In the early morning of January 2nd 2019 two middle-aged women visited an ancient Hindu temple called Sabarimala in Kerala, South India. They were transported there by ambulance, accompanied by police officers dressed as civilians, and they entered the temple through a side door. According to the Supreme Court of India, they had every right to be there. According to some Hindu believers, they were undermining the sanctity of the temple. Public debate in India has been torn apart by the discussion concerning Sabarimala, and women’s right to express their faith.

Sabarimala has been described as “one of Hinduism’s holiest temples”. The temple was founded 800 years ago and receive visits by more than 50 million people a year. They’re almost all men. Within traditional Hindu beliefs, menstruating women are considered “unpure”. While most Hindu temples in India allow adult women to pray in the temples when they’re not menstruating, the religious leaders of Sabarimala have chosen a different approach. They’ve upheld a general ban on all women of “menstruating age”, i.e. between 10 and 50 years, from entering the temple. What started as a social norm became a legal ban in 1972 and since then it’s been illegal for adult women to enter into Sabarimala.

Crowds of worshippers at Sabarimala (2007). Pgoto: Ragesh Ev/Flickr.

In 2016, the Young Lawyer’s Association filed a petition to the Supreme Court of India. On 28th of September 2018, the Supreme Court decided that the general ban infringed on the principle of equality of worship, as inscribed in the Indian Constitution.

The ruling thus became part of a series of landmark cases where the Supreme Court have dealt with some of the most stigmatized issues in Indian society. It should be noted, however, that the court didn’t reach the verdict unanimously. The dissenting judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, said that she believed “what constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court”.

The court’s ruling gave rise to reactions among strict Hindu believers. Protesters gathered in their thousands en route to Sabarimala. They intercepted vehicles on the way to the temple, stopped women from entering and attacked female journalists. Some protesters even threatened commit suicide if women were allowed to enter.

The Hindu Activists claim to have religious grounds for their standpoint. Sabarimala was founded to honour the Hindu Deity Ayappan, a celibate bachelor, and some Hindu worshipers believe that allowing women into the temple would “tempt the deity”. Many of the protests were led by women who believe it’s more important to uphold religious tradition than gender equality. They seem to agree with Justice Malhotra that it should be a matter for the worshipers to decide over their own religious customs.

Ayyappan temple and Vaavar mosque, en route to Sabarimala. Photo: Jai/Flickr.

In December four transgender women prayed in the temple wearing traditional black saris.

Transgender women were allowed to pray in Sabarimala before the Supreme Court’s ruling in September 2018. But after the verdict, due to security concerns, Kerala police recommended transgender women to dress as men when entering the temple. The women refused and brought their case to court. The court supported their claim. Temple officials said they wouldn’t object to transgender women praying in Sabarimala, as they don’t menstruate. According to the police, the women’s presence in the temple wasn’t met with any resistance on the spot.

On January 1st 2019 tens of thousands of Indian women formed a 620 km long human chain across Kerala that became known as the “Women’s Wall”. It was organized by the left-wing state government in Kerala and its purpose was to demonstrate support for gender equality and to constitute a counter-force against the Hindu protesters at Sabarimala.

The day after the Women’s Wall, lawyer Bindi Ammini and activist Kanaka Durga entered Sabarimala. Upon receiving this information, the temple elderly closed Sabarimala for several hours performing so-called “purification” rituals.

In the outside world, Kerala was paralyzed. Local businesses shut down and taxis refused to take passengers as the drivers feared for their safety. Hindu protesters staged a sit-in in the commercial hub of Kochi, while self-made bombs went off outside a police station in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. One person died in the riots and both civilians and police officers were injured. More than 700 people were arrested. Ammini and Durga went into hiding.

The issue of Sabarimala has given rise to political reactions. The state government of Kerala, led by the Communist party, has promised to uphold the Supreme Court’s verdict. The two main parties in Indian politics, the Congress party and the BJP, remain critical. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP spoke out in an interview regarding Sabarimala and said he believes the ban to be a matter of religion, not gender equality.

At a lower level, however, some BJP representatives have criticised the protesters. BJP MP Udit Ray has reportedly said that “this is a first in the world: women saying ‘make me a slave, treat me unequally; we’re inferior to men’. I don’t understand”.

“Old woman and girl” by Stanislag Lvovsky/Flickr.

The Sabarimala case has cut straight through Indian society and has drawn the traditional conflict line between left and right, as well as a new conflict line between law and religion.

In light of the court’s ruling, Indian public debate has had to deal with difficult questions. At the end of the day, does gender equality matter more than religious autonomy? And what power does a federal court hold over religious customs?

In the aftermath of the January protests, Hindu activists have been indicted for attacking women claiming their new-found right to pray. In February 2019, the Sabarimala temple board stated that the they would abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling and allow women to enter the temple. Whether this means that the matter has been resolved remains to be seen. India is undergoing rapid change, and Sabarimala surely won’t be the last case where Indian society has to take a stance on which traditions to bring along into the future.

Katarina Bungerfeldt 

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