Why the Sabarimala entry issue is personal?: Thoughts from your run-of-the-mill Malayali woman
.. and why this affects every Indian woman
On September 28th, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that women be granted entry at Sabarimala. Among other things one should note:
- Can the temple do as they please? It is been found that Ayyappa devotees do not constitute a religious denomination and as such are not immune to outside interference. The temple is a public place and therefore when an Agama/tradition contradicts a fundamental right, the constitution prevails. So, the argument that ‘this is a temple, there’s no question of rights’ is invalid.
- Those who ask for women’s entry are not true believers, hence what they claim doesn’t matter? Exclusion of women does not constitute an essential practice to the faith and therefore is not fundamental to faith in ayyappa. So the argument that ‘you either believe or you don’t’ is invalid because believing in exclusion is not essential to believing in Ayyappa. It follows thus that the women who appeal for entry do not by default become non-believers. In fact, the court observes that women were entering the temple before and the ban became legal only in 1965, though it is debated if they indeed went beyond the 18 steps.
- What rights are you talking about? The ban was also found in contradiction to Article 15 and 25, the right to equal treatment(on basis of gender here) and the right to worship for women.
One can follow the links at the bottom to read more. I’m not here to argue the legal technicalities since I’m not an expert but to present a very personal and passionate point of view as a Malayali woman and how this directly affects me.
When I was 14 and had then just became a menstruating woman, I remember standing in our great-grandmothers’ dark room while Navaratri pooja was happening at home, silently sobbing and wondering what I did wrong. When you’re a menstruating woman in our household, you cannot touch the prasadam, take part in the festive revelries, or enter the kitchen and touch the food that was being prepared. You cannot touch the books on Pooja, you’re not given prasadam, and you’re instructed to avoid the Pooja area when walking at home. I never questioned why only my chacha and male cousins performed the rites, unmistakably always a man. I didn’t understand why my mom lamented that she bore no sons and will have to call another’s son even for last rites. पुत्र is who sets you free from पुः, a foretold hell, but the same doesn’t hold for पुत्री. I’m told. I did not understand why when my bleeding classmate entered a temple, the temple authorities shouted at her, as if they’re upholders of a higher morality of which her bleeding vagina is lesser and ordered a shuddhi pooja as if a plague had struck the temple. We stood by and watched when our uncles took the ‘pallikettu’ and 40 day vrathams for Sabarimala, addressed them as swamis for 40 days, while blinking why we are only on standby mode even as our male cousins can go. In our household men and women were not truly equal. In my own house menstrual waste is treated differently than regular trash, it is disposed separately and burnt and my grandmother explained that if a snake crawls over your placenta you invoke “sarpa-kopam”, wrath of the snake. My father, until yesterday, thought it was beneath him to touch pads because that is what our society expects of respectable men, until all his four daughters grew up and pads are all he sees and buys. When you’re in school, ‘Indira Gandhi is out of the stadium’ was code for a popping bra strap or blood spot because bras and menstruation were not a fit topic for public spaces, they’re to be talked hush-hush behind closed doors. Somehow, public spaces weren’t spaces of menstruating women. This movement for Sabarimala entry is exactly that, claiming public spaces for women: because all women are menstruating women and we should claim the temples, the homes and the Gods. This fight is our fight.
Like all fights for women’s right this too shall be fought by women, against women.
Protest march in Pandalam. Image source: 
The Sabarimala temple entry has sparked massive protests from certain devotees including many women who are #ReadyToWait apparently. By all means, go ahead. This judgement does not force them to go and they’re not content with waiting but instead aim to impose their sense of their worth of our gender on all of us. This directly affects you and I, because these women are marching to take away our rights, that if they succeed in being certified unfit to enter they’re also certifying us as impure. To be fair, they’re resisting change and trying to protect what is important to them but what if what is important is your instilled self-indignance? A perfect oppression they say is one where the oppressed willfully partakes in the oppression and that is exactly what our traditions have achieved here. The person that keeps me away from Pooja is my mother, that who checks before we visit temples is my mother and that who cries that daughters are lesser is too, my mother.
This opposition to Sabarimala entry reflects everything that is wrong with our society and to risk being called harsh, I cannot but wonder how foolish are these women that are marching to be stamped impure, lesser than men, to be denied access to God. Upholding these traditions from the patriarchal times is also willfully reaffirming their bases: their assertion of our impurity, in that our daughters and sisters are lesser.
What about the rights of the deity?
This movement is not just about my rights but also about the rights of the deity. They ascertain that the will of the deity is to be respected in the temples. Fair, except it leads to many questions. How do we assert this will of Ayyappa? Who can convincingly represent the will of the deity? Do they own the will of the deity more than women devotees do? Do we respect the right of the deity to be worshipped by women? Does the will of the deity change in time as societal morality evolves? If yes, how can we check what the deity wants post Harijan temple entry movement, say? Can the mere entry of mortal women break the sworn celibacy of God, are we so sexual as to entice Gods? Is true celibacy tested in the presence of women or by running away from women? If we argue that the deity is an individual, can we expect them to be a rational individual that believes in the equality of sexes since we consider them worthy of being worshipped?
When we say that mortal women can break the celibate nature of God aren’t we claiming that the onus of maintaining God’s celibacy is on us and not the deity? If we extend this thinking to the situation of women’s safety, we are essentially claiming that it is the fault of the women who ventured out at night or to a bar that led them to be violated, rather than that it is the duty of men to behave responsibly in a public place. How regressive is that notion? Again, if the rule is to maintain the celibate nature of God, aren’t we sexualising minor girls aged 10–18 as capable of breaking vows of celibacy? How bigoted is that? Then again, we are asserting that women above 50 years are asexual, if so, which is factually untrue and deeply disrespectful.
We are also looking at celibacy from a lens of heteronormality. Today we know that men can break the celibate nature of men and women for women. Shouldn’t fertile men be stopped too for a deity that began observing penance as a teenager?
Again, if we truly believe that God is everywhere, തൂണിലും തുരുമ്പിലും, then we fertile women are already in the company of celibate Gods. Our going to temple or not makes no difference to his penance.
Can majoritarian sentiments trump individual rights?
Regardless of the resistance, in matters of fundamental rights constitutional morality is supremary to majoritarian sentiments, essentially translating to, you can do as you please for yourself but you cannot dictate to others what to do. Even if a million lynchers want to take away one man’s right to life or a million rapists decide to take away one woman’s right to freedom, they be damned in India. Let these women decide to wait, but let them only decide for themselves. Individual rights against mob justice and allegiance to constitutional morality and the holy book that is the Constitution is something we swore to when we became a republic.
Isn’t the judiciary overreaching into religious matters?
In this case, the court says that exclusion women is not an essential practice of faith and therefore religion cannot be cover for discrimination. But to be fair, this is circular logic. First of all, even if Hindu groups decide to exclude women they cannot overrule our rights as argued above. Secondly, several Hindu groups support the entry, including the Kerala government that represents the interests of people and until few days ago, the RSS as well. It is irrelevant who is behind the PIL because you only need one woman to claim that her fundamental rights are violated. Again, questioning the competency of the SC to rule on matters of religion takes us down a dangerous road: dowry ban, triple talaq ban, the Ayodhya dispute and so much more comes under question if we are to say that the religion/society decides what is essential to them and governs itself. For example, manusmriti allows beating up of wives and a religious group that practices it can claim immunity from jurisprudence.
In 1987, a bigger crowd of about 70000+ marched in the name of protecting Hindu Dharma, then protesting the Rajasthan state government and high court’s ruling for abolishing Sati. The arguments raised then are eerily similar to the arguments raised now.
Is it really the majoritarian belief?
However, one can cast aspersions that this is indeed the majoritarian belief, since an elected government that legally represents the interests of the masses, the Devaswom Board and many many voices of liberal men and women have expressed support for women’s entry. Even assuming that this is a reflection of majoritarian sentiment, one must remember that pioneers have always faced majoritarian anger, be it during the Periyar movement the temple entry movement for Dalits or the maaru-marakkal revolts of 19th century Travancore. Even in these cases, some of the most vocal opponents were the oppressed themselves, as here are these marching women. This expression of majoritarian anger, if so, is quite natural and fair and is part and parcel of social reform for each of our freedoms of today, like that of covering our breasts is dearly fought for and won amidst stringent opposition to prevailing tradition.
Reform has been part and parcel of Hinduism. When the temple entry proclamation in Travancore happened, there were questions from the majority on the lines of ‘God doesn’t want to see Harijans, so why force them to?’. Faithful Harijans at that time were supposed to stay away voluntarily. Even today, while Mohan Bhagwat and others proclaim Triple Talaq judgement as a major move towards recognising the rights of Muslim women, they do not want to recognise that Hindu women too have fundamental rights, and want to respect tradition here. Another case in point is the 2016 Bombay HC verdict on allowing entry of women into the Shani Shingnapur temple, where women have never entered in history. At this instance, the BJP facilitated the implementation of the court order with the support of the Congress and Sena and RSS, hailing a victory of women’s rights, all of who are opposing today.
You do not know the idea of India if you cannot understand what they’re protesting for!
Hinduism is a constantly evolving religion and so is the idea of India. Why do we assume that that the idea of India is an idea we should ascribe to than an idea we hold within us, and fight for it to be accepted. This fight is one between two conceptions of the same, engaged in a tug of war: an idea of India that is static in time and immutable, defending bigotry using ‘because I said so’ and not because of reason and one that is a peaceful transposition of old traditions and modern successes of civil rights movements, iterating for what is right as measured by our conscience. Our conscience says that men and women are equal, constitutionally and spiritually. All that a man can do a woman can do, and a menstruating woman can give birth, make life. If anything that makes her only more qualified to attain spirituality. The very idea of India wouldn’t be so splendid if the ideas of India that Gandhi and Ambedkar held towed the line of status quo or if they didn’t fight for it.
The irony here is an elephant in the room. ‘Tatvamasi’ is strewn on the sanctum at Sabarimala translating to ‘that is you’, that that what you seek is you and God is you. How ironic it is then that we are kept out of the very same temple saying we cannot become goddesses even as men become Ayyappas! Again, the legend says Swami was born out of the union of Shiva, who is also Arthanareeshwaran, and Vishnu, in his Mohini form. If anything, the story of Ayyappa itself denotes the congruence of genders: if Vishnu himself can give birth and defy gender norms, is it so much of a daredevilry for mere mortal women to observe penance?
To believing women that want to go
If you’re a woman who has been religious all your life, no, this movement doesn’t invalidate our actions and beliefs so far. It doesn’t invalidate our faith or amount to disrespect. Our moralities are constantly evolving as we transition as a society. At a time, a woman demanding to work was considered rude by in-laws; our exercise of financial independence, even wearing a blouse was at one time rebellious activism. Your belief is simply between you and the deity and the protestors and others have no business in it. If your visiting is consistent with your belief systems and you want to worship, do go. Perhaps God wants to be worshipped by you irrespective of what the protestors say. Do you think that anybody that damages cars and threatens women speaks for the will of any God? We’re here at a historic turn of progress, this is a chance for self-actualization, that God accepts you as She made you, bleeding vaginas and all! Let us choose to be on the correct side of history!