Piety: Women and Religious Space as Sites of Contestation” Upcoming Presentation at BASAS Online Conference hosted by University of Edinburgh, UK. (April, 2021)
“Women in Divine Spaces”, Graduate Research Meet, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. (October, 2018)
“Women in Divine Spaces: Intersection of Faith, Belief and Feminist Politics”, Research Scholar’s Workshop, Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), New Delhi. (April, 2018)
“Visualising” Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum”, International Conference on Media, Culture and Ethics, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani, Pilani. (February, 2018)
“Woman” Not Allowed in Sanctum Sanctorum: Lived Bodies and Lived Religions”, 4th Academic International Conference on Social Sciences and Humanities, FLE Learning, Newnham College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge. (December, 2017)
“Several Scripts, Several Scribes: The (Un)Making of Taslima Nasreen”, XV National Conference on Women’s Studies, Indian Association for Women’s Studies, University of Madras, Chennai. (January, 2017)
Doctoral candidate, Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Member, British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS)
Email id: SWAPNIL.ANUKRITI@GMAIL.COM