The recent Supreme Court ruling allowing women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple has been causing waves of commotion and unrest throughout the state of Kerala. From amidst all the sloganeering the traditionalists who maintain that women cannot enter, the women activists and journalists who have tried to enter with police protection, and the political mudslinging taking place, the only outcome thus far is that no woman between 10 and 50 has yet been able to make it all the way into the temple.
This entire situation basically raises three questions. The first is the broader questions of women’s rights. One side takes its stance based on the constitutional Right to Equality, particularly the prohibition of discrimination based on sex or gender, as per Article 14. It challenges the discriminatory practice of not allowing women into the temple, citing their fertility as the reason they aren’t allowed in. Conversely, the opposing side holds that Article 25 confers the right of freedom of conscience and to practice and propagate any religion. They hold steadfastly to the belief that women below the age of 50 cannot enter the presence of the celibate deity, and practising this belief by barring the entry of women is their right. So now, it is to be seen which side of the argument holds. This could be answered by the next question.
The second question raised by the Sabarimala issue is a deeper question that provides ample food for thought- what constitutes belief? Who decides what is belief? Can it be standardized and dictated?
Belief, at least its dictionary meaning, is the acceptance that something is true, with or without evidence of the same. A religious belief, then, is what a person chooses to accept and hold to be true with regard to his or her religion and faith. It is then, something deeply personal, involving the individual’s convictions, and is therefore, subjective in nature. It cannot be treated like a blanket, it is open to interpretation.
This means that the belief of one person or group cannot be imposed on another. The very same article that grants freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion also confers upon every citizen the freedom of conscience. Thus, if a woman aged between 10 and 50 years believes that it is okay for her to enter the Sabarimala temple, that is her personal belief. As of now, the Supreme court allows her to act on that belief, and she is free to enter the temple. Those who believe otherwise need not enter the temple themselves if they so choose, but they cannot curtail the right of those who want to.
There is also the matter of evolution of the beliefs. History points out to numerous instances where practices derogatory to certain caste groups or to women have been discarded, and belief systems surrounding these have evolved with time. Within the societal bounds of the time period in which these changes happened, they were probably as unacceptable as women entering the Sabarimala temple. In retrospect however, we laud these changes. In the present situation, if the state bows down to traditionalists and women never enter the temple, where is the room the Raja Ram Mohan Roys and Jyotiba Phules and B.R. Ambedkars? Have we as a society stopped adapting and evolving over time, to reach this stagnant point in history?
This is a moment with great historic potential, being reduced to a political dispute over the agendas of the ruling left and the right. This leads us to the third question, the role of the state.
What is the role of the state here? The Kerala government in keeping with the Supreme Court order is required to provide protection to those women who wish to enter the Sabarimala temple, and ensuring that women’s equal right to worship is maintained. In failing to do so, the government has even been dubbed as being in contempt of the Supreme Court. On being questioned about its failure to provide safe entry for women who wished to enter, one of the ministers stated that the government will ensure the safety of ‘believers’ who wish to enter, and not necessarily that of ‘activists’. While it is true that no one so far has come forward purely out of religious motivation, but rather as journalists and women activists, it is in reality hard to draw the line between ‘believer’ and activist’. The two need not be mutually exclusive, and the state cannot concretely delineate between them.
In conclusion, the only thing that can be said is that how this entire situation plays out will have huge implications for women’s rights, especially in the sphere of religious matters. Evolution in the role of women in religion is not limited by the religion itself- it is something that we are presently seeing happening across religions. It is a question of progress towards equality.
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