Sabarimala: a big win for women

The Supreme Court’s ruling allowing unrestricted entry for women of all age groups into the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala is a great blow struck for gender equality and justice. The five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra has in a 4-1 majority judgement struck down Rule 3(B) of the Kerala temple entry regulations which denied women between the age of 10 and 50 years the freedom of worship by barring them from entry into the temple. The court has rightly ruled that such a selective ban is a form of hegemonic patriarchy and is violative of the fundamental rights that guarantee equality and freedom of religion to all citizens. The court’s order is also applicable to such bans that might exist in religious places elsewhere in the country. It is the latest in a series of recent judgements from the Supreme Court that uphold the equal rights of women in society. It is ironical that the lone dissenting judgement in the case came from a woman judge, Justice Indu Malhotra. 

As the court ruled, the bar on women is not an essential part of religion and the Ayyappa devotees do not form a particular denomination. So, it cannot be claimed that lifting the bar and giving all women access to the temple is violative of the right to religion. In fact, none of the reasons given for denying young women entry into the temple stand scrutiny. The denial is based on the notion that young women are impure during the menstruating days. This is a wrong notion of purity, and a natural biological process cannot be held against women. The argument that the restriction is an established practice is also unacceptable. No practice, whether old or new, should be violative of the citizens’ basic rights. The bar on women is another form of untouchability, and it should have no place in a modern constitutional democracy which grants equal rights to all. The celibacy argument is also untenable because, as the court said, it stigmatises women and places the burden of men’s celibacy on them. 

The judgement is a landmark in the fight for women’s rights and should lead to the end of such restrictions everywhere. There are other kinds of restrictions and practices, too, which should be put an end to. Women are not eligible for priestly duties and are not allowed to participate in many rituals. They hardly have a role in the administration of religious places. Such discrimination needs to be challenged, and women’s equal rights in these areas should be accepted. It will be a long battle, but the Sabarimala judgement should spur women on to it.

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Sabarimala: a big win for women

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