Police at Sabarimala bully TN trans women, subject them to illegal medical examination

The trans women were allegedly subjected to an illegal medical examination to ascertain their reproductive anatomy, and were subsequently barred from entering the temple.
The three trans women at Sabarimala
The three trans women at SabarimalaSpecial Arrangement
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TW: Sexual harassment, transphobia

Three transgender women from Tamil Nadu, who were headed to visit the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, have alleged that the police in Kerala bullied and sexually harassed them, and violated their fundamental right to self-identify their gender. They were also allegedly subjected to an illegal medical examination to ascertain their reproductive anatomy, and were subsequently barred from entering the temple. 

Sowndharya (39), Sandhya (35), and Vino (34) had travelled to Sabarimala on June 19 with one of their mothers and two cisgender men. According to the trans women, they were allowed at the ticket reservation counter after due verification of their identity cards, including the transgender ID provided by the Tamil Nadu government. However, while they were on the way to the temple, they were intercepted by the police.

“We were first approached by two women police officers, and then a male officer. They asked us if we had undergone surgery to ‘become women’, and we replied in the affirmative. But then they claimed that we have uteruses and therefore will menstruate, and that we weren’t allowed inside because of that,” said Sowndharya. Traditionally, women of menstruating age (between 10 and 50) are not allowed to worship at the Sabarimala temple. 

When they explained to them that their anatomy was different (they don’t menstruate), the women officers allegedly took them near to the toilet and inspected their private parts. Sowndharya said they were then taken to the Pampa Government Hospital and subjected to a medical examination. “A male doctor at the hospital examined my private parts in an invasive way in the presence of the two women police officers, who kept laughing and making fun of us. He also examined my breasts to see if they were real. It was sexual harassment,” she said.

In 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled in a 4:1 verdict that all Hindu pilgrims, regardless of gender, should be allowed to enter the temple. The judgement and the Kerala government’s efforts to enforce it had triggered violent protests at the time, and so after several review petitions, the government temporarily decided to maintain the status quo. Accordingly, women who fall between the ages of 10 and 50 are currently not allowed inside the temple. 

Transgender women, even those who have undergone gender affirming surgeries, do not menstruate. Historically, they have also been allowed to enter the shrine even before the 2018 Supreme Court ruling. Even during the peak of protests against women entering the temple, four trans women had entered the Sabarimala temple and offered prayers at the shrine despite the commotion.

When TNM contacted the Pampa police, they said the trans women were “trans females,” which was the reason they were not allowed inside. “If they had been ‘trans males’, they would have been allowed,” he said. It may be noted that many trans men do experience menstruation.

When TNM pointed out to the Pampa police that a medical examination to determine a person’s gender was in violation of the Supreme Court judgement in the NALSA vs Union of India case, the police did not give a clear response. They instead said that the trans women were not allowed inside “by policy.”

TNM tried reaching out to Travancore Devaswom Board president PS Prasanth to know details of the temple policy pertaining to trans persons, but did not get any response. The copy will be updated if and when he responds.

With inputs from Ajay UK.

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