Sabarimala Protests: Are You a “True Devotee” If You Continue to Attack Women?

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Sabarimala Protests: Are You a “True Devotee” If You Continue to Attack Women?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

It’s been two days since two women in their 40s – Bindu and Kanakadurga – made history by entering the Sabarimala shrine, going against “tradition” and inciting a fresh round of protests from right-wing parties. Their entry came more than two months after Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple officially opened for women, following the landmark Supreme Court judgement that overturned the centuries-old tradition which denied entry to women between the ages of 10 and 50 years. Women of menstruating age offend Ayyappa, a celibate deity, believe his staunch devotees.

This led to the abuse and attack on Kairali TV cameraperson Shajila Abdulrahman, who was covering a Sangh Parivar protest against women entering the temple. As Abdulrahman kept the camera rolling, a mob vandalised posters and attacked journalists. She was threatened, heckled, her camera was snatched, and she was kicked on her back. In fact, a picture of her continuing to capture the protest in tears after being attacked went viral. It’s evident that the Sabarimala protests have nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with discrimination against women.

But much before this practice was declared invalid by the highest court in the country on grounds of gender discrimination and supported women’s freedom to worship, the Sabarimala rulebook raised a host of questions: If a woman does not attain menopause by 50, is she still allowed to go before Ayyappa? And if a menstruating woman enters the temple will Sabarimala and all of Kerala self-destruct? Now that Bindu and Kanakadurga set foot inside the temple’s sacred walls, we finally know.

In October, New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj was viciously attacked by the stone-pelting mob. She has since decided against returning to Sabarimala. A day after the incident, two women came within half a kilometre of the shrine after braving a five-kilometre uphill hike, but had to head back after being intimidated by 30 priests. These godly men not only blocked their way but also threatened to shut the temple down. A third woman, a tourist, who wanted to see the shrine, was denied police escort because – get this – they couldn’t guarantee that they could protect her.

Back in October, the Kerala Devaswom Board had decided to file a review petition against the order. Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran said it’s the government’s duty to protect “true devotees” but the temple is no place for activism. With no apparent irony, the Board has claimed that Sabarimala is not for protests, unless, of course, the protesters are of the right kind.

Does it take a battalion of holy warriors – who hurl threats, abuse, and stones at women – to defend the honour of Ayyappa?

It’s a catch-22 for a situation that with each passing day makes less and less sense. On one hand, any woman who is the first to visit Sabarimala is proving a point, whether she intends to or not. And on the other, women who meet the standards of “real” devotion would not sully the shrine with their impure existence. Either way, it’s hard to ignore the upshot of this no-women-devotee fallacy: The temple is still the preserve of men, who maintain the status quo by insisting that no woman can be a faithful, devoted worshipper of Ayyappa and enter Sabarimala. The state-wide protests are proof.

So let’s take a look at the “devoted worshippers” who have spent months attacking women. Does it take a battalion of holy warriors – who hurl threats, abuse, and stones at women – to defend the honour of Ayyappa? Is the only real devotee of Ayyappa the one who believes in his religious rights without considering the constitutional rights of others? Is he someone who believes in some fucked-up form of vigilante justice instead of the law of the land?

Or, wait a second, maybe this is not about Ayyappa at all.

It’s hard to imagine that a god known for his strict chastity would be threatened by the mere presence of a pubescent child, or that he would call his women devotees impure because of how their bodies work. Instead, ordinary men have projected their own worst impulses onto the deity – men who refuse to see women as worthy or equal or even human, and who cling to the spaces they consider theirs. Not Ayappa’s.

The head priest who prevented the women from entering claimed that he has no choice but to stand behind the devotees. These are, after all, the people who keep the diyas lit at Sabarimala. But perhaps, just this once, all the priests and devotees might want to consider standing behind Ayyappa himself.

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