Temple Controversy Sparks Quiet Revolution by Women for Religious Equality in India

Graffiti art in Varanasi, India. Photo: Adam Jones/Flickr

Source: Waging Nonviolence

On Wednesday, India’s Supreme Court heard as many as 65 review petitions seeking to reimpose a ban on the entry of women in an ancient Hindu temple. The court has decided it needs more time to make a judgement on the matter. Only four months ago, the same court allowed women to enter the very same temple, for the first time, after decades of denial.

Since then, India has erupted over a new-age debate on religious equality.

The temple at the center of the controversy is called the Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha. It is situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve of the northern state of Kerala in India. One of the country’s biggest pilgrimage sites, it is visited by over 50 million people each year. A short trek through the surrounding hills and forests is required to reach the shrine.

For centuries the Sabarimala temple has denied the entry of women between the age of 10 and 50. Temple authorities claim that its deity, Lord Ayyappa, is celibate and to respect his mission, he must not be distracted by the presence of women. Those who oppose the ban believe that disallowing women to offer prayers in the shrine is rooted in the orthodox notion that menstruating women defile a place of worship.

In 1991, religious sentiments prevailed and the Kerala government passed a lawforbidding women of the particular age bracket from entering the temple.

The recent ruling that reversed the ban came as a result of a petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in 2006. They argued that the ban violated guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom of women, which are protected by the constitution of India.

While the Communist Party of India Marxist, or CPIM, which has a political majority in Kerala — along with revered religious Hindu leader Swami Sandeepnandana Giri — supported the move, right-wing Hindu groups like the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, or BJP, Akhil Bhartiya Parishad, Shiv Sena and a national body of Ayyappa devotees expressed their staunch disapproval.

From demanding an ordinance in the state assembly against the top court’s verdict to threats of mass immolation, the entry of women in the temple has triggered large-scale political agitation. Even the supposedly secular Congress party has denounced the court’s verdict. Many view the political opposition as a way for the BJP and Congress to gain the vote of Kerala’s upper-caste Nair community, which is against the entry of women in Sabarimala.

The magnitude of the opposition was revealed only in October 2018, when Sabarimala first opened its doors after the reversal of the ban. A group of 13 women that included locals, reporters, activists and even a New York Times journalist attempted to enter the temple. Many of them had police protection. However, violent right-wing mobs and orthodox devotees blocked their path, which forced the women to turn back. Protesters also formed human walls, heckled the women and even threw stones at them to deter them from entering the shrine.

According to a report by the First Post, the base camp at Nilakkal, which is about 12 miles away from the Sabarimala shrine, was teeming with protesters — mostly women — inspecting cars, buses and other vehicles heading to Pamba (from where the shrine can be accessed by foot) for female pilgrims. Hundreds of these women protesters forcibly dragged female devotees out of their vehicles. Female members of the press and their cameramen covering the protests were also harassed to the point that they were forced to stop recording.

The absence of women police officers at the scene aggravated the situation further, as male cops have limited ability in physically controlling the actions of female protesters.

“It’s almost as if these people view women as terrorists,” Manoj, a father who had to protect his 22-year-old daughter from being forced out of a bus by an angry mob, told NDTV.

After six days of what seemed like the rule of hooliganism, the temple shut its door, not having let any women step inside it. While political debate — between the respect for religious sentiment and gender equality — raged on national media, the women of Kerala were getting ready for a quiet revolution.

On New Year’s Day, an estimated 3 million women stood shoulder to shoulder along national highways in Kerala to form a “Women’s Wall” that ran the length of the state. The wall stretched for almost 385 miles. The event was billed the largest congregation ever of women in Kerala. These women came from diverse backgrounds and included locals, activists, journalists, celebrities and politicians from both rural and urban regions.

The Women’s Wall was conceptualized by Punnala Sreekumar, who is the secretary of Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha — an organization of a scheduled-caste community, the official name given in India to the lowest caste, which is regarded as socially and economically disadvantaged. The organizations participating in the wall were leaders and workers of the Left Democratic Front, or LDF, a major coalition of political parties in Kerala including the CPIM, and their allies. Other members included the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organization representing the numerically-strong Ezhava community — another socially and economically disadvantaged group — and government-sponsored self-help groups for women.

In the city of Kannur, which is home to Kerala’s chief minister, the CPIM went door-to-door to sign women up for the wall. “We told them [the women] that this has nothing to do with the Sabarimala issue. This is to do with going against a system that sees women as second-class citizens,” Prabhakaran, secretary of the CPIM’s branch of a village in Kannur told the Caravan.

In a press release, the Self-Financing College Teachers And Staff Association in Kerala promised that 25,000 of its teachers would be part of the wall.

On the day of the Women’s Wall, there was no direct reference made to the entry of women in the Sabarimala. The participants of the Wall pledged to support gender justice as well as Kerala’s renaissance movement. They were referring to the social reform led by Kerala’s renowned thinkers of the 19th century, who sought to resolve the rampant casteist practices prevalent in the state at the time.

This is significant because India has a history of caste perpetuating religious discrimination. So the Women’s Wall stood for both caste and gender equality.

For Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, who goes by one name, both women in their 40s, the Women’s Wall served as an inspiration to make a second attempt at entering the Sabarimala shrine. The duo had tried to access the temple on Dec. 24 but had to retreat when an angry mob attacked the police personnel who were escorting them. Undeterred the two women stayed in a secret location for a week, away from media glare and police surveillance, as reported by Scroll.

On Jan. 2, Ammini and Kanakadurga started their climb to the temple a little after midnight. Cloaked in the darkness before dawn, they offered prayers in the Sabarimala shrine at 3:45 a.m. “The violent mob was out of that place,” Ammini told the New York Times. “No devotee raised any voice against our journey to the shrine.”

Soon after the women’s visit, a set of protests followed in the coming weeks. The head priest of the shrine closed the temple to perform “purification rituals,” the BJP announced a state-wide strike in Kerala, while the Congress Party there observed a “black day” and violence was reported from several parts of Kerala. Continued threats from fundamentalists have even forced Ammini and Kanakadurga to go into hiding.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has completely disregarded women’s entry in Sabarimala by criticizing the CPIM government’s commitment to allowing women to enter the temple as “shameful.”

Yet, Kerala’s ruling government remains a resolute supporter of women’s rights. In a recent speech, the state’s governor, P. Sathasivam said that the CPIM-led LDF government was “duty-bound” to implement the supreme court’s verdict permitting women of all age groups into the Lord Ayyappa shrine. According to a report by the Hindu, the LDF along with 174 organizations that were integral to the formation of the Women’s Wall, are gearing up for yet another “neo-renaissance movement to consolidate and sustain the momentum gained through the wall.”

With several other religious sites in India denying women the right to worship, the feminist activism surrounding the Sabarimala controversy is a milestone in religious equality for the country. And it points the way forward for women’s rights in deeply patriarchal India.