SC throws open Sabarimala temple to all women

In a path-breaking verdict to ensure gender equality at religious places, the Supreme Court opened the doors of Sabarimala Temple in Kerala to women devotees of all age groups and bulldozed the age-old gender barrier of not allowing women in the mentruating age group of 10-50 inside the temple to worship Lord Ayyappa.

A five-judge Constitution bench, by a majority of 4-1, held that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa were “exclusively Hindus” and do not constitute a separate religious denomination and the practice of exclusion of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, followed at the Sabarimala Temple, could not be regarded as an essential part of religion.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud were unanimous in their view that the practice of barring women devotees in the 10-50 years’ age group was illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary. But Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman judge on the bench, penned a dissenting verdict holding that worshippers of Lord Ayyappa belonged to a separate religious denomination and the ban on entry of women in the temple was an essential part of their religion.

Referring to restrictions on women belonging to the reproductive age of 10-50 years, the apex court said any subversion and repression of women under the garb of biological or physiological factors (like menstruation) could not be given the seal of legitimacy, and any discrimination against women because of their biological characteristics was not only “unfounded, indefensible and implausible, but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality”.

“Any relationship with the Creator is a transcendental one crossing all socially created artificial barriers and not a negotiated relationship bound by terms and conditions. Such a relationship and expression of devotion cannot be circumscribed by dogmatic notions of biological or physiological factors arising out of rigid socio-cultural attitudes which do not meet the constitutionally prescribed tests. Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump the element of pure devotion borne out of faith and the freedom to practise and profess one’s religion,” Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, who wrote the judgement on behalf of himself and Justice Khanwilkar, said.

The verdict, another boost for gender equality, came a day after the apex court delivered its verdict decriminalising adultery.

The CJI said there is no place for discrimination in the matter of faith and religion but religious practices are sometimes seen as perpetuating patriarchy, thereby negating the basic tenets of faith and of gender equality, which must be discouraged. He said the notions of public order, morality and health cannot be used as “colourable device” to restrict the freedom to freely practise religion and discriminate against women by denying them their legal right to enter and offer prayers and that public morality must yield to constitutional morality.

“The attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender. The dualism that persists in religion by glorifying and venerating women as goddesses on one hand and by imposing rigorous sanctions on the other hand in matters of devotion has to be abandoned. Such a dualistic approach and an entrenched mindset results in indignity to women and degradation of their status. The society has to undergo a perceptual shift from being the propagator of hegemonic patriarchal notions of demanding more exacting standards of purity and chastity solely from women to be the cultivator of equality where the woman is in no way considered frailer, lesser or inferior to man,” CJI said.

“In no scenario, it can be said that exclusion of women of any age group could be regarded as an essential practice of Hindu religion and on the contrary, it is an essential part of the Hindu religion to allow Hindu women to enter into a temple as devotees and followers of Hindu religion and offer their prayers to the deity. In the absence of any scriptural or textual evidence, we cannot accord to the exclusionary practice followed at the Sabarimala Temple the status of an essential practice of Hindu religion,” he said.

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