Can a woman’s age determine her right to pray, the Supreme Court asked the Sabarimala temple board on Wednesday, adding that the Hindu religion doesn’t discriminate against women.
“In Hindu religion, there is no denomination of a Hindu male or female. A Hindu is a Hindu,” a special three-judge bench headed by justice Dipak Misra said, stressing on gender equality.
The court is hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the decades-old tradition of keeping women of reproductive age out of the famous the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. One of the holiest Hindu shrines, the hilltop Kerala temple even allows in non-Hindus.
Women aged between 10 and 50 years are not allowed because the deity is a celibate (Naisthik Brahmachari), the Kerala government and the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the temple have submitted.
The court wondered if the argument would stand constitutional test. “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 said.
However, justice Kurien 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, appearing for NGO Happy to Bleed.
Late last year, scores of women took to social media joining #happytobleed campaign after the temple head said he would allow women if there was a machine to check if they were menstruating.
The ban violated her clients’ right to practice religion that included right of entry and worshipping the Lord, Jaising said. “How can women become victims” when all classes of society were allowed in the temple?
Jaising, however, was forced to take back the submission when she compared women to “neo-Harijans” of India who were being discriminated against.
“Why do you say that? Don’t compare... You are Aadi Shakti. Women have created generations. You must say they are equal,” the bench said.
Defending the restriction, the state government said not all women were kept away. Lakhs of them below the age of 10 and above 50 visited the temple every year.
On the petitioners’ contention that women were allowed in other Ayyappa temples, the state government said the deities there were in a different form.
The court also didn’t accept immediately the board’s request to refer the matter to a five-judge bench. The court will now hear the case on April 18.
The case is being watched closely as the court in earlier hearings has said tradition can’t trump constitution and discriminatory customs pose a danger to gender equality.