Sabarimala Verdict: Breaking Barriers

Marking an end to a month of historic judgements, the Supreme Court on September 28 passed the landmark judgement allowing the entry of women to Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple. Despite being touted as a progressive move that ended the age-old discrimination against women, thousands of people, surprisingly women devotees have taken to the streets of Kerala protesting against this judgement. Although political parties plunging into this sensitive issue to further worsen it for their political gains were to be expected, the way they switched sides after witnessing the public outrage and the way women have come out in masses defending this practice brings into light the larger questions this verdict raises.

On October 17 when the temple shrine reopened, mass violence erupted with the protesters attacking the women journalists and the devotees alike, with media vans being destroyed and journalists heckled and manhandled by the angry mob. This resulted in a series of conflicts between the group of protesters and the police, after which Section 144 of CrPC was imposed in the area. The issue remains unsettled till date with a peaceful forest shrine being turned into a conflict zone. As the state awaits the judgement of the review petition being filed by the protesters against this historic Supreme Court judgement, one is lost between the choice of women’s rights and maintaining peace and communal harmony in the state. That both of these have become mutually exclusive to each other reflects the deplorable state to which religion and its disguised patriarchy have been internalised in the minds of people.

At a time when the #MeToo movement and other similar movements advocating gender equality have been impacting even the most patriarchal fields and industries, religion, one of the oldest social institutions in the world, continues to remain untouched and fails to address concerns of gender inequality and discrimination. Patriarchy in religion is still a taboo to discuss, with many of the clearly discriminatory practices and rituals being allowed to continue simply because they have been practised for centuries and is now a norm.

The ban of women in the Sabarimala temple is such a special case with those who are fighting to retain the ban stating that this restriction is because of the speciality of the deity, and not a case of discrimination. According to the legend, Lord Ayyappa is a naishtika brahmachari or a celibate, due to which women of the menstruating age group of 10 to 50 are denied entry to the temple. This view was contested in the court and the judgement said, The subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physiological factors cannot be given the seal of legitimacy. Any rule based on discrimination or segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only unfounded, indefensible and implausible, but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality (Indian Young Lawyers Association & Ors. v The State of Kerala & Ors. AIR. 2006. SC. 373).

Justifying the ban on women stating Ayyappa’s celibacy and categorising women into certain age groups reflect the society’s misguided interpretation and restriction of female sexuality. Moreover, as the judgement had noted, placing the burden of a man’s celibacy on women stigmatises and stereotypes them. Though the popular accusation that menstruation plays an important role in this restriction is denied by those advocating the ban, one of the repeated arguments that emerge is that of a woman’s inability to keep the mandatory vrat of 41 days before the pilgrimage, due to her monthly periods, refuting the former claim. The claim that young women, due to menstruation, would find it physically challenging to climb the forest hill is an unreasonable argument, as it is ironic to consider that much older women are perfectly capable of making this pilgrimage.

With this judgement being touted by some as the State’s intrusion into the religious freedom, notions of the law of the land and freedom of a religious group are positioned in conflict with each other. Sabarimala verdict poses the larger question of the extent of involvement of the court in matters of faith and further blurs the line separating the two. Article 25 of the Constitution that promises freedom of religion also protects an individual’s right to pray. The exclusion of women in Sabarimala is hence a violation of women’s right to worship. This verdict has elucidated that when religious freedom and one’s constitutional right are at odds with each other, the latter is prioritised over the other.

That a custom has been practiced for centuries is not again a valid reason for its legitimacy and irreversibility. We have progressed as a society only by abolishing and reforming many such discriminatory practices and rituals which were considered irrevocable at one point. Interestingly, the legal restriction of women in Sabarimala is a recent one, with historical accounts revealing various instances in the past when women were not barred from Sabarimala. The Kerala High Court’s judgement of 1991 mentions how women irrespective of their age were allowed to visit the temple when it opened for monthly poojas. Women used to visit the temple earlier. The Maharaja of Travancore accompanied by the Maharani and the Diwan had visited the temple in the Malayalam year of 1115 (1940). There was thus no strict prohibition for women to enter the Sabarimala temple in olden days (The Scroll).

The recent protests against the Supreme Court verdict remind one of all the protests that have followed major social reforms in the country. None of the progressive movements or abolition of evil practices came about without having to wage a battle against religious fundamentalists and the patriarchal mindset of the society. People had taken to streets and threatened mutiny when Dalits were allowed entry to temples. Women were prohibited from covering their breasts as part of tradition in ancient Kerala, and the ones who fought this evil practice were attacked and abused like the women devotees in Sabarimala. Every single ritual or malpractice that has been abolished or reformed by the law had been backed up in the name of tradition with majority of the people blindly justifying it. The argument that majority of women do not wish to go to Sabarimala hence fails here, as none of the above-mentioned rituals like Sati, untouchability or ban of entry of Dalits were not abolished as per the interest of the majority, in fact, the majority opposed such social reforms.

The implication of the verdict is simple, women can exercise their freedom of choice and decide whether to go or not: If you do not want to go, fair enough. But do not question another’s right to go and worship. Certain women masquerading themselves as self-proclaimed protectors of religion and claiming to represent the whole women community and stating that no true woman devotee would want to go to Sabarimala is again a problem of misguided interpretation of faith and belief. Homogenising various experiences of belief and spirituality and abrogating the ones that do not conform to the mainstream norms are an intrusion into individual’s right to freedom. To see women protesting against a freedom granted to them, demanding it to be revoked and hence restricting not just theirs, but another woman’s freedom as well is alarming in this century. There is nothing more dangerous than women embracing and defending patriarchy disguised as religious freedom through rituals.

It is this internalisation of patriarchy that has been normalised through various practices and rituals that prevent many from viewing this restriction in Sabarimala as a discriminatory practice. With a possibility of the results of the review petition going either ways, it will remain uncontested that this historic verdict on Sabarimala would serve as a forerunner for many such reforms in other religions as well. This verdict has opened doors to reconsider, redefine and reform all our religious rituals and practices in a befitting manner, preserving the tradition without compromising the rights of the individuals. If retained, this verdict would be enshrined in history as a progressive move towards gender equality, and if revoked, we have yet another long battle to be fought until the society escapes the clutches of religious fundamentalism.

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