The Supreme Court’s observations on the right of women to enter temples are significant. The nation’s highest court has taken a clear stand — that any religious custom that prohibits women from offering worship has no constitutional validity. The final order in the case is to be looked forward to eagerly as a historic decision is awaited on upholding the right of a substantial section of the population to enjoy the same rights as men to pray at a temple, church, mosque, gurdwara or any other place of worship. The Sabarimala temple regulation barring women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entry is being scrutinised by the judiciary. The ban, said to be based on an ancient custom in a temple whose deity is Ayyappa, considered a “Naisthik Brahmachari” (celibate), is aimed at menstruating women — and a few of them who have sneaked in like a Kannada actress have done so controversially.
In the course of arguments, the five-judge bench has been saying there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender. Further, the Chief Justice of India came out with a specific objection to women being expected to observe a 41-day penance before undertaking the pilgrimage as it would be a condition impossible to fulfil because of their physiological menstruation cycle. He said this was untenable in law. The Kerala government’s current stand also supports the contention that women cannot be barred from worshiping at the famous hill shrine. Of course, the stand has fluctuated wildly, depending on which party is in power, during this long-running suit aimed at ending discriminatory practices by a patriarchal temple governance setup, in which males are not just dominant but exclude the other sex. The lawyer appearing for the Devaswom Board also suggested that he argues about the sanctity of ancient customs only as a professional, and what he says doesn’t reflect his personal views or that of his political party.
The fundamental issue here is discrimination against women in the matter of the right to pray. The arguments may be extended to the larger patriarchal system in which there are mostly male priests. Exceptions have been brought about by judicial intervention, but the experience has not been a great one, at least for one pioneering woman who fought for this right and won, and led a prayer as an imam in Kerala. Women have also fought and won the right to pray at Haji Ali, the famous Mumbai shrine, as well as at a Shani temple in Maharashtra. Various pronouncements in such matters lead us to believe Sabarimala may also have to throw open its doors to women of all ages, which would only be the right thing to do, however patriarchal the system has been rendered by age-old customs.