Kerela’s Sabrimala Temple in south-central Panthanamthitta district is a famous hill shrine that has historically barred the entry of menstruating women (between 10 to 50 years of age). The reason given for the same is safeguarding the celibate status of Lord Ayyappa, the deity who resides in the temple, a prohibition enforced under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 which states that: “Women, who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship.” The Young Lawyers’ Association filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging this rule in 2006. Following this, there has been a legal tussle over this issue, stretching to this date, wherein a significant development occurred recently, in which the Supreme Court observed that ‘right of a woman to pray was equal to that of a man.’ In response to those who defend the prohibition on grounds of religion, one of the judges of the constitutional bench stated that core of the case is not whether it is essential to religion or not, because constitutional values must prevail over the essential aspects of a religion.
Needless to say, such observations by the Supreme Court do not sit very well with those who have vehemently campaigned against the entry of women to the Sabrimala temple. One such person is advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who defended the temple tradition on grounds that there are temples in the country where even men are not allowed. He further argued that there are hundreds of traditions practised by dozens of faiths in India and it is not possible to bring them all under definition of Constitutional morality, citing Islam as an example, where women are not allowed inside mosques.
It is not surprising to hear such statements in an environment where women are still treated as second-class citizens, completely devoid of any agency in matters that directly concern them. Women’s bodies become territories where religious practices and customs play out, often at the expense of the women itself. It is only recently that we have come across judgements by the supreme court, where the rights of the individual woman is held higher over that of her religion, be it the triple talaq judgement, or the hearing over the sabarimala issue. With reference to the latter, the religious authorities make the obvious argument by relying on Article 26 of the constitution that every religious denomination has the fundamental right to manage religious affairs. However, one needs to recognize that rights to manage religious affairs is not absolute and can often clash with other rights (like, how the entry prohibition takes away the woman’s rights against discrimination guaranteed under Article 15(1) of the Constitution. It curtails her religious freedom assured by Article 25). It is important to look at such conversations not in isolation, but by keeping in mind such factors, along with the history of this case and the historical practice of banning lower caste individuals to temples, and to what extent such an issue engages with complex questions around discrimination of various kinds.