Right To Worship
By Raji Rajagopalan
16 July, 2004
is the relationship between religion and women's rights? Should we care
about the treatment of women by religions of the world? Should we be
bothered when we see, even in the twenty-first century, a woman being
prohibited from doing certain things, like becoming ordained or entering
a temple just because she is a woman?
I ask, why not?
Why should we let society draw circles around us citing our gender as
the only reason? If some women want to enter golf clubs where they are
prohibited, wouldn't some women want to enter temples where they are
Take my cousin,
for instance. There is a temple in South India that my cousin desperately
wants to visit. She is a devotee of the God housed there and would cherish
her visit to His temple as a Muslim would cherish her Hajj. But, unfortunately,
my cousin's 'Hajj' is not for at least another twenty years, for she
is only thirty years old now, and women between the ages of ten and
fifty are banned from the temple she wants to visit.
This temple is called
"Sabarimala". It is situated atop a hill in Kerala and houses
a bachelor God called Ayyappa. It is purported that around the 14th
of January, every year, a celestial fire - a Jyothi with healing powers
- glows in the sky near the Sabarimala shrine. My cousin, like a million
other devotees, believes that seeing this celestial fire is her panacea.
"But," the Temple board tells her, "you cant have
that panacea. You see, you are not a man."
But why does the
Temple board tell her so? It gives a smorgasbord of reasons: The eight
kilometer trek to the temple along dense woods is arduous for women;
Ayyappa is a bachelor God and his bachelorhood will be broken if he
sees a woman; the forty-one-day penance for the pilgrimage, where one
must live as abstemiously as a saint, cannot be undertaken by women
- they are too weak for that; men cohorts will be enticed to think bad
thoughts if women joined them in their trek; letting women into the
temple will disrupt law and order; women's menstrual blood will attract
animals in the wild and jeopardize fellow travelers; menstruation is
a no-no for God.
And so the list
of lame reasons grows. Don't think that no one has ever questioned the
inanity of those reasons. Several Indian feminists have fought, and
keep fighting, with the Temple board in favor of the women devotees.
But the Temple board remains implacable. It is backed by enormous political
clout, and poor Indian feminists, like feminists almost everywhere,
must fend for themselves. It doesn't help that many Indian women are
disinterested in any feminist struggle. They think that it is presumptuous
for women to defy established customs. It is hard to rally them, especially
when it involves flouting tradition or religion.
brave and, sometimes, distressed women, boldly try to go where no young
woman has gone before. Times of India reports, "The distraught
mother of two boys, one with kidney disease and the other mentally unsound...wanted
to beseech Lord Ayyappa to save her family. But the law is hard and
cold. The police arrested her before she reached the sanctum ..."
Here is a report from a publication called Hinduism Today: "The
ban was upheld by Kerala's high court in 1990, but the issue is now
being raised by a 42-year old district collector, K.B. Valsala Kumari,
who was ordered to coordinate pilgrim services at the shrine. A special
court directive allowed her to perform her government duties at the
shrine, but not to enter the sanctum sanctorum." In December 2002,
Khaleej Times reported, "Women have made this year's Sabarimala
pilgrim season controversial by entering the prohibited hill shrine...Kerala
high court has ordered an inquiry to find out how a large number of
women had reached the shrine in violation of court orders." Strange,
isn't it, for the court to scribe such discriminatory orders?
I can understand
if religious fundamentalists raise a wall in the path of women. After
all, these people can't think straight, I tell myself. But if the court,
a body comprised of intelligent individuals who are supposed to be epitomes
of fairness, does it, I find it hard to digest. Why does an entity "by
the people, for the people, and of the people" perpetrate such
odious acts of discrimination? Isn't it deplorable that women can't
enter an institution that a body elected by them funds and oversees?
ago, when the Constitution of India was framed, "Untouchables"
- the lower-caste Indians who were believed to be "impure"
and hence objectionable to God - won the right to equality and broke
open the gates of temples that were closed to them thus far. Article
25(2b) was instituted specifically for them; to ensure that they could
pursue their religion unhampered. This article gives State the power
to make laws for "the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions
of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus". Sabarimala
IS a publicly funded temple: Article 290A of the Indian Constitution
entails the State of Kerala to pay, yearly, 4.65 million rupees to Sabarimala's
Temple board. Nevertheless, it has so far remained shut to one section
of Indians - the young Indian women. And the State, instead of opening
it for them, works to ensure that it remains shut to them.
It is ironic that
this shrine, praised as "an unmatched instance of religious tolerance",
a temple open to men of all castes and religions, doesn't tolerate most
women. The society that has grown, at least outwardly, to breach "God's
decree" to keep lower-caste men out of His vicinity, is still struggling
to defy "His despise" for women. Especially, menstruating
Is it so because
women are still regarded impure and detestable, at least during certain
times? Is it because none in power is disposed to champion women's causes?
Is it because women themselves are disinclined to unite against their
discrimination? Is it because caste-discrimination is accepted to be
viler than gender-discrimination? Is it because society is averse to
disturbing the male-dominated hierarchy in India? Whatever it is, I
think that this ban on women in Sabarimala, while it appears to be a
religious issue, at its core, indicates an uglier problem - the oft-dismissed
and court-sanctioned oppression of women in India.