India’s Supreme Court Rules to Allow Women in Ancient Hindu Temple While Menstruating
The latest judgement lifts a centuries-old ban that blocked women's entry into one of the country's most iconic sites of pilgrimage.
In a burst of progressive activism, India’s Supreme Court in September delivered a slew of judgments that overturned colonial era laws and questioned government overreach. In the past month, the country’s top court legalized homosexuality, decriminalized adultery and clipped the scope of a government biometric program, bowing to demands from privacy activists.
The latest, on Friday, gave all women the legal right to enter into an ancient Hindu temple, which for centuries has been closed to female devotees between the ages of 10 and 50, essentially the years in which women menstruate.
“Historically women have been treated with inequality,” said Dipak Misra, India’s chief justice, in one of his final judgments before he steps down next week. “Society has to undergo a perception shift.”
India’s Supreme Court often makes decisions that its politicians and bureaucrats won’t. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears only a few dozen cases every year, India’s top court tackles a wide range issues from garbage dumping to women’s empowerment. It accepts “public interest litigations” – an idiosyncratic legal tool that gives all Indians access to the country’s top court. Occasionally it takes up matters “suo moto” – a Latin phrase meaning of its own motion – based on news articles.
The latest judgement lifts a centuries-old ban that blocked women’s entry into one of the country’s most iconic sites of pilgrimage. The Ayyappan temple, which dates to the 12th century, and crowns a dense, mountainous tiger reserve in the southern state of Kerala, is visited annually by 50 million pilgrims every year.
But women of menstruating age are barred from entering. Menstruation is associated with impurity in India, and menstruating women face huge stigma. They are often kept out of communal cooking and eating places on days that they are menstruating, and barred from entering temples.
“It’s like telling women that if you want to exercise the right to religion, you have to give up the right to non-discrimination,” said Indira Jaising, the lawyer who led the case against the temple’s rules on women’s entry. “These are new and evolving forms of untouchability in the realm of patriarchy,” she said, referring to an outlawed practice of untouchability under India’s ancient caste system.
The battle in court reflected a wider split among India’s women, pitting rival women’s campaigns against against one another. One, Happy to Bleed, supported menstruating women’s right to entry to the shrine, while another, Ready to Wait, argued that its rivals were imposing Western values on Indian temples.
Justice Indu Malhotra, the only female judge on the Supreme Court’s bench delivered her dissent, in which she said religious organizations had the right to manage their own affairs.
“What is essential practice in a religion is for the religion to decide. … Constitutional morality in a pluralistic society gives freedom to practice even irrational customs,” she said.
Temple authorities said they will appeal the verdict.
“It is unfortunate it was only seen in the perspective of gender equality,” Rahul Easwar, representing a group of devotees that wanted to continue the ban on women entering the temple, told NDTV. He said the temple had a right to manage its own religious affairs, and that the regulations on women’s entry were in place to respect the privacy of Ayyappan – the Hindu god of growth, who is considered a legal entity under Indian law – and who is considered be practicing celibacy.
Nikita Azad, a petitioner who had appealed to the Supreme Court saying that all women should have equal right to entry to the temple, said, “I think it definitely sends a message” about the court’s judgment. She said that changing social attitudes would take many years, but that the court’s ruling was a step in the right direction.
“The judgement breaks the taboo and lift the shame [that menstruating women face]” she said.
Azad comes from a deeply religious Hindu family and has always wanted to visit the shrine with her parents. She is now a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, researching menstruation and capitalism for her master’s in women’s studies. She plans to visit the temple a year from now, when she returns to India.
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