It is believed that, for most of history, women between the ages of 10 and 50 haven’t been allowed inside Kerala’s massively famous Sabarimala temple. From admitting women with age proofs and the state employing police personnel to keep women out of the temple, the clear shades of discrimination colouring the fiasco eventually sparked a national debate. One that is made difficult for this country not only because of its inability and lack of desire to move away from patriarchal believes that shackle women and hold them back from all aspects of public life, but by pitting the rights of women, in the flesh, against that of a deity, a man carved in stone. For a country that is deeply and largely religious and places inordinate amounts of importance in culture, tradition, and religious beliefs, acknowledging the rights of real women over a deity’s is absurdly, but unsurprisingly proving to be incredibly difficult.
Most people in favour of keeping women out of the temple insist this is not a gendered issue and fiercely fight the claim that women are disallowed from entering the temple because of taboos and the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. They believe the roots of the practice aren’t in patriarchy, but in legend, which ironically, once again, is patriarchal.
It is said that the deity that resides there is celibate, meditating – now for centuries – for the well-being of those who worship him and don’t want him to be distracted from his penance by the presence of women, especially when he has promised himself to Malikapurathamma – another deity residing in the temple – the year no new worshippers visit him. It is said women aren’t allowed in the temple out of empathy for Malikapurathamma and also so as to not be a distraction to the deity and allow him to remain celibate.
This claim isn’t only severely patriarchal, but isn’t the only reason women are banned from the temple’s premises. The ritual impurity associated with menstruating women is really the basis for disallowing them entry.
Most arguments for keeping women out of the temple’s premises are baseless, considering that women’s entry to the temple was only legally restricted after a 1991 Kerala High Court ruling. The arbitrary ages of 10 and 50 were decided by the court, and the court’s motivation was to keep impure menstruating women out of the holy premises of the temple. Although the practice was in place before the ruling, there is no evidence yet to suggest that the practice existed before 1950s.
Sabarimala Temple entry issue: “On what basis you (temple authorities) deny the entry. It is against the Constitutional mandate. Once you open it for public, anybody can go,” observes the Chief Justice of India
— ANI (@ANI) July 18, 2018
Although, the argument being presented in court to continue the practice is that the deity should be allowed to remain celibate and permitting women of fertile age to visit the temple will not allow it to be that way. Attorney J Sai Deepak, bizarrely representing the deity, claimed that the deity has the same rights as that of a person and that the temple being his, he is allowed to restrict the entry of women to keep his vow of celibacy.
We seem to be keen to believe that a deity has the same legal rights as a person, but women do not. That tells us what we need to know about this issue and even our collective attitudes towards religion, women, and patriarchy.
In 1991, the court said, ‘customs must be followed’. Though, customs mustn’t be followed when their legality and morality is questionable. We collectively, as a country, weaponise culture and tradition to condone sexist practices and to hinder the empowerment of women and to keep them from existing in public life, the same way men do, to the same extent, and with the same sense of entitlement. To penalise women to provide a deity, what men centuries ago decided he must want, is a deeply patriarchal act. There isn’t much else to this issue beyond gender and patriarchy. This isn’t a religious issue, it is a gendered issue, it is a women’s rights issue, the subjugation and discrimination of women is always justified by stating that it takes root in culture, tradition, or religion and now is the time to put an end to that. Culture, tradition, or religion, none of those come above the rights of women and they shouldn’t shape how women are allowed to exist without condemnation and ostracization.
Religion cannot come above the Constitution in a democratic country. And when we protect the rights of a deity made in stone, while violating the rights of real people, we are suggesting that religion is above the law, the Constitution, and even the real spirit of a democracy, where everyone is said to be equal. In a democracy of the people, by the people, for the people, a justice system made for them, cannot possibly even consider upholding the rights of a deity instead of those of women. This case isn’t about one temple and the legal right of women desiring to visit it being allowed entry, irrespective of mythology, legend, or biological processes.
This case is about the conflict between women, religion, and state and what place religion is allowed in a democratic state. This case, if ruled in the favour of women can be a watershed moment, not just in the history of women’s rights and feminism, but for the intersection of religion and law and even in the history of law, questioning its basis in culture.
It will go a long way in securing the rights of women from further violations, not just in the name of religion, but tradition as well, and it will allow women space in public life, even if that doesn’t not fit our collective, patriarchal idea of how women should be allowed to exist.
For any deeply religious country, religion’s interference in the proper and fair workings of a state is inevitable, but this ruling can limit the power religion holds and how religion is largely above the law. Above all, it might allow us to realize that religion and state cannot co-exist in a fair manner and for the spirit of democracy to thrive, we must keep religion far away from all affairs of state.