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Sabarimala:For Women's
Right To Worship

By Raji Rajagopalan

16 July, 2004

What 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 prohibited?

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 can’t 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.

Nevertheless, many 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?

Fifty-four years 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 women.

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.