Snigdha Poonam on the five mil­lion woman wall

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - Snigdha Poonam

On 1 Jan­uary, in one of the big­gest move­ments for women’s rights in In­dia, 5 mil­lion women lined up across the south­ern state of Ker­ala to “up­hold Re­nais­sance val­ues”. What they were de­mand­ing was an end to vi­o­lence against women try­ing to en­ter Ker­ala’s Sabari­mala tem­ple, a pop­u­lar Hindu pil­grim­age site. This fol­lowed a rul­ing by the In­dian supreme court in Septem­ber, which forced the tem­ple’s doors open to women of all ages in a sen­sa­tional blow to re­li­gious tra­di­tion.

“Where a man can en­ter, a woman can also go. What ap­plies to a man, ap­plies to a woman,” the bench said in its judg­ment. Since 1991, the tem­ple has ac­cepted only men and older women, in their mil­lions ev­ery year, to pre­serve the mytho­log­i­cal celibacy of the rul­ing de­ity, Ayyappa. In the­ory, the court or­der only re­in­forced In­dian women’s con­sti­tu­tional right to en­ter places of wor­ship as freely as men, but in prac­tice it wreaked may­hem. Be­tween 17 Novem­ber and 24 De­cem­ber, more than a dozen women of men­strual age, in­clud­ing re­porters, tried to en­ter the tem­ple but were stopped, shoved and stoned by mobs of male devo­tees. None of the women could make it in, de­spite po­lice pro­tec­tion and pro­hibitory or­ders. Both sides are far from giv­ing in. Protests have since con­tin­ued, though most women who were sent back by the mobs have vowed to re­turn.

This isn’t merely a gen­der war, how­ever. The tus­sle over the tem­ple en­try em­pha­sises other frac­tures: faith and state, gov­ern­ment and ju­di­ciary, sec­u­lar lib­er­al­ism and re­li­gious pop­ulism. Con­sider the fact that Amit Shah, the pres­i­dent of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – In­dia’s rul­ing party – said the courts should de­sist from giv­ing or­ders “that break the faith of peo­ple and can­not be im­ple­mented”. Con­sider also the res­onat­ing state­ment by his vo­cal op­po­nent, the Congress party’s Shashi Tha­roor, who is a mem­ber of par­lia­ment from Ker­ala: “For a sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion like the court to en­gage in a the­o­log­i­cal ex­er­cise as to what as­pect of faith or be­lief is an ‘es­sen­tial re­li­gious prac­tice’ is prob­lem­atic.”

The wider de­bate Sabari­mala has thrown up is be­tween the logic in grant­ing women en­try to one of In­dia’s most pop­u­lar tem­ples at a time when they have the same rights as men in most are­nas, and the dangers of a court im­pos­ing a so­cial re­form for which the in­tended so­ci­ety is far from pre­pared.

That nei­ther of In­dia’s two big­gest par­ties can openly sup­port the women’s con­sti­tu­tional right to en­ter a tem­ple con­firms the coun­try’s com­pli­cated re­al­i­ties. If the leg­end of Ayyappa’s celibacy is sa­cred to his devo­tees, and there­fore worthy of ex­emp­tion from state in­ter­ven­tion, then sim­i­lar ap­peals from be­liev­ers of other faiths should hold equal weight – for in­stance some sec­tions of In­dia’s Mus­lim so­ci­ety have ap­pealed against the In­dian gov­ern­ment’s con­tin­u­ing strike­down of “triple ta­laq”, which al­lows Mus­lim men to in­stantly di­vorce their wives.

It’s even trick­ier to pre­dict whether the courts’ in­ter­fer­ence in re­li­gion will al­ways be a force for good. The most con­tentious case be­fore the supreme court is the mat­ter of Ay­o­d­hya, where the Hindu na­tion­al­ist forces – in­clud­ing the BJP – want to build a tem­ple on a site that the Hin­dus be­lieve to be the birth­place of the de­ity Ram. Their be­lief is strong enough to have led 150,000 of them to de­mol­ish a 16th-cen­tury mosque, Babri Masjid, in 1992. As Hindu na­tion­al­ist fer­vour peaks, ahead of 2019’s elec­tions, the con­se­quences of a de­ci­sion in favour of re­li­gious be­lief could be cli­mac­tic.

In­deed the best way for women of men­strual age to en­ter Sabari­mala would be through bot­tom-up so­cial and re­li­gious re­form. The most sting­ing cri­tique of the supreme court or­der came from a sur­vey that showed 75% of peo­ple in Ker­ala dis­agreed with the de­ci­sion. Claims were also made that the in­ter­ests of a hand­ful of left­ist ac­tivists try­ing to en­ter the tem­ple were at odds with the be­liefs of the ma­jor­ity of Ker­ala’s or­di­nary women, who pre­ferred the sta­tus quo.

But the sight of the 620km “women’s wall” – one of the largest ever con­gre­ga­tions of women in the world – has rekin­dled hopes for a gen­uine move­ment. Stand­ing shoul­der-to-shoul­der along the high­ways was a wide range of women tak­ing the pledge to fight for gen­der equal­ity. Early the next morn­ing, two women – Bindu Har­i­ha­ran (42) and Kanaka Durga (44) – went to Sabari­mala. They had vis­ited the tem­ple on 24 De­cem­ber, but were pre­vented from en­ter­ing by ri­ot­ing protesters. They had said they would get in – and sure enough, on this oc­ca­sion, they got in •

Snigdha Poonam is a na­tional af­fairs writer at the Hin­dus­tan Times

AFP/GETTY

Women in Ker­ala, form a hu­man chain in sup­port of a court or­der al­low­ing them to en­ter one of Hin­duism’s holi­est tem­ples

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