India Supreme Court overturns ban on women at Sabarimala temple

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The Supreme Court on Friday paved the way for entry of women of all ages into the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala.

The precedent could affect hundreds of temples across India that now do not allow women for reasons ranging from issues around "purity" to them being barred when a guru or senior priest is in residence.

The hearing on the challenge to the practice by the five-judge constitution bench had seen Kerala government asserting that the Sabarimala temple does not belong to a religious denomination and it could not invoke the protection of Article 26 of the Constitution to save the practice of prohibiting women in the age group of 10 to 50 years from entering the temple. In fact, Chief Justice Dipak Misra affirmed that devotion could not be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notions cannot trump equality in devotion. Practices which legitimize menstrual taboos, due to notions of "purity and pollution", limit the ability of menstruating women to attain the freedom of movement, the right to education and the right of entry to places of worship and, eventually, their access to the public sphere.

In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a plea in the apex court, seeking to scrap Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which restricted the entry of women inside the temple. "Issues of deep religious sentiments shouldn't be ordinarily interfered into".

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Among the five-judge bench, Justice Indu Malhotra gives lone dissent and said that religious communities should decide their respective religious practices, not the court. He added that the board will execute the top court directive. He observed that irrespective of the status of a woman, menstruation has been equated with impurity, and the idea of impurity is then used to justify their exclusion from key social activities.

Supporters of the ban say this practice has been followed down the ages, because worshippers were required to fast for 41 days before undertaking the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, something that menstruating women could not undergo for physiological regions.

Millions of devotees visit the temple every year to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity who is believed to be celibate. It will have far reaching implications for other places of worships.

Also, in the past two years, courts have unlocked the gates of Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali mosque for women. The Constitution, under Article 14, guarantees equality to all, and by stopping the entry of women, the very principles of the Constitution are violated.

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The BBC's Soutik Biswas says such a stream of judgements leading up to a judge's retirement in the top court is not unusual. It noted girls and women of other ages were allowed in the temple without restrictions.

"To treat women as the children of a lesser God is to blink at the Constitution", Justice DY Chandrachud said, while pronouncing the judgment.

He said the devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate denomination.

Desai's Bhumata Ranragini Brigade had led an agitation to allow entry of women into Shani Shingnapur Temple in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. He said that the temple board will take steps to allow women into the temple after consulting with the head priest and the Pandalam royal family, reports Firstpost. "If unfortunately, the verdict goes against us we have already arranged and we are thinking of giving a review petition", according to news agency ANI.

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