In India, a battle for gender equality, religious freedom and votes

Devotees to Lord Ayyappa line up peacefully on Dec. 26 to protest a Supreme Court ruling that allows women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple. Photo by Meagan Clark.

Devotees to Lord Ayyappa line up peacefully on Dec. 26 to protest a Supreme Court ruling that allows women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple. Photo by Meagan Clark.

KOCHI, INDIA— On New Year’s Day, an estimated 3 million Indian women stood shoulder to shoulder along a stretch of South Indian highway more than 600 kilometers long (372 miles), demonstrating their support for a recent Supreme Court ruling that opens entry to a popular Hindu temple in the tropical state of Kerala to women of any age, and countering months of protests against the ruling.

Since the September verdict that concluded the ban amounted to gender discrimination, no woman has yet climbed the Sabarimala temple’s 18 steps, past priests and male activists blocking the entrance, sometimes throwing rocks and insults.

There’s a massive face-off in India over a Supreme Court order that allows women to enter a popular Hindu temple despite devotees’ belief that their eternally celibate god will be compromised.

On Dec. 26, Sabarimala devotees protested the ruling and preempted the women’s wall protest by forming a “wall of lights” along the same major road. Men, women and some children thronged into a line facing the highway traffic, broken only by intermittent marigold garlands circling shrines, holding steel plates with lighted candles to sing hymns and chant prayers at passersby. The human chain of flames lined the bends and hills of the road as far as the eye could see, for a reported 750 kilometers.

The protests are pitting the state’s ruling communist party, left-leaning and feminist groups pushing for gender equality against the country’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing and conservative religious organizations concerned with protecting their religious freedoms.

The Sabarimala protests have stayed in the national news for months in India, with every major political party taking a stance ahead of India’s general election in April or May.

For decades, the BJP has tried to grow its appeal in Kerala, where left and left-center parties (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Indian National Congress Party) have ruled since the seventies. The state is only 55 percent Hindu, compared to 80 percent nationwide, and 18 percent Christian, compared to 2 percent nationwide, according to the 2011 census.

“India is one of the most pluralistic and diverse countries in the world. We celebrate every faith and religion,” Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena organization of devotees and a member of the family responsible for the temple’s priest duties, said. He has been organizing the BJP-backed campaign to “Save Sabarimala” and its age restriction on women.

“That’s the reason why a secular government shouldn’t be intervening in any religious matters,” he said. “They should keep a one-arm distance. That would be good for democracy.”

The Sabarimala temple, honoring the eternal bachelor Lord Ayyappa, is the largest Hindu temple in the world by number of annual pilgrims (an estimated 17 to 50 million per year) and has legally banned women ages 10 to 50 from entering since a 1991 lower court ruling, although some devotees say they have adhered to that tradition long before the nineties.

“I understand that we are all god’s children irrespective of gender,” said Annie Raja, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India-affiliated National Federation of Indian Women, and participant in the women’s wall protest, sponsored by the state government. “If we are all god’s children, why a discrimination before god? Women used to go before 1991, so why have a problem with it now?”

The restriction on women entering the temple is meant to honor the Hindu deity’s vow to remain celibate and not even look upon young women, said Deepa Easwar, Rahul’s wife, an activist and Ayyappa devotee.

“If you look at Hinduism and look at other religions, we accommodate a lot and feel that god is one,” Deepa said. “But when there’s a specific attack made on our religion, we feel that we as a community need to stand together.”

The Save Sabarimala campaign has joined with at least 48 other organizations, some of other religions, to petition the Supreme Court for another hearing. In a rare move, the court has agreed to review the petitions on Jan. 22.

What the law says

The Indian constitution allows the government to intervene in religious matters when a court deems that a particular religious practice violates the constitution.

The majority opinion of the five-judge Supreme Court bench concluded the temple’s restrictions amounted to unconstitutional discrimination, the discrimination was not an essential religious practice protected by the constitution, and the Ayyappa devotees are not united enough to constitute a religious denomination, which would give them additional rights.

India’s constitution (Article 25) provides for the free practice and propagation of religion, but with caveats like “subject to public order, morality and health,” among others. The constitution is considered secular, but secularism in India is understood as having respect and tolerance for all religions, not a separation of religion and the state as in the West.

Indian law also recognizes Hindu deities as legal persons to some degree. Deities, which are icons that have been blessed by a priest and are believed to house a living god, are able to own property, sue and be sued, for example. Ayyappa’s shrine is tucked away atop a hill in the jungle where he’s said to have retreated to aid his isolation.

Some of the legal arguments to keep young women out of Sabarimala rested on Lord Ayyappa’s right to privacy and right to maintain his celibate characteristics. Although the Supreme Court bench ruled against these rights, the petitions will likely resurface the arguments.

The five-judge bench who ruled on the matter sided four to one against the ban, with only the solo female judge dissenting. One judge concluded that the presence of women doesn’t ruin male celibacy and that concluding so would stigmatize and stereotype women.

On Dec. 26, Ayyappa devotees in Kerala lit candles along a major state highway to protest a Supreme Court order that allows women to enter their god’s shrine. Photo by Meagan Clark.

On Dec. 26, Ayyappa devotees in Kerala lit candles along a major state highway to protest a Supreme Court order that allows women to enter their god’s shrine. Photo by Meagan Clark.

India’s feminist movement  

Women’s rights activists in Kerala say they aren’t surprised at how many people, many women, have been protesting the Supreme Court order meant to squash gender discrimination. The state, like India, has a long history of women’s oppression. In some communities, new brides on their wedding nights used to be forced to have sex with their new husband’s landlord. In the 1800’s, it was a crime for lower caste women to cover their breasts with clothing. Women had to fight for the right to cover up, pushing through resistance from upper caste women.  

Some sins against women were justified the loudest by religious communities. The Hindu custom of a widow either voluntarily or forcibly burning to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, called sati, was outlawed by British India in 1829. Sati cases are still occasionally reported from rural India in modern times, seen by some as a wife’s ultimate devotion to her husband.

“When there are social changes taking place, particularly, when we deal in favor of women, there will be strong resistance,” Raja said.

Shabanam Hashmi, a well-known social activist in India, believes most religions are behind the curve on improving gender equality. 

“Any kind of discrimination against women is unconstitutional,” she said. “I think there is a need to look at a lot of things because no religion gives equality to women, which we have arrived at after 100 years of women’s struggle for equality.”

Religious communities wonder about their rights

Traditional mosques segregate prayer spaces for men and women. Roman Catholic women cannot become priests. Many Indian places of worship require people of any gender to wear a head covering or remove shoes, ban foreigners or ban those outside the faith. At Attukal temple in Kerala, for example, men are banned from offering prayers out of respect for the goddess. Some Hindu temples still exclude Dalits, a people group excluded from the caste hierarchy and deemed “untouchable” by some, though caste discrimination is illegal on paper.

India’s Christian and Muslim minority have had reason for concern under the present government, with rising hate crimes and discrimination against them by Hindu extremists since Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014. But on this particular issue, they may find some common ground.

For example, the Kerala chapter of the conservative Muslim organization Jamaat e-Islami has sided with the Ayyappa priests and organizations.

Many Ayyappa pilgrims visit a nearby mosque before going to Sabarimala, in remembrance of a friendship Ayyappa shared with a Muslim pirate he conquered. There is even a small Muslim shrine inside the Sabarimala temple courtyard.

So after one female Muslim activist, Rehana Fathima, attempted to enter Sabarimala, many conservative Muslims condemned her. Fathima turned back after the temple priests said they would halt prayers and close the temple doors if she came inside.

PC George, a Catholic member of parliament whose constituency overlaps the Sabarimala pilgrims’ path, has also condemned the court ruling, saying the courts should not interfere with religious beliefs.

“Sabarimala issue is not an isolated one, but Muslims and Christians will have to face a similar situation soon,” he told the New Indian Express.

Though most non-Hindu religious bodies have remained quiet on the issue, they will be watching for the outcome in January of the court’s review.

On Jan. 2, two women entered the temple in early morning hours with police protection. As of Jan. 3, one man has died in the ongoing protests after he was pelted with stones.