In a landmark move, the Indian Supreme Court has lifted a centuries-old ban that prohibits women of menstruating age from entering the Hindu pilgrimage site, the Sabarimala Temple.
For centuries, women aged between 10 to 50 have been forbidden to enter the temple in the state of Kerala. The Sabarimala Temple allows 50 million pilgrims from all faiths each year but bars young women on the grounds that its deity, Lord Ayyappa, is believed to be eternally celibate.
Menstruation is considered in many religions — not in just Hinduism but in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well — as unclean and many religious rituals exclude women who are on their period. However, unlike other temples that ban only those women from entering who are on their period, Sabarimala had a blanket ban on all women of menstruating age. Devotees argue the ban actually protects women since it is believed the mystic energy at Sabarimala is damaging to women’s health.
During the weekend, India’s Supreme Court struck down the rule in a 4-1 decision and Chief Justice Dipak Misra said that Sabarimala’s restrictions are not an essential part of religious practice.
Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over faith and the freedom to practice and profess one’s religion,” said Misra. “Rules based on biological characteristics can never pass the muster of constitutionality.”
“All devotees are equal, and there cannot be any discrimination on the basis of gender,” he added.
Supreme Court Justice D.Y. Chandrachud also echoed Misra’s sentiments, stating, “To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at constitutional morality.”
The ruling is the result of a petition that has been making its way to the Supreme Court for years, after activists claimed the rule was archaic.
Sadhana, an American coalition of progressive Hindus lauded the Supreme Court’s decision and wrote on Facebook, “No human is pure or impure in the eyes of god. We are all divine.”
Shockingly, the only person on the Supreme Court bench who dissented was a woman, Justice Indu Malhotra, who argued “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion.”
“Religious practices cannot solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality,” she said, according to Reuters. “It is up to the worshippers, not the court, to decide what is the religion’s essential practice.”
The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple, is planning to seek a review of the decision. The board’s president A. Padmakumar said after the decision “real women devotees” of Lord Ayyappa will hesitate to visit the temple come the annual pilgrimage season and “only some women activists are expected to trek the holy hill in the name of the verdict.”
Meanwhile, Kerala’s government will be adding women’s accommodation to the temple, including separate bathrooms and increasing the number of female police officers on site.
Recently, other holy sites have been opened to women through court cases. In 2016, a lower court in Mumbai lifted the prohibition on women entering the inner sanctum of Shani Shingnapu, a Hindu temple and Haji Ali Muslim shrine on the Arabian Sea, reported the BBC.
Earlier this month, the court also struck down a colonial-era law that banned gay sex and overturned an adultery law that treated wives as their husbands’ property.
However, female empowerment still has a long way to go in the country. The culture of male dominance is such that parents have been killing their daughters in infancy to avoid looking for a suitable husband for them and to bequeath them expensive dowries. In fact, there are highly popular chauvinistic organizations that advocate for “men’s rights,” denigrate wives and counter-sue female sexual assault survivors who file complaints against their abusive husbands.
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