Women barred from entering Hindu temple in India’s Kerala state
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Sabarimala, one of Hinduism’s most holy temples, has become a symbol of the fight for gender equality in India as female worshippers continue to be denied access to the premises despite a Supreme Court decision striking down a longtime ban on women.
For centuries, women of childbearing age have been forbidden from entering Sabarimala in southern Kerala state. In a landmark decision last month, the Supreme Court repealed the ban, ruling that it infringed on women’s constitutional rights. But since the temple reopened for the first time after the decision on Wednesday, traditionalists have continued to block women between the ages of 10 and 50 from setting foot on its grounds.
Sabarimala was the scene of violent clashes on Wednesday between hundreds of protesters and a group of women who had come to the holy site to celebrate Navaratri, a festival dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga and the power of the female divine. Surrounded by a police detail, the women attempted to climb the sloping path to the temple but were pushed back. Female journalists covering the event were also targeted by protesters.
On Thursday, local Hindu organisations declared a general strike, while a group of between 50 and 100 young men took up position at nearby intersections to search passing vehicles for hidden female passengers. In some areas, protesters hurled rocks at buses.
Kerala government authorities have promised to ensure equal access to the Sabarimala and limited public gatherings to five people. Inside the temple the mood was festive, according to AFP, which reported that not a single woman between 10 and 50 years old has yet been seen among the thousands of worshippers who have visited this week.
“The majority of temples in India do not ban women,” Ingrid Therwath, an India expert and journalist for French newspaper Courrier International, told FRANCE 24. “Sabarimala is unique, it has become a symbol of the traditionalists’ fight to perpetuate caste and patriarchal rules within a religion that traditionally leans to the left and that now finds itself out of step with [President Narendra] Modi’s nationalist Hindu government. The shrine has become a bastion for higher castes within a communist state.”
The tensions in Sabarimala are emblematic of a national tug-of-war. In recent months, India’s Supreme Court made a number of decisions defending minorities’ rights – including Muslims, the LGBT community and women – much to the ire of social conservatives, especially within the Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The head of Kerala’s communist-led government, Pinarayi Vijayan, has accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volunteer paramilitary group linked to the BJP, of having a direct hand in this week’s unrest at Sabarimala.
“Sabarimala has a uniqueness that other temples lack; it allows entry for people of all faith[s]… RSS have always been intolerant of this fact. They have made many attempts to erase this distinction of Sabarimala,” Vijayan tweeted on Thursday.
“The RSS backed attackers are obstructing believers and spreading terror,” he added.
These attackers are motivated by casteist and feudal ideologies. Encouraging such movements will eventually lead to the banishment of backward classes from places like Sabarimala. All believers must condemn this attack on Sabarimala.Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) October 18, 2018
The violence has discouraged some women from visiting Sabarimala. Trupti Desai, a women’s rights activist, told AFP that she had decided to postpone a planned trip to the temple.
"If I go there will be more violence. The government had enough time to prepare the ground for implementing the court's verdict, but they have failed to provide protection to the women devotees," she said.
Women journalists on the frontline
Known for its progressive politics, a number of women work as journalists in Kerala state. Some went to Sabarimala this week to cover its grand re-opening. Among them was Sneha Koshy, bureau chief of Indian television NDTV’s local offices.
Following Wednesday’s violence, she published an opinion piece in which she described how she was prevented from doing her job by a mob of angry men at the temple’s entrance. Her comments triggered a deluge of criticism, forcing her to defend why she went to report on the story.
“My account of how protesters turned their anger at us journalists in #Sabarimala. But, I am appalled at those who are asking why were women reporters sent to report. People. REPORTING IS MY JOB. IRRESPECTIVE OF THE SITUATION,” she tweeted.
“There are many women who work in media, especially in Kerala,” said Therwath. “They are activists, on the ground, and are especially aware of patriarchal abuses. When you are a journalist and a woman in India, you’re inevitably an activist. Armed with a pen, literate women, writers, intellectuals, can now speak in public and denounce harassment.”
This week’s events at Sabarimala coincide with the resignation of India’s junior foreign minister, M.J. Akbar. Once one of the country’s most influential newspaper editors, Akbar was forced to quit government after a number of female journalists accused him of sexual misconduct in the workplace as part of the global #MeToo movement.