Putting the Sab in Sabarimala: The Kerala Temple’s Lesson in Inclusion

Culture

Putting the Sab in Sabarimala: The Kerala Temple’s Lesson in Inclusion

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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n delivering its final verdict on the contentious Sabarimala temple case, the Supreme Court made a long-overdue observation: The right of a woman to pray is equal to that of a man. If you’re surprised that such an obvious fact had to be spelled out by the highest court in the country, allow me to familiarise you with the ridiculous rule that prompted it.

Following the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules 1965, the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala prohibited menstruating women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the sanctum sanctorum, as the deity Lord Ayyappa was considered to be celibate. According to the rule, “Women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.” Back in January, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, had even made it mandatory for women to carry age-proof documents when they visited the temple premises.

The case has been in court for the last 12 years, but it was only in October last year that the court referred the matter to a constitutional bench that commenced its hearings this July. Questioning the hypocrisy of the rule that encouraged gender discrimination with impunity, Justice Chandrachud said, “When a woman is made in the way that she is by God, or by nature for those who don’t believe in God, then why should her menstrual status be a factor for anything, be it service or worship?”

But Sabarimala isn’t the only temple to bar the entry of women. It is however, a reminder for a host of other religious places of worship to finally end their deep-seated prejudice toward women devotees.

The Court has finally reached a judgement, the archaic rule is scrapped, and the temple is now open to all. But Sabarimala isn’t the only temple to bar the entry of women. It is however, a reminder for a host of other religious places of worship to finally end their deep-seated prejudice toward women devotees.

In April 2016, after months of a high-profile protest campaign and a Bombay High Court directive to the Maharashtra government, the Shani Shingnapur temple ended a 400-year-old tradition. Except that local women have continued staying away from entering the inner sanctum of the temple under pressure from men who were actually never in favour of the tradition being broken. Brainwashed into believing that tradition trumps equality, no woman from the Ahmednagar district has climbed onto the platform or touched the deity, even though they don’t oppose any other women doing the same.

Women devotees are barred in Pushkar’s Kartikeya Temple, in Assam’s Patbaushi Satra, and at Ranakpur Temple in Rajasthan. This extends across several Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan temples. The reason? The supposed celibacy of the deity.

Back in Mumbai, the Haji Ali Dargah, which allowed the entry of women in 2016, continues to have separate entries for men and women, a strict dress code for women, and an unofficial restriction on women touching the tomb of the saint. The shrine’s trust had earlier “conceded before the SC that it would allow women to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men.” Across Delhi’s Jama Masjid and Nizamuddin Dargah, women have restricted entry, and are often disallowed from entering the mosque after sunset prayers.

The very fact that India is dominated by temples and mosques that continue to hold the belief that women need to be restricted from exercising their fundamental right proves the significance of the Sabarimala hearing. The positive Sabarimala judgment isn’t a win – it’s only be the start. An induction into a world where equality, when it comes to an individual’s right to pray, isn’t just a far-fetched dream.

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