Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

The Great Parsi Gender Divide

Why Sauce For the Parsi Goose Is Not Sauce For the Parsi Gander?

By Noshir H. Dadrawala

Parsis have been in the National news again and as usual for all the wrong reasons.

The current dispute is essentially gender based:

  • Why can only Parsi men marry outside the community and continue to enjoy full religious rights – including their children, after their ‘navjote’ is performed?
  • Why is it that Parsi women who are married under the Special Marriages Act are grudgingly granted limited religious rights and their children not accepted within the fold?

What do the scriptures state in this matter?

What is the legal position in India with regard to inter-faith marriages among Parsis and the children of such marriages?

Let’s study the facts objectively!

A number of religious texts, in particular, the Avestan Vendidad and the Pahlavi Dinkard strongly discourage inter-faith unions. However, it is interesting to observe that no where in these sacred texts does one find any indication that it is acceptable for men to inter-marry but not the vice-versa!

So, where does gender discrimination stem from? It’s mainly historical and not necessarily doctrinal!

Based on various affidavits and the evidence led before the Bombay High Court a little over a hundred years ago in famous Parsi Punchayet Case [as reported in (1909) 33 ILR 509 and 11Bom.L.R. 85], Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beamon, had observed and come to the conclusion that the Parsi community consists of:

1) Parsis who are descended from the original Persian emigrants and who are born of both Zoroastrian parents and who profess the Zoroastrian religion;

2) The Iranis from Persia professing the Zoroastrian religion;

3) The children of Parsi fathers by ‘alien’ (non-Parsi) mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion.

Clearly, this legal definition does not include the children of Parsi mothers by ‘alien’ (non-Parsi) fathers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion.

One must remember here that over a hundred years ago it was largely, if not only, Parsi men who were marrying or worse still, keeping non-Parsi mistresses. There was a vested interest in pushing the theory in court that the Parsis community followed a patriarchal system despite the scriptures upholding gender equity.

In 1925 another case surfaced in Rangoon concerning Bella who was the orphaned daughter of a Goan Christian father and a Parsi mother who was brought up in a Zoroastrian household of Rangoon from early infancy and whose ‘navjote’ was duly performed by an ordained Parsi Zoroastrian priest. In this case [Saklat vs Bella, reported in 1925 Bom LR at page 161] the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held that Bella, despite her ‘navjote’ having been performed "was not entitled as of right, to use the fire temple (in Rangoon), or to attend or to participate in any of the religious ceremonies performed therein."

More than a century has elapsed since Davar and Beamon made their observations with regard to who is a Parsi Zoroastrian! However, today, more Parsi women than Parsi men are marrying outside the community and they are feeling very discriminated.

What is the position in law with regard to Parsi women who choose to marry outside the fold under The Special Marriage Act?

Under the earlier Special Marriage Act of 1872, if a Parsi lady professing the Zoroastrian religion wished to marry under the old Act, she had to make a declaration that she did not profess the Zoroastrian religion. In the current Act (i.e., the Special Marriage Act, 1954), there is no such provision for making such a declaration (i.e., renouncing one’s religion). The inference drawn is that by marrying under the Special Marriage Act 1954, a Parsi Zoroastrian lady continues to be a Parsi (by birth) and continues to profess the Zoroastrian religion in the absence of having expressly renounced it at the time of her marriage. We shall refrain from further comment or analysis as this particular issue is currently sub judice.