This evening my family wanted to visit the Swaminarayan Temple in Lilburn, GA. I’ve heard about the level of sexism present in the Swaminarayan sect, but I figured this is 2008, in the United States of America, it can’t be that bad and went along.
This was the wrong assumption to make. Upon entering, there was an individual who’s only task was to separate the men from the women. I politely declined to be separated and started to take a seat near the back of the room (the back is for the women), but outside of the olfactory range of anyone else. The man once again told me to go towards the front. I asked “what happens if I sit down, are you going to forcibly remove me.” His answer was yes, and sure enough, as soon as I motioned to take a seat, two guards lifted me up and escorted me out. Of course, I had a few choice words to say to these individuals.
What happened next was not only bizarre, but sad and amusing as well. This individual who removed me from the temple proceeded to give me a lecture about god and the necessity for gender separation. Unfortunately, I’m not all that good at this protest thing or I would have gotten his name and snagged his picture. He started by telling me he is from the states and therefore, this is not a symptom of the same thinking that allows honor killings and dowaries in India. I pointed out that this doesn’t change the fact that he is a “sexist pig” at which point he started to give me a religious explanation.
His reasoning is that if I am sitting in prayer next to a woman wearing perfume, I will start thinking of woman and not God. One, I’ve got a stuffy nose, I can’t smell anything. Two, I was far from everyone else, I was in the absolute back of the room, hence the earlier statement on olfactory range. Three, by far the most important, I don’t have those kinds of self control problems. Plus if I was a lecherous adulterer, I’m pretty sure God would smite me no matter how much I prayed. Also, is he trying to tell me that Swaminarayan had a lot of trouble keeping it in his pants?
Somewhere in here was also a point about how men and women have different bathrooms and the same principle applies here. I lacked a pithy response to this one.
Shocked that he was unable to convince me, he then stated that all other religions separate the sexes and this is there for the priests. He said that all leaders of the Christian churches are celibate. He then went on to say that both Judaism and Islam especially separate the sexes. This approach I found especially bold. We’re talking about a church where they ask the family name and take down the license plate of every car that enters, presumably to prevent Muslims from causing trouble. But then they tell me that there role model for how women to be treated are fundamentals who stone women to death for getting raped? Color me unconvinced that my belief that the Swaminarayan’s are institutional sexists is in any way false.
Now, I’ve got to take an aside and point out that this man didn’t seem like a bad guy. Just deluded and a bigot. He believes what he believes and that’s his right as an American. I probably shouldn’t have showed up to attempt to rain on their parade. It’s somewhat immature on my part, and it is their temple and their rules. But his next statement convinced me that I did not only the appropriate thing, but the only thing to do in this situation.
His final point for why he was right and I am wrong is that nobody else complains. He stated “What do you think of the thousand people that come here on an average Sunday, or the doctors and lawyers that donated to build this temple.” My response, “The fact that nobody has complained doesn’t make it right. I think they are deluded and sexism is sexism. I’m walking off this property, I don’t need to hear your rhetoric.”
As I walked away, he shouted something about how I know nothing of religion and God. Fair point, but…
I know bigotry and bigotry is bigotry. Period. What the Swaminarayans enforce is a belief that the anatomy of 49% of humans are inferior. They are inferior before god because they are forced to sit the farthest from him. Obviously if they are inferior before God, then they must also be inferior everywhere else.
Believing that someone is inferior to you because they are different by birth is wrong. Using religion to justify those beliefs is repulsive. Terrorism is justified in this way, people justified slavery in this way. Colonialism became a moral right because of this line of thinking. But we’re not in the stone ages anymore. We’ve lived through world wars, cold wars and police actions. We now live in a world where one person, with a push of a button, can kill tens of millions. For our own survival, we have to move on from the belief that God makes one human dominant over another. Yes people have a right to worship, but there are certain things that are never acceptable.
I’m also not saying that I’m a Saint and better than everyone. I know that’s not true. I have my own prejudices. The belief that all people should be treated humanly is one, but there are certainly others that are less noble. My prejudices are my own and I don’t shroud them in the protection of “well god says it’s alright.” This way, there’s a chance that I could become a better person.
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