A campaign to end discrimination against women at places of worship has met with success in different courts. A temple dedicated to Shani or Saturn in Maharashtra has been told it cannot keep women from visiting the core where the idol is placed. Last week, the Haji Ali shrine of a Sufi saint in Mumbai was given similar orders, though its trustees will appeal in the Supreme Court to maintain restrictions on women visitors.
In Kerala, however, a group of women have started a Facebook campaign two days ago called #ReadyToWait to say that they back the ban on women of reproductive age from the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple, one of the most revered sites of worship among Hindus.
40-year-old Suja Pavitran told NDTV, “We were always certain that the Kerala government will not interfere with the traditional and customs of devotees. But this (new Left) government has changed its stand. Many women devotees are so upset that those who don’t believe in Ayyappa are interfering with our traditions.”
The Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether the decades-old tradition at the hilltop temple should be cancelled. In hearings, judges have repeatedly asked the government and the temple’s board of trustees to explain how the ban does not breach the constitution and the right to equality. In May, the Left coalition was elected to govern Kerala, and its ministers have suggested that they will not take the previous government’s stand of supporting the ban.
Dedicated to Lord Ayappa, worshipped as a son of Lord Vishnu, the temple allows entry only to girls younger than 10 or women over 55. Priests and trustees have said that the deity is a bachelor and that menstruating women defile the premises.
Scores of women, most of them outside Kerala, took to social media last November, joining a campaign launched as #HappyToBleed after the head of the temple said he would consider allowing women to enter if there was a machine to check if they were menstruating.
Padma Pillai, who is in her 40s and heads an IT firm said, “If it was man-made and wrong, I will fight against the tradition. But if it’s in the shastras, it’s my right to fight to obey. Women can worship Ayyappa anywhere else where they are allowed.”
Vandana P, a taxi driver, disagrees, pointing out that the traditional ban on women was based on circumstances that have changed completely. “Earlier women couldn’t walk and climb all that distance, safety and sanitation used to be an issue. But now that’s not a challenge and Ayyappa is not anti-women.”
“#ReadyToWait campaigners are victims of their own ideas. Years back, when (ancient custom) ‘Sati’ was opposed the movement would have faced the same kind of resistance. No woman can be told where to go and where not to go,” said activist and writer Suneetha Balakrishnan.