Women Temple Entry: Sabarimala Issue

The world over, issues of gender disparity and gender biased norms have been brought to the fore front in public debate. India is no exception. Women have started asserting their rights in public sphere against discriminatory religious practices which denies her entry into places of worship. These acts have been justified on the basis of her menstruation, the weakness of physical frame or some other vague reason. But they are now being challenged in the doors of Supreme Court by women seeking equality in terms of religion.

What is the Issue?

The Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala region, one of the most revered pilgrimage site for Hindus have restricted women of menstruating age (10 to 50 years) from entering their sanctum. The reasons cited for following this tradition included,

  • The presiding deity Lord Ayyappa is considered “eternally celibate” or a Brahmachari and hence a fertile women was prohibited from his premises.
  • A women is considered “impure” during her menstruation days in Indian tradition
  • The particular deity system installed in Sabarimala temple is tantric in nature. This meant that the temple is not a prayer hall but an energy centre which could adversely impact a fertile women.
  • Article 26 provides the right to every religious denomination to manage its own religious affairs
  • Sabarimala is a separate religious cult with its own rules.
  • This tradition was re-enforced with the Kerala High Court ruling in 1991 citing banning of women in menstruation age did not amount to discriminatory practice as it has existed from time immemorial.

Supreme Court Observations

  • In Indian Young lawyers Association vs. the State of Kerala case the Supreme Court while observing the reasons for age related restriction placed on women commented:
  • Devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination
  • Patriarchy in religion cannot be allowed to trump right to pray and practice religion.
  • Age restriction on women entry to Sabarimala temple can’t be treated as an essential religious practice
  • Restricting women violated the basic fundamental rights of equality (Article 14), Prohibition of discrimination based on religion (Article 15) and Right to freely profess and practice one’s religion(Article 25)
  • Since the temple draws funds from Consolidated Fund of India, it has to be deemed a “public place of worship” and cannot impose private rules

Significance of the Judgement

  • Enforces fundamental rights provided to every citizen under Right to equality and Freedom of Religion (Article 14, 15 and 25) as well as Article 51 A(e), which seeks to renounce practices derogatory to women
  • Opens up various traditional religious practices that are discriminatory in nature for judicial review.
  • The implementation of constitutional mandate ensures that discrimination is not done on basis of purity and pollution.
  • Gives precedence to constitutional rights over religious rights
  • A constitutional jurisprudence has been set with similar judgements regarding women entry in Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali Dargah in Maharashtra.
  • Challenges the present society’s power structure

Way Forward

  • “Doctrine of religious essential practice,” needs to be reevaluated to ensure they don’t perpetuate gender parity
  • As the dissenting judge noted, notions of rationality cannot be always brought into matters of religion. Therefore the need of the hour may be to form a consensus with community at large on the issue.
  • Supreme Court would have to address the larger issue of order of precedence in future cases of public liberty versus individual religious liberty and dignity
  • The institutions of religion should self-introspect and address practices that are discriminatory in nature to remain relevant in changing social structures.
  • The public debate should not be limited to entry of temples but equality of individuals. The judgement should not be seen as a struggle to defeat religious faith, but as a social struggle that seeks to promote women’s equal moral membership of the community