Rayomand Coins

“Not permissible in India”

A lady from North America who wanted to receive priestly training in India wrote to us this month: "I come from a mobed family and my goal is as a female to be an equivalent mobed to a man. Currently I’m training under the Iranian Mobed Council to become a mobedyar. Since I wasn’t born in Iran it is difficult for me to read and write in Persian (even though every Saturday for 10 years I went to Persian school). Furthermore, the course requirement to become a mobedyar in Iran can easily take years and is like getting a doctorate, needing to read so many books, taking many exams and learning Sanskrit. So far I’ve read the first 100 pages of the first required book. 

"I’m hoping to come to India at the end of this year and I would love to know if in India I would have the opportunity to train to be a mobed, and if not mobed, a mobedyar, and what that would entail?" 

We replied that we were glad she was keen to become a mobedyar but, "Sadly, in India, Zoroastrian women are not accepted as priests. So it is unlikely any institution or individual would train women." We mentioned that we would forward her email to Dastur (Dr) Firoze Kotwal of the H. B. Wadia Atash Behram and Ervad (Dr) Ramiyar Karanjia, principal of the Dadar Athornan Institute and await their responses. We added, however, that we were not hopeful of a positive response.

In a joint reply the next day, the two highly regarded priests replied, "Mobed-yar is more of an Iranian and subsequently North American concept. In India, the concept of para-priests (now known as behdin pasbaans) has been there but it is quite different, and with a lot more limitations. The mobed-yar — gents and ladies — wanting to be equivalent to a mobed, is not permissible in India.  

"After adequate training, a Zoroastrian gent or lady, in a state of ritual purity, can perform certain outer rituals like afringan, farokhshi and stum at home for himself/herself and one’s family. Any gent/lady can formally learn these outer rituals under a proper teacher.

"Presently in India, para-priests look after dadgah fires in fire temples at places where there is no availability of ordained Parsi priests. These para-priests are male behdins/ostas who are not inter-married." 

While the reply was what we had expected, what struck us was that there was no rancor or vilifying of the woman or her motives. The reply was a statement of fact that women priests are "not permissible in India." The rights or wrongs of that practice were not commented on nor whether in future the practice may change. That would be akin to stepping on a veritable landmine. If the two scholar priests opposed the concept of women priests they would be labeled sexist, fossilized, bigoted. If they favored the proposal they would be labeled heretics, reformers, enemies of the religion… Either way the duo would have faced public opprobrium.

Women are institutionally and individually discriminated against in the Indian Parsi and Zoroastrian community. Any move to accord them equal rights would be met with determined opposition and outright hostility. At the 11th World Zoroastrian Congress held in Perth in 2018 when a lady mobedyar was invited to participate in the inaugural jashan, a priest from Bombay asked for her to be seated at a distance from him. Leave aside sensitive religious beliefs, even social, Parsi-only clubs fight tooth and nail to deny Parsi women equal rights.

A Parsiana survey on the views of the Bombay Parsi community conducted in the last quarter of 2013 by the reputed Hansa Research Group showed that 81% of the respondents opposed women becoming priests. That, of course, was 10 years ago. At that time the "MeToo" movement by women was nascent. The MeToo hashtag on Twitter started only in October 2017, according to Wikipedia. Originally meant to highlight sexual harassment, the concept has now broadened "to an international movement for justice for marginalized people," the website states.

The contemporary initiative for Zoroastrian women to become priests started in Iran over 12 years ago. The Parsiana cover story, "Mesdames mobedyars," (May 21, 2011) noted, "Eight out of 15 lady candidates who had undergone stringent and extensive religious training in the Avesta and had passed the tests set by the council of priests, Tehran Anjoman-e-Mobedan were recently conferred the title of mobedyar." Not all of them were from priestly families. Other countries then also started accepting women as priests.

Whether women are theologically permitted to become priests depends on who you ask. The late Dastur (Dr) Kaikhusroo JamaspAsa, High Priest of the Anjuman Atash Behram, was quoted in the article as stating, "It is not correct for ladies to become mobedyars," adding the religion did not permit it. On the other hand the late, London based, independent scholar Farrokh Vajifdar said, "What has occurred in Iran with the ordination of women priests is both religiously and legally sanctioned."

The custom of priesthood being a hereditary prerogative is probably adopted by the Parsis from the Hindu caste system. But amongst the Hindus, caste also once denoted what profession or trade some could take up or not. Amongst Parsis, even those born in priestly families can become lawyers, doctors, teachers, carpenters, chefs, and so on. So why should lay people be barred from becoming priests? Not that many may want to. According to the "Gen Z and Beyond: A Survey for every generation" conducted by SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies, whose report was released mid-May this year, "Younger respondents (18 to 25 years old) were most likely to say they were not interested or had other interests (63.2%); 26 to 35 years old were equally put off by financial concerns (40.3%) and restrictions on lifestyle and freedom (38.8%)." If the sons of priests shun mobedi, why should a lay person opt for it? Thus if anyone, man or woman, willingly wants to become a mobed, the community should welcome them with open arms.

The United Kingdom’s Channel 4 television station on May 6 noted in regard to the coronation of King Charles III, "Female bishops took part for the first time, as did representatives of other religious groups — in keeping with the King’s expressed wish to be a defender of all faiths." (People of all faiths were also invited to attend the funeral ceremony of the late Queen Elizabeth II.) At the coronation Bishop Gulli Francis-Dehqani "carried the King’s chalice and Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin presented the Queen’s rod."

Hudson-Wilkin told Channel 4 that "women being there felt right," while Dehqani noted, "Nobody is too great to serve, or is too small to be served." Here, Parsi women, aside from carrying the ses to the venue, play no religious role in the navjote ceremony of their children.

Good thoughts, words and deeds are not compatible with discrimination on the basis of gender and birth. Regardless of what other communities may or may not do, Zoroastrians are obligated to do what is morally correct, in consonance with the concepts of equality and human rights.

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If the lady who asked this question is from North America, surely she must know that there are female mobedyars being trained in North Aerica, given certificates by the North American Mobed Council (NAMC)and these female modedyrs are performing ceremonies allowed by the Mobeds' Council (NAMC) .
Please ask her to contact Ervad Tehmton Mirza, President of NAMC for further information

Dolly Dastoor Ph.D
FEZANA Journal
- Dolly P Dastoor
- 23-May-2023

Great editorial! Mind opener. Thank you.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 22-May-2023


Villoo Poonawalla