Even with this judgement in place, it seems unlikely that women believers will now suddenly break religious norms. And is religion ever going to actually challenge patriarchy?

Sabarimala verdict is historic but is it going to make women flock to the templeSreekesh Raveendran Nair
news Sabarimala Friday, September 28, 2018 - 17:25

In a historic judgment pronounced on Friday, September 28, the Supreme Court finally ended the age-old ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 years (or women of “menstruating age”) from entering Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The judgement said that women of all ages could be devotees of Lord Ayyappa, and that gender could not be the grounds for preventing the entry into a temple. But is this verdict really set to challenge patriarchy on the ground?

Even with this judgement in place, it seems unlikely that women believers will now suddenly break religious norms, and automatically break out of years of social conditioning, in order to enter Sabarimala temple. After all, as evinced by the now-resurgent #ReadyToWait campaign on social media, this judgement doesn’t grant the present generation of religious believers a right they themselves were actively asking for, nor does it say that women must now enter the temple. It merely intervenes to remove a religious ban in accordance with the Constitutional law of the land, allowing believers who choose to enter the temple to now do so. But will they?

Activist and actor Jolly Chirayath says, “If they are rooted that way, conditioned women won’t go. If that’s what believers believe, they are not going to enter the temple.”

When asked if she believes that women will now enter Sabarimala temple after this judgement, former CPI(M) MP Sathidevi also says, “I don’t think women will go. Everyone is still behind customs. Believers think it will be against god, and there will be some danger to their life and family if they do so.”

Writer and teacher CS Chandrika reflects this view, but says that change, heralded by the younger generation, is underway. “The majority of believing women may not use this right now, but later on this will become a common thing.”

Pointing out how the law is an extremely powerful tool in creating social change, she goes on to elaborate how such legal changes are a good first step. “With judgements like this, and yesterday’s judgement on adultery, and last year’s judgment on the right to privacy, the Supreme Court is enabling a gender sensitive environment. Now, women can challenge traditional or conventional or patriarchal unwritten laws through these written laws. These legal changes are creating conditions which will help social change, because it is legalised now. If something exists as an illegal thing, that kind of attitude creates a “guilty conscience” among women [for doing or wanting something illegal]. Now that is over, it is only a social conditioning that’s left, which will change when youngsters take some drastic step to enjoy this equal opportunity and freedom.”

Sathidevi seems to agree that it is the older generation that will hold on to restrictive norms and conditioning. “The young generation is thinking better. The old generation is sticking with traditional beliefs and insisting on the young generation to follow that too, but the younger generation is thinking differently.”

While activists all agree that this legal change is a good first step, given the immense transformatory power of the law and its historic role in kick-starting social change amongst an unwilling public (as in the case of laws criminalising sati and dowry, and decriminalising homosexuality), they also say that many social and political changes need to be put in place to meaningfully actualise this new judgement from the SC.

Sathidevi says, “If any woman dares to go as a believer of Ayyappan, she has to be protected. This government will take many steps to ensure the security of those believers.”

Moreover, she says that social awareness programs need to be put into action on the ground in order to break the stigma around menstruation and menstrual untouchability. “We will have to take up a lot of campaigning against superstitious and unethical customs, and we need to have menstruation awareness programs. Even today, people think menstruation is very peculiar, and practice untouchability at the time of menstruation. We need to take up initiatives to break such stigmas.”

While social change is slow, with this trifecta of changes – the SC judgment, protection for women by the government, and social awareness programmes – in place, it’s not too optimistic to hope that the coming generation of women will therefore grow up in a socio-legal context where menstrual untouchability is not a relatable reality.

As social media commentator Meera Mohan sums up quite nicely on social media, “Many of us who grew up believing the existing system of Sabarimala will never feel right to go. […] But at least, the next generation will grow up in a system where it is legal for them to choose without any societal conditioning.”

However, another important question we must ask is – is religion the ideal site for women’s emancipation? Is this where the feminist fight should really be fought?

When asked her opinion about the verdict, veteran feminist, environmental activist and poet Sugathakumari teacher told us bluntly and rather impatiently, “It is up to believers to decide whether they want to go to the temple or not, and in a democratic country everyone should have equal rights. But in my opinion, this is not a women’s issue or a feminist issue. The environment of Sabarimala hill has been destroyed by the huge number of devotees over the years. Isn’t this enough to say on the topic?” She’s correctly referring to how, in the long-term, the destruction of the environment is a more pressing and urgent feminist and political concern than the choice of entry of believing women into certain temples.

Jolly reflects another important view on the long-term, supposedly feminist value of women securing the right to temple entry. While saying that it’s definitely the correct move from a legal human and gender rights framework, she insightfully makes a nuanced point about the inherent patriarchy of most traditional organised religions. “In my personal opinion, religion has been very controlling for women. Every religion oppresses women. One of the things that oppressed women in the past is telling them that the only social space available to them is temples, and they should spend all their time praying in temples. The reason why we see so many prayerful women and women devotees is because they don't have any other social space.”

“In some ways, it’s a trap for women. This is something we need to break out of in order to enter main society. To return women to the temple is not exactly what we should fight for. We need to break out of that,” she says.  

Still, she reiterates that while this may not be the most perfect or ideal site for the feminist fight, it’s not really a bad or negative change at all. “In the long run it may not help women to return to extreme religiosity, it’s a short term win, but at least when you win this, may be then you can think to the next step. And of course, women should be allowed to do whatever they want to do.”

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