NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court in India lifted a centuries-old ban Friday on girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering one of the holiest Hindu temples in southern India, saying that treating women as children of a lesser god is unconstitutional.
It is the second judgment in two days that has given a boost to gender equality in India. On Thursday, the court struck down a law that criminalized adultery, saying it discriminated against women.
The authorities of the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple in Kerala state say the ban on women of reproductive age is rooted in the belief that the deity in the shrine is celibate.
The judges, however, observed that devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination and the right to practice religion is available to both men and women.
The petitioners had argued the ban violated the right to equality and was prejudiced against women. Discrimination against menstruating women is prevalent in many communities in India that consider them impure and restrict them from religious rituals.
Perched on a remote hilltop in Kerala, the Sabarimala temple opens for less than half the year and attracts millions of devotees.
The judgment was not a surprise — in the last two years, activists have won challenges to similar bans on women in the inner sanctums of two other temples and a landmark mosque in Mumbai. But the Sabarimala temple was seen as a test case because it is one of the Hindu religion's holiest shrines.
The lone dissenting voice on the five-judge bench came from the only female jurist.
"Religious practices cannot solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality," said Justice Indu Malhotra, adding that the court should not ordinarily interfere in issues of deep religious sentiments.
Temple authorities in southern India indicated they would continue the fight to preserve traditions and could seek a review of the ruling ahead of its opening in mid-October. "It affects the very core of temple beliefs and temple systems," said Rahul Eeswaran, a social activist who supports the ban.
But others hailed the judgment as progressive.
"It's a good judgment because it opens up and brings the way forward," Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said, adding that Hinduism has always been an inclusive religion.
Elated activists who have been at the forefront of what they call the "Right to Pray" movement said a slew of recent rulings would send the message that "regressive" traditions will not get legal sanction.
On Thursday, the court struck down a law relating to adultery that made it a crime for a man to have sex with another man's wife without his permission. The archaic law was also seen as discriminatory toward women because it gave a husband the right to prosecute his wife's lover but did not give women the same right. In another landmark judgment this month, the court legalized gay sex.
Calling the rulings extremely significant, Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, said they would help chip away at patriarchy and usher in change in a country where men dominate family, religion and politics.
"It takes time. It is not a magic wand. But, certainly, this is going to act toward changing the mindset of people," she said.