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Towards the end of September 2018, the Supreme Court passed a verdict that shook some who are orthodox Hindus. In a 4-1 verdict, the Supreme Court struck down a rule that prevented women in the childbearing age of 10-50 (the menstruating age) to enter the Sabarimala Temple and offer their prayers. Until then women between these ages were barred from entering the temple to offer Pooja, because it was believed by some, that the reigning deity of Sabarimala – Lord Ayyappa – a celibate God, would be upset or diverted by the sight of all these women who have come to pray. Furthermore, it was said that men who have taken the vow of celibacy, as part of the rituals to visit the temple, would be distracted by the women. Apart from the fact that this is extremely insulting to the deity and his devotees, it was also considered exclusionary by women who wanted to pray there.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Supreme Court Verdict said that “the exclusion of menstruating women from religious spaces and practices is no less a form of discrimination than the exclusion of oppressed castes.”
  • In part, it was this stand by the TDB that gave legitimacy to the protests against the Supreme Court order, and made it seem like an issue of religion v/s the constitution.
  • Almost four months after the Supreme Court verdict, the TDB reversed its stance and said it would abide by the Supreme Court verdict.
  • The issue is contentious enough both in Kerala specifically, and in India in general, for political points to be scored and earned, in upping the ante in barring women from the shrine.

The Supreme Court Verdict said that “the exclusion of menstruating women from religious spaces and practices is no less a form of discrimination than the exclusion of oppressed castes.” They further said “We have no hesitation to say that such an exclusionary practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to freely practise Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship.”

Apart from the fact that this is extremely insulting to the deity and his devotees, it was also considered exclusionary by women who wanted to pray there.

No sooner had the Supreme Court passed the verdict than the chorus of protests began with groups saying they would never let women in the childbearing age to enter the temple. TV screens were filled with images of angry traditionalists barring women from entering the temple, attacking media personnel, and upping the ante in terms of the rhetoric. It was, the protesters said, an attack on the religion, and they would defend it all cost.

No sooner had the Supreme Court passed the verdict than the chorus of protests began with groups saying they would never let women in the childbearing age to enter the temple.

Amongst those who opposed the Supreme Court verdict was the board that governs the temple – the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). While others took to the streets to protest, the TDB planned to mount a legal challenge against the Supreme Court order. In part, it was this stand by the TDB that gave legitimacy to the protests against the Supreme Court order, and made it seem like an issue of religion v/s the constitution. It was this ratcheting of the sentiments that required women who wanted to offer their prayers at the temple to be accompanied by heavy police protection. Apart from two women who managed to enter the temple at the dead of the night, most women who tried to pray at the shrine were driven away by the vociferous protests. The temple authorities ‘purified’ the temple after the two women visited, to cleanse it of the ‘impurity’ that arose from women of menstruating age entering the temple.

Apart from two women who managed to enter the temple at the dead of the night, most women who tried to pray at the shrine were driven away by the vociferous protests.

This week, almost four months after the Supreme Court verdict, the TDB reversed its stance and said it would abide by the Supreme Court verdict and support the right of all women of all ages to offer prayers at the shrine. While it is better late than never, the TDB cannot absolve itself of the role it has played in women facing attacks when trying to offer prayers.

The TDB volte face does not end the matter. It is still not going to be easy for women to visit or pray at the temple.  There are those who believe that the TDB has been influenced by the Communist Government of Kerala, led by CM Pinarayi. The head of the TDB, A Padma Kumar was a former MLA from the CPM.  Furthermore, the issue has become political, and symbolic of Hindu rights in a secular India. The belief that the Indian State is harder on Hindu beliefs, rituals and traditions, as compared to the handling of issues of faith and tradition of minority communities is strong.

The TDB volte face does not end the matter. It is still not going to be easy for women to visit or pray at the temple.

The issue is contentious enough both in Kerala specifically, and in India in general, for political points to be scored and earned, in upping the ante in barring women from the shrine. The Pandalam family – the former royals who are the custodians of the shrine’s jewellery – have already come out and opposed the TDB stance. It is expected that right-wing Hindu political forces will continue their protests against women claiming their right to worship at the temple. Traditionalists in the Hindu community seem to want the same right to enforce medieval patriarchy that other religions have. With the General Elections looming, and the narrative of “Hinduism in Danger” being bandied, the Sabarimala protests to prevent women from praying at the temple is not going to end anytime soon.

Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and society;  and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences. She is a writer, filmmaker, and consults on digital strategy. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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