A Parsi Woman's Perspective On Being Denied Basic Rights

Published: October 30, 2017 17:16 IST
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"You knew what you were getting into."

"A child inherits his father's name and religion, not his mother's."

"Women with non-Parsi spouses will have their kids navjoted only to avail of housing and monetary benefits from our wealthy community trusts."

"Our religion does not allow intermarriage or conversion."

"Recognising the children of intermarried Parsi men was a mistake, and recognising those of women will be another one. Two wrongs don't make a right."

These are the refrains I am often subjected to when I debate with so-called orthodox (read bigoted, racist and misogynist) Parsis about the ridiculous gender divide that we, as a community, have allowed to persist unchallenged for over a century.

I am a Parsi woman married to a half-Parsi man; my mother-in-law is Parsi, but my husband is not recognised as one because his father is a Sindhi. Had the latter been a Parsi and his mother from another community, however, he would have lived life as a Parsi.

We have a delightful four-year-old son, whose brown hair and light eyes are living proof of his part-Iranian heritage, but laughably, he is not recognised as Parsi either per the existing laws of the land and our skewed practices.

The fact that the misinformed masses are on the losing side of this argument in every way that matters - ethically, scripturally and scientifically - does little to quell their dogged beliefs.

My husband Rishi was, for better or worse, brought up in a colony with primarily Parsi friends and family. He has always been well-liked and very sociable, but the second-class status that is a direct consequence of not being on the right side of the fence has seen him face discrimination all his life.

"I actually did my best to keep him away from Parsis," my mother-in-law often tells me. "I never wanted him to have to go through what he did at the hands of some narrow-minded people. Unfortunately, he had a lot in common with Parsi kids and inevitably ended up just another colony kid himself."

Rishi has never been allowed into a fire temple alongside his mother to offer prayers, nor has he been navjoted - bestowed with the holy girdle and vest of our faith. Growing up, he played sports year-round with his friends, only to sit on the side-lines when community tournaments came up, while others of similar mixed marriage ancestry participated unquestioned because their fathers were Parsi. Some well-intentioned mates sometimes placed him in the weakest sporting teams so that he could play at least a couple of rounds before dropping out of the competition early and undiscovered. Cricket and volleyball were his forte, but he was never allowed to play to the best of his abilities.

His surname - Kishnani - has usually been concealed on entry forms like it's a dirty word. "We don't want Guptas, Kumars and Shahanis in our baugs and colonies," is a statement you often hear when in exclusively Parsi company. It's more than a little ironic that it is the Desais, Patels, Kapadias, Dalals, Khans, Nicholsons and Chowdhrys who make these declarations. Where have your surnames come from exactly, I ask them - Iran? No response.

The social discrimination hardly ends there. Mumbai's Parsi-only Ripon Club has spent years weighing the issue of whether Parsi women should be offered full-fledged club membership, as opposed to the associate membership status they have so far been accorded. Those opposing this proposal are doing so on the grounds that the non-Parsi husbands of inter-married women members will then take over the institution and its administration; curiously, all the non-Parsi women who have been frequenting Ripon all these years with their Parsi spouses are not perceived as a threat.

There are even more ludicrous rules at play at the Dadar Parsee Gymkhana, of which I am a member: the children of male club members are of course accepted, no questions asked, but those of intermarried women can only regularly frequent the premises up until the age of five, after which they have to limit their visits to four times a month. So I'm supposed to explain to my son a year from now that he'll have to bow out gracefully, leaving behind his friends and the playground that he so loves. I am assured by many a well-intentioned trustee and committee member that they are almost unanimous in turning a blind eye to this ridiculous rule, but where there is a kindly person in a position of authority one minute, there is a ruthless individual the next. And my family and I are to remain at the mercy of their discretion.

So if anybody tells you that there is gender equality among Parsis, see it for the lie that it is. They try to bar women from places of worship, from the funerals of our parents, socially ostracise us, treat our children and spouses like outcasts and justify all of these dire moral transgressions in the name of religion and tradition.

Another issue of considerable gravity is the playing of the race card. Racism by its very definition is prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed at someone whose colour of skin, genetic makeup or cultural background is different to one's own. Racism has been responsible for some of the most horrific crimes against humanity this world has ever seen, and the last thing you'd like to believe about our so-called educated, open-minded community is that we are racists. Well, here's the nasty truth - we so are. The word we like to use instead, however, is 'Parsipanu' - it doesn't quite grate on the ears so much as 'racist'. 

"If we give these women what they want, it will be the end of our Parsipanu!" That's another priceless gem that is bandied about by the fanatic faction. "These women" no less! Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives - we are all reduced to a collective and contemptible "these women".

Well, let me tell you about some of "these women". Like my great grand-aunt, who single-handedly hammered the living daylights out of her son-in-law for domestic violence perpetrated against her long-suffering daughter. Or my grandmother, who was widowed at 39 and brought up three children and supported her aging parents alone. Or my own mother, the polestar of my life, who has been a pillar of strength ever since my father tragically lost his eyesight when I was only 15. I daresay that every one of "these women" had more strength in her individual capacity than all the Parsi males blustering with self-importance that I know of put together.

If you believe that you are better than someone else by virtue of biological differences, or by virtue of your birth, or your religion, you have no business being part of secular society. You may judge yourself a better person because you're kinder, or because you're more large-hearted, or by way of a talent, but porcelain skin is hardly a benchmark of superiority; to think along such lines is actually downright pathetic.

Maybe I'm flattering myself here, but I believe that I have cultivated a relationship with God. And I believe it was His will that I was born into the Zoroastrian religion. And here's the strongest belief of all - that nobody has the right to take from me, or my child, what was not theirs to give in the first place.
So to every Parsi-Irani Zarthusti out there, I say this - reserve the right to rethink and re-examine the sorry treatment meted out to our intermarried women and their children. It takes exceptional intelligence and great character to change one's mind, but the truth is that your daughters are not inferior to your sons. God gave you your religious identity and only He can take it away. Nobody else on earth has the authority to tell you otherwise. Nobody.

As for all my detractors, whose tunnel vision and lack of intelligence will not allow them to recognise just how shameful their stance is - I'll see you. And I'll raise you.

"You knew what you were getting into." Yes I did - a stable, happy marriage to a man who loves me and believes I am his equal in every possible way. That is why we have been together for nearly 18 years and counting.

"A child inherits his father's name and religion, not his mother's." That isn't your call to make, it's his parents'. My child has inherited my religion, which also happens to be part of his father's identity. Live with it.

"Women with non-Parsi spouses will have their kids navjoted only to avail of housing and monetary benefits from our wealthy community trusts." My child's faith is not to be determined by your financial considerations; religion is not a commodity that you can refuse to sell me. And for all those who are so strongly against intermarriage, kindly put your money where your mouth is and vacate your homes funded by the coffers of the Wadias, Godrejs and Tatas, all of whom have family members married out of the community.

Also, stop talking about "our trusts" like you own them. My forefathers laid the foundation of the largest Zoroastrian residential enclave in the world, so don't go talking like it's your father's money I'm after.

"Our religion does not allow intermarriage or conversion." Yes, it does. Read our scriptures. There is a mountain of evidence to prove that this is a convenient deception. Anyone with a hint of an enquiring mind who has examined it personally would have to agree.

"Recognising the children of intermarried Parsi men was a mistake, and recognising those of women will be another one. Two wrongs don't make a right." Mathematically, they do actually - two negatives make a positive. And both ethically and logically, they can too, not that I believe accepting men's children is a mistake in the first place.

And here's the absolute bottom line. My son is not a statistic. He is a well-behaved, kind-hearted little person who makes his mother proud and prays to Dadaji just like every other young Parsi child his age. He whispers thanks for his toy construction vehicles and his wonderful family to Ahura Mazda in the same breath, and dutifully touches his forehead to the feet of our venerable Prophet whenever he sees me do so. His innocence, like the innocence of all children, is a reflection of all that is pure and angelic in this world.

So to every fanatic out there who wants to come between this child and the religion that is his birth right, a word of caution - your karma awaits you. Because God is watching.

(Sanaya Dalal was Features Editor with rediff.com; a Parsi married out of the community, she is currently lobbying for gender equality.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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