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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 44 New Delhi October 20, 2018

Sabarimala Shrine and Women’s Entry

Friday 19 October 2018


by Ram Puniyani

We live in a democratic society where all of us are supposed to be equal. In pre-industrial society the inequality was very much there and it was based on birth. In Indian society this inequality, the one based on birth, pertained to caste and gender. Leftovers of this inequality are very much there even in today’s society. One aspect of this has been pertaining to entry of women in places of worship. In most of the mosques, it’s predominantly men who pray to the Allah. In temples the discrimination has been based on the ground of caste and gender, both. One recalls the epic struggle of Babasaheb Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar in the matter of the temple entry into the Kalaram Mandir for Dalits. One also recalls the recent campaigns led by Trupti Desai for entry into the sanctum sanctorums of Hindu temples (Shani Shingnapur of Maharashtra in particular). Recently we also had the agitation of Muslim women for entry into the inner precincts of the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. These recent agitations did lead to the success of women gaining entry into these hallowed places.

That is not the end of the story. There are scores of famous and not-so-famous temples which still bar the entry of certain castes and women, one of the most well known of these being the Sabarimala shrine of Lord Ayappa, where women of menstruating age-group are not permitted. The premise is that Lord Ayappa had taken the vow of permanent celibacy. In a recent (September 28, 2018) Supreme Court majority judgment (4 against 1) the Court ruled that banning the entry of women to the Sabarimala shrine is discriminatory and violates the rights of Hindu women. The judgment has been welcomed by most of the women’s rights groups and many others. Kavita Krishnan’s tweet well summed up the view of most women’s rights groups,

“In Instant Triple Talaq, Haji Ali, and Sabarimala cases courts have rightly held that women’s equality can’t be held hostage to religious practices. Just as it’s unconstitutional and discriminatory to debar entry to temples based on caste, it’s the same to debar entry based on gender. Also, we project our own values on our gods—and patriarchal values that put the burden of men’s celibacy or sexual choices on women are deeply damaging to women in real life.” At the same time the RSS cautioned with the statement that the feelings of the people should be considered. The Congress urged the Trust controlling the temple to call for a review of the judgment while the BJP asked the State Government to bring an ordinance to reverse the same. Many other organisations are planning to get it reversed through appeal against the same.

The journey of women’s march towards equality is not a smooth path. The abominable practice of sati was the first one, which was opposed to begin with by Raja Rammohan Roy. He did have massive obstacles in his path despite the supportive legislations which came to abolish the horrendous practice of burning the widow alive. Despite many legislations, the sati could not be eradicated easily. Just a few decades back we saw the sati of Roopkanwar, and when most persons from the civil society responded by calling for strict punishment, the then Vice- President of the BJP, Mrs Vijayaraje Scindia, took out rallies in support of the practice of sati. The other major reform among Hindu women related to the age of consent. The debates have ranged for increasing the age of consent initially from 10 years to 12, when even leaders like Lokmanya Gangadhar Tilak opposed this move on the ground that this went against Hindu traditions, the notion prevalent being that girls should be married before the first menstrual period. There are brilliant accounts of these struggles for such reforms which are worth being recalled, one such being Tanika Sarkar’s book Hindu Wife Hindu Nation. Just a few years ago many a maulana was up in arms against the age of consent being raised to 18. For them the special provisions for early marriage of Muslim girls was mandatory.

Our society is very uneven. The arguments for early marriage do relate to lack of education, mostly among the poor, where the safety of girls is a big issue. Today the Sabarimala judgment is a matter of debate between those aspiring for equality and those sticking to age-old customs, which have women’s inequality in-built into it. Even today there is a wide spectrum of social thought on the topic. On one side we see that a group of women have resolved that they will ensure that menstruating women will not enter the temple; on the other we have places like Eklavya Ashram where menstruation is no taboo, where menstruating devotees also pray. To strike a balance in such situations is as difficult as tight-rope walking.

Many a women’s group kept aloof from the struggle for temple entry for women on the ground that all religions are inherently patriarchal, so why fall in the trap! To the best of one’s knowledge, one can say that patriarchy is the core foundation of most institutionalised religions. This demand for temple entry is a step in the direction of demolishing the patriarchal set-up, which should lead to total abolition of the same in times to come. Legislations don’t solve the problems in themselves; still they are a major step in laying the direction for the future march for equality. The other social situations of poverty and lack of security for women in this set-up are major aggravating factors leading to sustenance of the patriarchal mould. We need the social policies which bring to the fore and provide the foundation for application of legislations in letter and spirit. With the Supreme Court taking the lead in this, the onus is on us to pave the path of equality in times to come. The need is to create the situations congenial for such judgments.

(Courtesy: Secular Perspective)

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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