New Delhi – The Supreme Court of India on September 28 struck down a ban preventing menstruating women from entering one of the holiest Hindu temples in the country.
The temple dedicated to bachelor lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in the southern Indian state of Kerala forbids entry of women aged between 10 and 50. The hilltop temple remains open only for 127 days in a year.
An estimated 1 million Hindu pilgrims travel to the hilltop Sabarimala temple situated inside a dense forest, some 150 km southeast of Kochi, the commercial hub of Kerala.
“Restrictions can’t be treated as essential religious practice,” the top court said in a majority four-one judgment, calling the custom “almost like untouchability.” The only woman on the five-judge constitution bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, dissented, saying the court should not interfere in religious practices.
Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion.
“Lord Ayyappa is not a separate denomination,” said Justice Misra, who retires as Chief Justice of India on October 2. “All devotees are equal and there cannot be any discrimination on the basis of gender,” he asserted.
Concurring with the Chief Justice, Justice D Y Chandrachud said restricting menstruating women from entering the temple was almost like untouchability. “Religion cannot be the cover to deny women right to worship. To treat women as children of a lesser God is to blink at constitutional morality,” he said.
The head priest of Sabarimala, Kandaru Rajeevaru, said in his first response: “We are disappointed but accept the Supreme Court verdict on women entry.” However, some members of the temple’s board, its top decision-making body, say they are exploring a possible review petition.
During the hearings, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the over 800-year-old Lord Ayyappa temple, had told the court that the ban is not anti-women and is voluntarily accepted by them. But the top court underscored that all customs or practices such as a ban on entry of women had to conform to the Constitution.
The board had urged the top court to steer clear of sitting in judgment on sensitive religious matters.
The Kerala government, which has been changing its stand on the temple ban, had told the Supreme Court in July that it favored the entry of women.
Women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes said “spaces have to be created for judicial intervention,” but warned that determining what is the core or essential practices of religions was riddled with complexities.
“Today’s ruling can affect other similar strictures like ‘Christian women cannot become priests’. All these things can now be challenged,” Agnes told Al Jazeera.
“It will be interesting to watch how the courts proceed from here for those practices – whether they hold this as ‘discrimination’ or freedom to practice your religion.”
Sabarimala Ayyappa temple’s website explains that since Lord Ayyappa was “Nithya Brahmachari” – or an eternal celibate – women in the 10-50 age group are not allowed to enter.
“Such women who try to enter Sabarimala will be prevented by authorities,” the website reads.
The head of the temple had said earlier he would consider allowing women to enter if there was a machine to check if they were menstruating.
In the ruling, Justice Chandrachud criticized this diktat, saying: “The ban says presence of women deviates from celibacy. This is placing the burden of men’s celibacy on women. It stigmatizes them, stereotypes them.”
Menstruation is rarely discussed openly in India and menstrual blood is considered impure by many communities. Across cities and towns, menstruating girls and women are not allowed to prepare food, enter a temple or touch an idol.
Justice Malhotra said she did not agree with the majority ruling on the ban.
“What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court … notions of rationality cannot be brought into religion,” said Malhotra.
“A balance needs to be struck between religious beliefs and the cherished principles of non-discrimination and equality laid down by constitution.”
Conservative Hindu groups have reacted, saying they will challenge the decision of the top court.
“We are going for a review petition by the first week of October. The Deity’s concept was not taken into consideration,” said Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena (Ayyappa Religious Army) that claims to protect the interests of the Lord Ayyappa.
“The Deity has rights which were not mentioned here. So a conglomerate of Hindu groups will appeal against this decision.”