When India’s Supreme Court overturned restrictions on the entry of women into one of Hinduism’s holiest temples in southern Kerala state, it was hailed as a landmark victory for gender justice. But a violent backlash by devotees and Hindu groups who blocked women from crossing the temple’s threshold has underlined the massive challenge of ushering in change in a largely conservative society.
As Sabarimala Temple turns into a flashpoint between traditionalists and liberals, several petitioners have asked the top court to review the ruling that lifted the age-old bar on women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the shrine in the belief that menstruating women are impure. The review is being sought on the ground that "faith cannot be judged by scientific or rational reasons or logic."
The strong hold of faith was on display during the five days that the hilltop shrine opened recently for the first time to worshipers since the ruling. Belligerent protesters blocked approach roads to the temple, heckled women and threw stones at hundreds of policemen posted to enforce the court’s writ.
Those efforts were virtually abandoned after the temple’s head priest threatened to stop the rituals when a woman journalist and an activist escorted by nearly 100 policemen came within a stone’s throw of the shrine. The two turned back — they were among a handful of women who attempted to enter the shrine, which shut on Monday.
Political analyst Sunnykutty Abraham in Kerala says there is a groundswell of support for the angry protests in the state pointing out that the women who attempted to enter the temple were mostly journalists and activists. “Devotees were totally against this verdict of the Supreme Court. Its (the opposition) is genuine and very strong,” he said.
It is not just men who are resisting change to the court’s ruling that "the right to practice religion is available to both men and women." Many women also maintain that the ancient custom is a matter of faith and upholds the wishes of the deity in the temple who is believed to be a celibate.
As the controversy rages, a #ReadytoWait# campaign for Sabarimala launched two years ago by four women has again picked up momentum.
One of them, Padma Pillai, who visited the temple seven times until she was ten years old, argues that “a temple is a place for a person who believes in that concept and all the others have no skin in the game. All those who talk about gender justice and all, they are not the real stake holders.” According to her a temple “is a place for the public to come and worship, but it is still not a public place.”
Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and does not allow them to take part in religious rituals. But Sabarimala, visited by millions of devotees every year after a tough 41-day penance, is unusual in that it bars women in a broad age group.
Pillai does not back the protests, but says hundreds of women have responded to their plea to voluntarily stay away from the temple until they are 50. “You have to follow the rules of the tool,” she said.
Those arguments however are dismissed by others who believe that such customs are rooted in a deeply entrenched patriarchy and that change is being resisted by traditionalists wanting to maintain the status quo. For Jaya Jaitly, a former politician and social activist, who also belongs to Kerala, the bar on women is born of “blind” belief. “I strongly believe that a man wrote these texts and rules down, no woman would have done such a thing,” she said.
Many like her believe not allowing the Supreme Court writ to be enforced could setback efforts at social and religious reform in the country.
The firestorm over Sabarimala has taken aback many – it comes in one of India’s most progressive and literate states that has in the past led calls for social reform. It is a point the state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tried to underline as he said that some customs need to be done away with. “At one point, women had no right to cover their breasts in Kerala and the lower castes were made to stand far away from Brahmins (upper castes). We had many such wrongful traditions,” he said.
The controversy has also acquired a political hue with hard-line Hindu groups associated with the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party backing calls to maintain the status quo at the shrine, saying local customs and traditions had been ignored by the Supreme Court.
Observers worry that as the issue pits Hindu religious sentiment on a collision course with advocates of gender justice, the controversy could become even more volatile when the temple opens for a longer period next month.
“Unless something should happen from the Supreme Court, this issue will be becoming just like a bomb,” according to analyst Sunnykutty Abraham, who said devotees will dig their heels in about not letting women enter the temple.