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Sabarimala and women’s rights

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At Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai, women worshippers are not permitted to enter inside and touch the tomb of the male saint. As the entry of women in close proximity of grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin in Islam. Entry of women between ages 10 and 50 from offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is banned because it is the age when women could be menstruating.

The Supreme Court on October 24, 2016, delivered its verdict upholding equal access to women as men in Haji Ali Dargah. In a similar verdict, on 28th September 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on the entry of women in Sabarimala on the grounds that the selective ban on women was not an essential part of Hinduism, and instead a form of religious patriarchy. Arguably, such traditions are discriminatory against women. However, they are not uncommon across the globe. Mount Athos in northeastern Greece, an important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, bans women, and female animals. Women are also banned from entering Okinoshima, a sacred Japanese island which is home to the 17th century shrine of Okitsu and Mount Omine, a sacred mountain in Nara, Japan. Okinoshima Island has gained UNESCO world heritage status recently. As we progress into modernity, the value of such traditions are debatable. But, at the same time, they beg the question if courts should interfere in such matters. As the lone women judge, Indu Malhotra noted in her dissenting judgement in the Sabarimala case, “what constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide” and not a matter that should be decided by the courts. She added that “notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts.”

One could argue that those days are over when the agents of God dictated the terms of worship. People are breaking those barriers now. But some traditions and values should be respected. The currency notes of USA still proclaim “In God We Trust”; not “In technology we trust” or “In science we trust”. Do we need to change customs and traditions because they discriminate women, if they do not endanger or detrimental to the advancement of women? If religious customs prevent from leading progressive lives or advancing in their career, those traditions should be abolished. Customs that give men superior power to send a woman out of wedlock without providing alimony or other support, should be condemned. However, other than providing victory to some women’s right activists, does gaining entry to a mosque, a temple or an island emancipate women?

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Let’s set aside these arguments and agree that banning women from the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala is discriminatory and the supreme court has all rights to intervene. However, supreme court verdict is only the beginning. The smooth enforcement of the judgement is the responsibility of the local government. As sovereign citizens of India, women should demand the government for effectively and efficiently implementing the court order. The state government’s attitude that they don’t have any other option but blindly obey the Supreme court is absurd. Anyone who had been to Sabarimala can understand that the pilgrimage is treacherous and not women friendly. It is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world with an estimate of between 17 million and 50 million devotees visiting every year. Most devotees use the banks of the Pamba river as open air toilets, take a dip in the bone chilling river before dawn and trek steep uphill for miles along dense forest.

In the case of Haji Ali Dargah, after the court verdict, the authorities made structural changes, and also made sure that they could provide a safe environment. There are different entry and exit points for men and women. Nobody is allowed to touch the tomb. In this way they are able to give equal treatment to both sexes and also keep it in line with the Muslim personal law (Shariah). In Sabarimala, there are no ladies toilets. There are no women only entry points. The Travancore Devaswom Board made it clear that they have no plans for building any special amenities for women. Given the volume of devotees that visit the shrine, these facilities are critically important before allowing the entry of women Yet, the state government believes that Sabarimala is ready to accept women. Women who tried to enter the temple premises were chased away by angry devotees while the police stood and watched. These devotees were not sophisticated gorillas carrying grenades and assault rifles. The local authorities’ inability to provide security to the women devotees from a groups angry mob cannot be understood.

Women should fight for their rights with dignity. Sneaking into the temple in the middle of the night and claiming victory looks silly. Moreover, shortly after this progressive development, the temple shut its doors so that a purification ritual could be performed since it had, in their view, been sullied by the entry of the women. This is the worst form of insult for women. The action of the temple authorities would seem to violate Article 17 of the Constitution, which prohibits untouchability. However, no women seemed to care about this. They were busy celebrating. It’s time women realize that they have only won the battle; not the war.

The real win is when they are accepted as first class citizens in the temple. For this to happen, the authorities should give up “my way or highway” attitude and start diplomatic conversations with the temple authorities. There are no problems that cannot be solved through effective dialog. The women activist movements should pressurize the government authorities for this to happen. They cannot rest until then.

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