The Kerala government has overturned the opposition of its predecessor, the UDF, and is batting for allowing women of all ages to enter the famous Sabrimala temple. At present, there is a restriction on women from 10 to 50 (menstrual age) entering the temple. The reason offered for this is that the deity is celibate and would be offended by women in their reproductive years coming into his presence.
In reversing the earlier stand, the Kerala government will find itself in sync with the courts, which had earlier ruled that tradition can’t take precedence over the Constitution and that discriminatory customs pose a danger to gender equality. “Can a biological phenomenon be ground for discrimination?” a bench headed by justice Dipak Misra had earlier asked the temple management that contended the ban on entry of women was because they cannot maintain purity for 41 days — the duration of the pilgrimage.
Many may argue that the courts or governments have no right to interfere in religious matters but when women are being discriminated against on the basis of gender, the law has to weigh in on their side. The notions of purity, not allowing widows into temples, etc, are regressive. Most of these so-called traditions were devised at a time when women had no rights and did not demand them.
What needs to be examined is whether priests or fundamentalist forces have the authority to decide on what age, or whether at all, women should be allowed into places of worship. They are surely not above the constitutional rights given to citizens. Women themselves have protested against such restrictions. A secular polity like India has the duty to protect the rights of its citizens to practice any faith of their choice and the Sabrimala temple’s recent diktat that it will allow women to enter only if they are subject to a scan to prove that they are not menstruating is not only an attack on women’s fundamental rights but also on their right to privacy.
As seen in the case of Muslim women coming forward against the misuse of the triple talaq, many Hindu women too have come forward to question these patriarchal restrictions imposed on them. These are attempts to marginalise and exclude women from places of worship, much in the manner Dalits are sought to be kept out on the basis of so-called caste purity.
The courts have given women the legal heft to challenge these regressive notions and it is heartening that the State in the form of the Kerala government has thrown its weight behind this push for gender equality.