Sabarimala is one of the largest Hindu pilgrimage centres. Situated on a hill, it is a temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, the Hindu god of growth. It is proclaimed to be one of the few ‘equalising’ temples, where devotees of all castes and classes are treated equally and are required to dress in uniformity of black. However, the old customs and traditions of their treatment of women are quite regressive.
What is the Sabarimala issue?
Since 1991, the Kerala High Court has been upholding the law which bans women between the ages of 10-50 years from entering the temple premises. This is enforced under the Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules 1965 which dictates that in religious areas where women are not allowed to enter “by custom”, this custom shall be maintained. It is to be noted that this prohibition is not against all women, but only those of menstruating ages.
in religious areas where women are not allowed to enter “by custom”, the custom shall be maintained.
In 2006 the Young Lawyer’s Associations (YLA) filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court challenging this rule. However, the judgement only arrived in 2017 when the three judge bench referred the issue to the constitutional bench. A constitutional bench is a bench of the Supreme Court which consists of at least 5 judges. In October 2017, this PIL was revised once again to ensure the bench consisted of at least 50% women.
On the 20th of July 2018, the constitutional bench commenced the hearing of the Sabarimala Issue.
Mythology: Why are women prohibited?
This ban on women is stemming from an ancient custom based on the belief that Lord Ayyappa was a Naisthik Brahmachari (celibate). According to the puranas (sacred texts), Ayyappa was created to destroy a demon that had taken over a beautiful woman’s body. Once the demon was defeated, the woman asked Lord Ayyappa to take her hand in marriage. However, Ayyappa was committed to his mission to go to Sabarimala and dedicate his life to his devotees. He promised that he would marry her the day kann-swamis (new devotees) would stop coming to his temple. Devotees believe that even today she sits waiting for him next to the shrine, and is worshipped as Malikapurathamma
Certain believers claim the reason women do not enter the temple, is in sympathy with Malikapurathamma and to ensure that Lord Ayyappa fulfils his duty in answering the prayers of his devotees without feminine distractions.
Taboo of Menstruation
Another reason women between these particular ages are prohibited from entering the compound is due to the immense taboo around menstruation. Many strongly believe that a menstruating woman is an impure person, thus making it impossible for her to complete the 41 days of vratham (purification period). In fact, being near menstruating women may ‘ruin’ the vratham of the male devotees, who have spent these 41 days in complete austerity and celibacy.
Very often such stigmas are perpetuated and reinforced by women themselves, perhaps, subject to their internalised misogyny. A group of women claiming to be the representatives of the female devotees of Ayyappa, proclaim that no truly pious woman would decide to enter the temple despite the Supreme Court rulings. They created the ‘Ready to Wait’ campaign, to show that as true believers of Ayyappa, they are willing to obey custom and enter the temple only after they successfully complete the vratham process through the traditional way. Though such a campaign can be seen as an attempt to accommodate a woman’s choice to adhere to the customs, a general ban on menstruating women takes away women’s right to choose whether she wants to follow such customs or not.
The Devasom Board was quick to point out that this exclusion was not necessarily anti-women, but a rule created to accord to the practical impossibilities of the impure physiology of a woman’s body. They emphasised the special status and titles awarded to the non-menstruating women who were allowed in as a sign of their acceptance of women in general. They even stretched far enough to compare themselves to certain mosques which exclude women all together.
“Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?”, asks the Supreme Court.
To this, the Supreme Court as well as the Constitutional bench has repeatedly demanded to the defence lawyers whether a biological function could be discriminated against. “Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?”, asks the Supreme Court. Senior advocate Indira Jaising says that such a discrimination based on claims of ‘impurity’ is a violation of Article 17 of the Indian Constitution which forbids untouchability.
Untouchability is the practice based on the idea of social humiliation and the belief that the presence of a certain person by itself can be ‘defiling’. In his 1917 essay ‘Castes in India’ B.R. Ambedkar illustrates the misogynistic basis of the caste system. Women are banned, especially menstruating women, because orthodox Hindu texts explain the various ways in which the menstrual cycle and child birth pollute upper caste environments. Extensions of this can be seen in our daily lives, such as the exclusion of upper caste women from religious rituals on the days of their cycle.
Judges on the three-judge panel has proclaimed that such discrimination based on biological factors violates the very core of the constitution, Articles 14, 15, and 17, which prohibit discrimination against citizens.
After deliberation for almost more than a decade, the decision on the Constitutional Bench may mark a watershed moment in the Indian legal history. The Sabarimala issue has an opportunity for the Supreme Court to provide us a strong precedence which supports the individual rights of women over the group rights of religious denominations. Upholding the right to entry for all, despite ‘impure’ physiological factors, to such an iconic and historic pilgrim centre will open up the questioning of more such issues and cases, where religious group rights infringe on the individual civil rights of citizens.
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