Indian activists take part in a protest against a ban on women entering its inner sanctum of the Haji Ali mosque, in Mumbai. (AFP/Getty Images)

This week, an estimated 500 women traveled by bus toward a temple in the Indian state of Maharashtra with the intent of storming its sacred altar – where females have been barred for more than 400 years.

The group’s leader, a fiery 31-year-old housewife named Trupti Desai, had planned to rent a helicopter so she could rappel, James Bond-like, onto the raised platform in the middle of the open-air temple.

Alas, authorities had different ideas. Desai and her protesters were stopped about 40 miles from the Shani Shingnapur temple, where an equally determined group of counterprotesters had waited, ready to protect it from desecration by female invaders.

“This is a black day for democracy,” Desai lamented to local reporters as she lay in the road during a sit-in. The drama played out on live television, distracting the nation from the celebrations of its Republic Day.

In recent weeks, hundreds of women in India, a predominantly Hindu society with few female priests, have agitated in high-profile cases for access to key temples and a historic mosque that barred them for years. Hindus say they maintain gender empowerment by worshiping goddesses, but such prohibitions belie that claim, protesters say. Priests at the Shani temple performed an elaborate "purification" ritual after a woman breached the platform and approached the idol there late last year.


A general view of Mumbai's famous Haji Ali Dargah (shrine) near the Arabian Sea shore in Mumbai, Indi. (Divyakant Solanki/EPA)

India’s Supreme Court suggested this month that barring women from Sabarimala Sree Ayyappa Temple in the southern state of Kerala was likely unconstitutional. The court revisits the matter Feb. 8.

Women of fertility age are barred there on the theory that they are impure, and the presiding deity is a bachelor. Male pilgrims are allowed if they eschew “non vegetarian food and carnal pleasures,” the group’s website said.

A temple board member set off a firestorm of controversy in November when he suggested developing a purity “machine” which could detect whether a woman was menstruating or not. A social media movement against menstrual taboos quickly formed.

The Bombay High Court is weighing a separate case by a group of Muslim women who are trying to gain access to the mausoleum at the Haji Ali Dargah, a shrine and mosque that sits on an inlet off the coast of Mumbai and is a famous landmark.

Protesters also filled the shrine this week, waving placards, according to the Indian Express newspaper.

Kavita Krishnan, a woman’s advocate in New Delhi, said that women are usually told they are being segregated for their own protection and as a mark of respect.

“Women have always known that’s not true,” Krishnan said. “It’s not a display of respect when you deny entry or restrict mobility in any way. Well, they’re calling it out now.”