The petition challenging authorities of the popular Sabrimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala regarding barring entry for women will be taken up by the Supreme Court again on Monday.
A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed countering the decades-old tradition that restricts females aged between 10 and 50 years – the menstrual age – from entering the temple situated on a hilltop. The basis of the argument is that it violates women’s right to equality which is enshrined in the Constitution.
The Travancore Devaswom Board that maintains the temple is arguing that the deity is a Naisthik Brahmachari (a celibate), hence the restriction. The temple board’s stand is currently supported by the Kerala government, although it had earlier submitted an affidavit that backed the PIL.
“Can a biological phenomenon be ground for discrimination?” a bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra had earlier asked the Sabarimala temple management that had contended that women cannot maintain purity for 41 days given their menstrual cycle.
A devotee seeking to make the pilgrimage to Sabrimala, considered one of the holiest Hindus shrines, goes through a gruelling period of purity. This includes abstaining from meat, alcohol, living in simple clothes and remaining barefoot throughout.
“Do you to mean to say that mensuration is associated with purity of women? You are making distinction based on purity... Now the question is whether the Constitutional principles allow this?” the bench had asked. It told the board’s counsel that the tests of austerity applied for men should be same for women.
“In Hindu religion, there is no denomination of a Hindu male or female. A Hindu is a Hindu,” the special three-judge bench headed by justice Misra had said, stressing on gender equality.
The hearing comes at a time when similar traditions barring women at other temples are being challenged by women activists based on the same argument of gender equality.
But the Sabrimala case takes special significance as the court in earlier hearings said tradition could not trump Constitution and that discriminatory customs posed a danger to equality.
“They (temple) have developed a custom and tradition being followed to maintain purity of the temple. But the question is whether physiological phenomenon can be a guiding factor to deny entry to a class of women within the class of females,” justice Misra had said in April.
However, justice Kurian Joseph had asked if the temple – as an institution – was entitled to protect its deity. “Are they not entitled to institutional protection?” he asked senior advocate Indira Jaising, who appeared for Happy to Bleed, an NGO that championed the social media campaign #happytobleed.
Scores of women joined the campaign late last year after the temple head said he would allow women if there was a machine to check if they were menstruating.
Jaising contended that the ban violated her clients’ right to practise religion that included right of entry and worshipping the Lord.
However, defending the restriction, the Kerala government said not all women were kept away; lakhs of them below the age of 10 and above 50 visited the temple every year.
As for women being allowed in other Ayyappa temples, the state government said the deities there were in a different form.