Right to Equality

Sabarimala Shrine and Women's Entry

Ram Puniyani

In a democratic society people are supposed to be equal. In pre-industrial society the inequality was very much there and it, was based on birth. In Indian society this inequality, the one based on birth pertained to caste and gender. Leftovers of this inequality are very much there even in today's society. One aspect of this has been pertaining to entry of women in places of worship in most of the mosques, it's predominantly men who pray to the Allah, in temples the discrimination has been based on the ground of caste and gender, both. One recalls the epic struggle of Dr Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedkar in matter of Kalaram Mandir for temple entry of dalits. One also recalls the recent campaigns led by Trupti Desai for entry into Sanctum Santorum's of Hindu Temples (Shani Shingnapur of Maharashtra in particular). Recently people also had the agitation of Muslim women for entry into inner precincts of Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. These recent agitations did lead to success of women gaining entry to these hallowed places.

That is not the end of the story. There are scores of famous and not so famous temples which still bar the entry of certain castes and women. One of the most well known of these being Sabarimala Shrine of Lord Ayappa, where women of menstruating age group are not permitted. The premise is that Lord Ayappa had taken the vow of permanent celibacy. In a recent (28 September 2018) Supreme Court Majority judgement (4 against 1) the Court ruled that banning the entry of women to Sabarimala Shrine is discriminatory and violates the rights of Hindu women. The judgement has been welcome by most of the women's rights groups and many others. Kavita Krishnan's tweet well summed up the view of most women's rights groups.

"In Instant Triple Talaq, Haji Ali and Sabarimala cases courts have rightly held that women's equality can't be held hostage to religious practices. Just as it's unconstitutional and discriminatory to debar entry to temples based on caste, it's the same to debar entry based on gender. Also, we project our own values on our gods—and patriarchal values that put the burden of men's celibacy or sexual choices on women are deeply damaging to women in real life". At the same time RSS cautioned the statement that feeling of the people should be considered. Congress asked the Trust controlling the temple to ask for review of judgement while BIP asked the state Government to bring an ordinance to reverse the same. Many other organisations are planning to get it reversed through appeal against the same.

The journey of women's march towards equality is not a smooth path. The abominable practice of Sati was the first one, which was opposed to begin with by Raja Rammohan Roy. He did have massive obstacles in his path despite the supportive legislations which came to abolish the horrendous practice of burning the widow alive. Despite many legislations, the Sati could not be eradicated easily, just a few decades back Indians saw the Sati of Roop Kanwar, and when the most from the society responded by calling for strict punishment, while the then Vice President of BJP, Mrs Vijayaraje Scindia took out rallies in support of practice of Sati. The other major reform among Hindu women related to age of consent. The debates have ranged for increasing the age of consent initially from 10 years to 12, when even the leaders like Lokmanya Gangadhar Tilak opposed this move on the ground that this is against Hindu traditions. The notion prevalent being that girls should be married before the first menstrual period. There are brilliant accounts of these struggles for these reforms which are worth being recalled, one such being Tanika Sarkar's book 'Hindu Wife Hindu Nation'. Just few years ago many a maulana came up in arms against the age of consent being raised to 18. For them the social provisions for early marriage of Muslim girls was mandatory.

Indian society is very uneven. The arguments for early marriage do relate to lack of education, mostly among poor, where the safety of girls is a big issue. Today the Sabarimala judgement is a matter of debate between those aspiring for equality and those sticking to age old customs, which have women's inequality in-built into it. Even today there is a wide spectrum of social thought on the topic. On one side one sees that a group of women have resolved that they will ensure that menstruating women will not enter the temple, on the other there are places like Eklavya Ashram, where menstruation is no taboo, where menstruating devotees also pray. To strike a balance in such a situation is as difficult as the tight walking.

Many women's groups kept aloof from the struggle for temple entry for women on the ground that all religions are inherently patriarchal, so why fall in the trap. To the best one can say that patriarchy is the core foundation of most institutionalised religions. This demand for temple entry is a step in demolishing the patriarchal set up, which should lead to total abolition of the same in times to come. Legislations don't solve the problems in themselves; still they are the major step in laying the direction for future march of the journey for equality. The other social situations of poverty and lack of security for women in this set up are the major aggravating factors leading to sustenance of patriarchal mould. People need the social policies which bring to fore and provide foundation for application of legislation in letter and spirit. With Supreme Court taking the lead in this the onus is on democrats and liberals to pave the path of equality in times to come. Need of the hour is to create the situation congenial for such judgements.

Vol. 51, No.19, Nov 11 - 17, 2018