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Sabarimala: The SC strikes yet another blow in favour of gender equality

If the burden of male celibacy must not be placed on women then neither should the burden of male desire. To date, marital rape is not considered rape in India. This is the next movement that we must, en mass, rise for — consent should be written into every sexual encounter within marriage.

editorials Updated: Sep 28, 2018 19:51 IST
Hindustan Times
Joseph Shine’s lawyers Thulasi K Raj (left) and Kaleeswaram Raj and leave after the Supreme Court verdict on adultery law, in New Delhi, A five-judge constitution bench headed by Misra and consisting of justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra gave a concurring verdict to declare adultery as unconstitutional(PTI)

Back-to-back judgments by the Supreme Court have given a big fillip to women’s rights in one of the most-contested areas of our lives—sexual autonomy. After decriminalising adultery on Thursday, which placed an undue burden of fidelity on only married women, the Supreme Court on Friday struck down the rule barring women between 10 and 50 years of age — that is to say, menstruating women—from entering the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

“The ban says presence of women deviates from celibacy. This is placing the burden of men’s celibacy on women. It stigmatises them, and stereotypes them,” said Justice DY Chandrachud, one of the five judges of the Constitution Bench that heard the matter. This remarkable observation by an apex court judge mirrors the language of the women’s movement.

Male celibacy is a function of male desire, and specifically since this rule applies to menstruating women, it implies that the women who are being barred are women who are objects of desire. Girls below 10 years, and women above 50 years, clearly aren’t. Women who aren’t born in the gender assigned to them at birth aren’t in the running at all. Women from oppressed castes are desirable, but impure, and thus subject to even greater exercise of control.

This is what patriarchy looks like: unequal categories subject to the male gaze. Several commentators tried to obfuscate the central issue of gender equality in spaces of worship, by providing teleological arguments. Even the recent devastating floods of Kerala were enlisted to justify barring women from entering the temple, arguing that the deluge was a sign of divine anger against the legal case—but a comment like this isn’t really about the wrath of God, is it? It is about men retaining the power to control women’s access to spaces of worship. God is used to justify this only to make the claim seemingly unassailable.

Happily, the Constitution of India can, and does, assail such majoritarian and discriminatory impulses. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the practice of instant triple talaq unconstitutional, after a movement led by Muslim women. Similarly, in the matter of Sabarimala too, it was Hindu women—young and old alike—who led the movement to address this egregious inequality being practised for centuries in the temple.

Union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, said that this judgment proved that Hinduism is not the property of one caste or one sex. Let’s not forget, faith is not the property of two genders either. Does the access granted to women also extend to transmen and transwomen? Can the rights guaranteed to one oppressed section be denied to others? These are questions that must continue to stir persons of faith.

If the burden of male celibacy must not be placed on women then neither should the burden of male desire. To date, marital rape is not considered rape in India. This is the next movement that we must, en mass, rise for — consent should be written into every sexual encounter within marriage. Without it, women will remain chattel of men against the wisdom of the apex court and the Constitution of India.

First Published: Sep 28, 2018 19:46 IST