May 25, 2020
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Faith, Forbiddance And The Female

Court's questioning of gender restrictions in temples widens the scope of examining how women are treated in other religions

Faith, Forbiddance And The Female
File - PTI Photo
Faith, Forbiddance And The Female

"Anyone can worship a God or Goddess. You have structured God into an idol although he is omnipresent. Can you say don't come because you are a woman?" —Supreme Court bench, April 11, 2016

"The God does not discriminate between men and women, so why should there be gender discrimination in the premises of the temple."
—Justice Dipak Misra, P C Ghose and N V Ramana on February 12, 2016

"Why can you not let a woman enter? On what basis are you prohibiting women entry?... What is your logic? Women may or may not want to go, but that is her personal choice."
—Supreme Court Justice Dipak Misra on January 11, 2016


With the Bombay high court is paving the way for women wresting the right to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani temple in Maharashtra, the Supreme Court of India hinted this week that it was inclined to end gender restrictions in temples. " What right does a temple have to prevent the entry of women," asked the bench when Sabarimala temple authorities argued that the decision of the priests in religious matters was ‘final'. Such restrictions, the court insisted on Monday, would have to pass the Constitutional tests.

The court's questioning of this practice widens the scope of examining how women are treated in other religions too. The Bombay High Court is hearing a PIL challenging the ban of women entering the Haji Ali Dargah in Maharashtra. 

Many of the mainstream religions perpetuate a ban on menstruating women in religious places of worship citing them to be impure at that time. Says Shamshad Hussein, "If a Muslim woman is menstruating she is allowed complete rest and does not need to do the otherwise obligatory niskaram (namaz) five times a day even at home or even read the Quran.”" Interestingly, there is no restriction on the age or time of women attending the Hajj or the Umrah and they can worship at Medina and Mecca provided they are accompanied by a guardian. "Women were worshipping in these mosques even at the time of Mohammed," says one man who did not want to be named. 

More than 90 per cent of the Kerala Muslims who are Sunni Muslims do not allow women into their mosques. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Mujahid sects allow women to worship in the mosques where they have separate entrances for women. Professor Hameed Chennamangaloor, writer and social critic points out this is very recent activity. "It has been only in the last 15 years that the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Mujahid sects have allowed women into the mosques. There is prescribed prayer dress for women who want to attend the mosque. However, no sect will allow women into the governing bodies. They can learn but cannot lead men in prayer." 

Barring the CNI and CSI churches none of the other traditional churches allow the ordination of women as priests. The Catholic church continues to deny women priesthood with the view that Jesus's 12 chosen apostles were all men. Pope Francis, popular and loved for his forthright views and encyclicals on environment and capitalism, has even expressed toleration towards gays which is terribly progressive by Catholic standards. But he has failed to change the structure to ordinate women as priests. When asked about the ordination of women Pope Francis replied in the negative said that door was closed. "In the church, women are more important than men because the church is woman; it is 'la' church, not 'il' church." This vague justification seems to be more related to semantics than anything else.

Each of the Christian denominations has its own religious traditions where the sanctum sanctorum is concerned. In the Catholic churches, women (usually nuns) are allowed to enter the altar areas to decorate and touch the altar table in reverence while the Mar Thoma Syrian church or the other Syrian churches (Jacobite and the Orthodox) curtain off the altar area and enclose it carefully behind a small railing. Says Sr Jesme of the Amen book fame, "When I joined as a nun in the 70s the nuns who had their periods were asked to rest and not help out with the decorating of the altar but that slowly changed. By the beginning of this century we were distributing the communion even if we had our periods. No one was checking or questioning us by the time I resigned as a nun."

Ranjit Mathew, the former diocese treasurer of the Mar Thoma Church of Kottayam, attributes the curtains and the only-male priesthood to the Jewish traditions but thinks there is no basis for denying priesthood to women. "Women are learning theology and in my lifetime itself I think I will see women priests." Rev Abraham Mar Poulos, chairperson of the socio-political commission of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church says the bishops of the church are waiting for the laity to accept this change. 

The hilltop temple deep in the forests of Sabarimala, Kerala, is perhaps one of the most secular temples in India: welcoming all to his abode. Sree Ayyappan's closest friend is the Muslim, Vavar Swami. Legend has it that Vavar Swami was an Arabian pirate who came to the shores of Kerala and became a disciple after he lost a duel with Sree Ayyappan. He has a mosque dedicated to his memory close to the main temple. 

The millions of devotees who make the pilgrimage every year also pay their respects to Vavar before they make the final ascend to worship Ayyappan. After a fire devastated the temple in 1949, it was a Christian from the Polachirakil family in Mavelikkara, who took up the contract work to re-build the temple in 1950.

From the time the devotee dons the mala (chain) as a disciple till the end of the pilgrimage he is called Ayyappan: both the divine and the devotee go by the same name during this time: merging of God and human symbolically commences then. 

The devotee in a bid to be closer to Ayyappan, does vridham (penance) for 41 days, living a simple life, renouncing all non-vegetarian food, alcohol, abstaining from sex, cutting his hair and nails. He bathes twice a day, wearing black or blue clothing and constantly meditates about Ayyappan. And the devotee does not have to be a Hindu, he can be a Muslim, Christian or from any other religion.

Unlike the other temples of Kerala where they do not allow the entry of non-Hindus, Sabarimala which is believed to be the largest pilgrimage centre in the world (more than 50 million visit annually) is open to all religions: no one is barred entry except women between the ages of 10 to 50: the period when healthy women menstruate.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, under the aegis of the Kerala government, who manage the administrative affairs of the Sabarimala Temple was asked by the Supreme Court in January this year to give a constitutional justification for the restriction. This custom of barring women worshippers between the ages of 10 to 50 in Sabarimala has been questioned by a three-member special bench led by Justice Dipak Misra of the Supreme Court. The apex court pointed out, "The temple can't restrict the right of entry except on the basis of religion. "The bench was examining a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Indian Young Lawyers' Association in 2006.

The Kerala government withdrew its earlier position (the Left Front government had supported women's entry into Sabarimala in 2007) and filed an affidavit citing the 1991 Kerala High Court order, which had barred the entry of women to the temple. 

The bench did not stay the 1991 high court order. The SC bench was of the view that though religious bodies were free to frame rules for functioning of religious places it should be within the Constitutional framework. It appointed two senior advocates, Raju Ramachandran and retired Judge of Delhi High Court, K Ramamurthi as amicus curiae.

Interestingly, in the middle of March, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh felt it was unfair to restrict women's entry into temples. In a very progressive stand, the general secretary of the RSS Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi said, "Women go to thousands of temple across the country but in reference to some, where their entry is an issue, there is a need to change the mentality. Management of such temples should also understand this."
In 1991, it was the Kerala High Court that gave restrictions on the entry of women in Sabarimala legal sanctity. S Mahendran of Chengannur had written a letter to Justice K Paripoornan that women of that age group (10-50) were entering Sabarimala which was deterrent to the customs and beliefs of the temple citing a picture published in the Janmabhoomi newspaper. The letter was converted into a PIL and in the judgement Justice K B Marar wrote that it was a practice from time immemorial to restrict women of this age group and it was not violative of Article 15, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution. 

The Supreme Court asked whether and how the Board was sure that women had not entered the temple premises in the last 1500 years. T G Mohandas, RSS member and former vice president of the Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram who has been advocating entry for women since 2004 maintains that women were allowed to worship when the temple was opened for five days every month since 1950 after the temple was re-built, but were banned entry from 1991 following the high court order. 

However, the thanthries and the members of the Pandalam royal family deny any woman has entered the temple premises with their knowledge. (Three families of Thantries are the hereditary chief priests of the Sabarimala temple who decide on the spiritual matters of the temple. Only Thantries and melshantis are allowed into the Sree Kovil or sanctum sanctorum of the Kerala temples.) 

Says Kantaru RajeevaruThantri, one of the hereditary chief priests, "Women in this age group have not been allowed into the temple and I have not heard of any such instance. This is not against any constitutional law or against any woman's rights. This is a forest dwelling God in Brahmachari and every 12 years we consult the astrologer and the customs are accorded according to devahitam (as God wishes) and we cannot reject or reduce what God wishes. The last time we did the pooja for devahitam we were asked to maintain a status quo." 

The traditions and customs have certain restrictions for the Pandalam royal family too who consider Ayyappan as a family member. Even today the titular head of the royal family, holding the king's position, does not go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The legend holds that Ayyappan who was found in the forest was adopted into the royal family. But when the queen gave birth to a son she started favouring her son over Ayyappan who was the heir to the throne. When Ayyappan was 12 years old, he volunteered on a mission to go into the forest to get the tigress's milk to treat an ailment afflicting the queen. And on the way he kills a demon Mahishi and comes back riding a tiger. The King understood that Ayyappan had divine powers and granted Ayyappan his wishes of building a temple for him in Sabarimala. The traditional pilgrims follow the route that Ayyappan took.

The members of the Pandalam Royal family say that no women from the royal family are permitted to go Sabarimala whether she is 10 or 60. They say they have always abided by that custom. Says P Rama Varma Raja, former president of the Pandalam Palace Managing Committee, "Only the king's representative is sent to Sabarimala along with the jewels to adorn the deity just before the makaravilakku. Since Ayyappan is considered as a son in the royal household, the head of the family does not make the pilgrimage. These beliefs are part- custom, part- history and part-oral traditions. If the Supreme Court allows women of that age group to enter the temple then the legends and customs of the temple will have to be re-written."

Prema Manmadhan, 63, former editor, who made the pilgrimage two years ago says barring entry to women during the menstruation may have had physiological reasons. "The only time women get any rest was during their periods so they did not go to the temple or enter the kitchen. The trek to Sabarimala is arduous and in the early days it must have been dangerous too that took many days. Today women are so conditioned that even if the apex court allows them to go to Sabarimala they may not want to go. It will take another generation to modify that belief."

There are other women who think that there is no rational justification to these restrictions because the male priests are born of women and, menstruation and the process of giving birth are all part of nature. Feminist writer Sarah Joseph feels that those who are harping on the impurity of women and are caught up in the notions of what is pure and impure should first clean up the surroundings and improve the environment in Sabarimala. 

According to KM Sheeba, Professor of Gender, Ecology and Dalit Studies, SSUS, Kalady, there is no logic in saying that women should be kept out of this place or that. "This is a modern, democratic society where you cannot bar women from going to some place." She points out that customs and beliefs have been formulated in a patriarchal way where men decided and women had been left out of that decision making process. 
Many Hindus think that the Courts have been meddling with the Hindu customs and traditions but Courts dare not interfere with the other religions. Mohandas who advocates the entry of women into Sabarimala, except when women have their periods and during the season, says, "Out of 2.5 million places of worship in India only a few temples bar entry to women. I don't consider it a discrimination but a festival of diversity for some temples do not allow men to enter either like during the Attukkal Pongala festival."

There has been a churning of sorts in Kerala, women are speaking up against men's dictates. Whether it is the president of the Travancore Devswom Board Prayar Gopalakrishnan's inventive ideas or the Sunni leader Kanthapuram A P Aboobacker Musalyar's regressive speech about women being only fit to give birth saw strong reaction on social media. When Gopalakrishnan said that women would be permitted to Sabarimala only after the invention of a machine to check if they are menstruating, it created a huge outcry on social media and saw the #HappytoBleed campaign where women proudly displayed sanitary napkins. 

Minu Ittyipe in Pandhalam, Chengannur & Kochi

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