“From my childhood I believe that those rituals should be saved and I don’t think those beliefs should be legalized,” said Radhika Nair, an economics postgraduate student as she emerged from viewing an art exhibition in Kochi in Kerala state.
She is referring to the centuries-old custom that barred women between the ages of 10 and 50 from climbing the 18 golden steps that lead into Sabarimala, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. A raging controversy has centered on the hilltop temple in Kerala after the Supreme Court lifted that ban, saying it constitutes gender discrimination. The order was seen as a huge step for women’s equality and a blow to entrenched patriarchal traditions.
But in India’s most literate state, lying on its southern tip, the view is far more complex. In towns and cities, many ordinary women, young and old, are vehement that temples are not the place to stage the battle for gender equality and want the traditions in Sabarimala to be left undisturbed. The handful that take a more liberal view prefer not to be quoted on an issue that has raised strong emotions – not just among political parties who have waded into the controversy, but in ordinary households.
Women of menstruating age are barred from the temple because age-old belief holds it would dishonor the temple’s deity Lord Ayyappa, believed to be a celibate. Vowing to preserve that tradition in defiance of the top court’s order, devotees forced the handful of women who approached the temple to turn back until two slipped in undetected with a plains clothes police escort earlier this month. As violent protests erupted, they went into hiding and needed police protection for days.
39-year-old Kanakadurga, who returned home in mid-January, had to be hospitalized after she was allegedly attacked by her mother-in-law and was later locked out of the house. She is living in a government shelter. Her brother has asked her to apologize to devotees. 40-year-old Bindu Ammini’s family has been more supportive and she is back at her job as a law professor.
On the streets of Kerala, not many are willing to defend the temple visit of the two and dismiss them as activists. 60-year-old Vijay Lakshi, who is a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, said that by entering the shrine, they proved that they were not genuine believers. Then why are they going there? As per our opinion women should not go to Sabarimala.”
Ammini told VOA she visited the temple to exercise her constitutional right to equality. “This is not question of activist and devotee. In India rule of law is practiced. All people in India have duty to obey constitution and other laws.”
But what finds wide resonance in Kerala is the sole dissenting voice on the top court’s five-judge bench that delivered the landmark verdict. Indu Malhotra, the only woman judge on the panel had said that “issues of deep religious sentiments should not ordinarily be interfered by the court,” and religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of the right to equality.
“I am not that much devoted to God, I am not that much against God also. I am a common person with all the feelings,” says Smita Subhash, a school principal. “But when we are living in a particular society, it is better that we have to follow the rules and regulations of that society, that is very important.”
Some point out that Kerala is home to a temple that does not allow men on certain days. Many non-Hindus also want religious customs to be treated as sacrosanct. “Leave Sabarimala as it was before,” said Kochi resident, Mary Bosco. “It is not the place for showing women empowerment. It is not a place to make problems, issues.”
Ammini feels differently and said, “Gender inequality is also part of religion” and needs legal redress. The man who facilitated her visit to Sabarimala by launching an online group for women who wanted to enter, Shreyas Kanaran, also asserts that equal access for women into religious spaces is an important facet of ushering in social reform. “We have to be patient. A mindset change needs time,” he says.
But it is difficult to find women who openly favor the entry of women in Sabarimala in a state where, although they are more educated compared to women in many other parts of the country, the hold of conservatism is also strong.
Two women sitting in a café say they don’t care whether women enter or stay away from Sabarimala and believe that more important issues such as rape should be the focus of governments and society. But they don’t want to be quoted because their husbands and in-laws would be angry.
The final legal word on the controversy has yet to be pronounced. The Supreme Court is due to hear petitions seeking a review of its judgment but it remains to be seen whether it takes a second look at the contentious issue or lets the earlier verdict stand.
Either way, strong passions will continue to swirl on the issue in Kerala, and for the time being, the voice of those who favor retaining the traditions at Sabarimala is much louder. That means for some time to come the millions of devotees dressed in black who head to the temple every year after a tough 41-day penance, will continue to be men.
Women like Radhika Nair have made up their minds. “We are ready to wait. I don’t need to go there between these 10 to 50 years.”