A Prayer for Justice
BHAKTI PASRIJA SETHI, 40; PRERNA KUMARI, 40; SUDHA PAL, 46; LAXMI SHASTRI, 60 Sabarimala case petitioners
It was in July 2006 that five women advocates—Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, Prerna Kumari, Sudha Pal, Laxmi Shastri and Alka Sharma— filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the 800-year-old practice of not letting women of ‘menstruating age’—between 10 and 50 years—enter the Sabarimala temple. What triggered the PIL was the incident in which Kannada actor Jayamala admitted that she had visited the temple in 1987 as a 28-year-old, in response to which a purification ceremony was performed at the temple. According to advocate Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, who at the time of filing the PIL was the secretary-general of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, “The incident came as a shock. We all thought the same: when a man visits the temple, it does not get impure, so how does it become impure when a woman visits it? We discussed the incident and felt it was undignified towards women and decided to file the petition.” Sethi, who is currently vice-president of the Women Lawyers’ Association in the Supreme Court, adds, “Devotion can’t be subjected to gender bias. Banning entry of women inside the temple is a form of untouchability and violation of Article 17. If a woman feels she can go and wants to go, why should she be debarred?”
Echoing a similar sentiment, advocate Prerna Kumari, who filed as an independent petitioner, says, “I didn’t have much idea about this tradition being followed at the Sabarimala Temple nor any connection with the women of Kerala at the time of filing the petition. But I took this incident as a case of gender discrimination. And we were representing women at large.” Hailing the Supreme Court verdict that allows women to enter the Sabarimala Temple as a historic judgment, Kumari, now the secretary-general of the Women Lawyers’ Association in the Supreme Court, says, “I felt putting a ban on the entry of women inside the temple was a violation of their constitutional rights and of Articles 14 and 15.”
The case, which first came up for a hearing, in August 2006 had 24 respondents. Both Sethi and Kumari feel that the issue of allowing women to enter the temple is one of religious freedom, gender equality and female autonomy. But at the same time they reiterate that the petition was not filed in order to change religion or to shake up something. “It was a healthy debate, a discussion, not a fight. It was a debate deliberated by the Supreme Court and a number of intervention applications have been filed,” says Sethi. Elaborating further, she says, “A temple can’t become impure by the entry of a person. It is a superstition. God never told anyone that if a woman comes, the temple gets impure. It is more about the dignity of the person and individual dignity is very important. And I stand for dignity.”
The verdict is a clear indication that misguided beliefs, superstitions and notions will no longer hold. The apex court judgment is a step in that direction and a welcome one.
Prerna Kumari (left) and Bhakti Pasrija Sethi