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Where No Young Woman Has Gone Before

July 2004
Where No Young Woman Has Gone Before

By Raji Rajagopalan

What is the relationship between religion and women's rights? Should we care how the religions of the world treat women? Should we be bothered when a woman is prohibited from doing certain things, like becoming ordained or entering a temple, just because she is a woman?

I ask, why not? Why should we let society restrict us citing only our gender?

There is a temple in India that a cousin of mine desperately wants to visit. To her, a visit to this temple would be like ?Hajj' to a Muslim. Unfortunately, my cousin's 'Hajj' is not for another twenty years, for she is thirty years old, and women between the ages ten and fifty are banned from the temple she wants to visit.

This temple is called "Sabarimala". It is situated in Kerala and houses a God called Ayyappa. It is purported that, yearly, around the fourteenth of January, a celestial fire with healing powers glows in the sky near the Sabarimala shrine. My cousin, like many devotees, believes that seeing this fire is her panacea. "But," the temple board tells her, "You can't have that panacea. You see you are a woman."

Why does the temple board say so? It gives a smorgasbord of reasons: The trek to the temple along dense woods is arduous for women; Ayyappa's bachelorhood will taint if he sees a woman; the forty-one-day penance for the pilgrimage cannot be undertaken by women; men cohorts will be enticed to think "bad thoughts" if women trekked with them; menstrual blood will attract animals and jeopardize fellow travelers; menstruation is a no-no for God.

And so grows the list of lame reasons. Don't think none has questioned the inanity of these reasons. Several Indian feminists have fought, and keep fighting, with the temple board. But the board remains implacable. It is backed by political clout, and poor Indian feminists must fend for themselves.

Nevertheless, many women have boldly tried to go where no young woman has gone before. Times of India reported, "The distraught mother of two boys, one with kidney disease and the other mentally unsound...wanted to beseech Lord Ayyappa to save her family. But the law is?cold. The police arrested her before she reached the sanctum ..." In 2002, Khaleej Times reported, "Women have made this year's Sabarimala pilgrim season controversial by entering the prohibited hill shrine?.Kerala's high court has ordered an inquiry to find out how a large number of women had reached the shrine in violation of court orders." Unfathomable, isn't it, that the Court, comprised of supposedly equitable individuals devoid of any fundamentalism, can scribe such discriminatory orders to impede women?

In 1950, when the Indian Constitution was framed, ?Untouchables'?lower-caste Indians believed to be "impure" and hence objectionable to God?broke open the gates of temples that were closed to them thus far. Article 25(2b) was instituted specifically for them; to ensure that they could pursue their religion unhampered. This article gives State the power to make laws for "the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus". Sabarimala is a publicly funded temple: Article 290A of the Indian Constitution entails the State of Kerala to pay, yearly, 4.65 million rupees to Sabarimala's temple board. Nevertheless, it has so far remained shut to one section of Indians?the young Indian women. And the State, instead opening it for them, works to ensure that it remains shut to them.

It is ironic that this shrine, praised as "an unmatched instance of religious tolerance" open to men of all religions, doesn't tolerate most women. The society that has grown to disregard "God's distaste" for lower-caste men cannot yet defy "His despise" for women. Especially, menstruating women.

Is it so because women are still regarded impure and detestable, at least during certain times? Is it because none in power is disposed to champion women's causes? Is it because women themselves are disinclined to unite against their discrimination? Is it because caste-discrimination is accepted to be viler than gender-discrimination? Is it because society is averse to disturbing the male-dominated hierarchy in India? Whatever it is, this ban on women in Sabarimala, while it appears to be a religious issue, at its core, indicates an uglier problem?the oft dismissed, court-sanctioned, ubiquitous oppression of women in India.

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