Both have a case, but we need a middle ground
Passions are running high over Sabarimala. Feminism and faith don’t have to fight to the death, but the reactionary right and the rationalist left are leaving no middle ground to resolve it at all.
The Sabarimala case really does not have glib answers. It is not Hindutva and patriarchy lining up on one side and emancipation and constitutional morality on the other. It is about two important values: the freedom of religion and association (the right of the devout — so far male — to worship at Sabarimala the way they have) clashing with non-discrimination (the right of women to enter that space). It’s hard to be unreservedly on either side, and a solution can come only from negotiation, not confrontation.
How are women’s rights substantively affected by not being welcome at the lonesome hill shrine of Sabarimala? This would be like Dalit temple entry, a matter of oppression and equality, if there was a general gender barrier across Hindu temples. Sabarimala is one random male redoubt. There is no universal menstrual taboo either — there are temples for menstruating goddesses where men can’t go, I recently heard of a Radha cult where men wear red loincloths to simulate menstruation, there are rituals like yoni puja. The point is, there are oddities and diversities in religion, to try and bludgeon them into one civic ideal is asking for trouble.
There are limits to where the state can go in correcting non-standard practices. Religion is a zone of privacy that need only make sense to its adherents, as long as there is no coercion or violence involved in its practice. While god, if she exists, probably doesn’t discriminate, religious practice has currents and crosscurrents. You can’t legislate away all whimsical or problematic beliefs, or bring everyone around to a common idea. We only need to exist alongside as equals, not melt all walls and step into each other’s enclaves.
Distinct spaces are not always incompatible with equality, when they are not the norm. Does the existence of a boys’ school discriminate against girls or vice versa? Not if educational and co-educational opportunities are not denied to anyone. The right to worship Ayyappa is not denied to women in other temples. If they don’t like the Sabarimala way of worship, they are free to devise their own.
Sabarimala happens to exclude women because of current beliefs around the deity. Either you believe, or you don’t; there is no point arguing logically with the faithful about celibacy or menstruation. This Sabarimala consensus and purity-obsession may indeed be relatively recent, may have been solidified by the 1991 Kerala HC judgment and may reflect dominant-caste religiosity — but that’s about as meaningful as pointing out that cows were not worshipped in Vedic India. Right now, a woman’s presence in Sabarimala is registered as an encroachment by most believers.
Whether or not one agrees with them, everyone has the right to remedy when their religious freedoms are challenged (unless this amounts to systematic discrimination or coercion). It is not for unbelievers to declare beliefs ‘archaic’ and then bulldoze them. Comparisons to sati, Ayodhya, etc are misguided; this practice doesn’t harm others, and we are the ones going into their faith and asserting our way.
Many Indians, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian or faitheist, flinch at the thought of busting into a place of worship. That’s not how things get fairer, in matters of faith: you need to engage within its terms. Think of feminist theology, like Musawah in Islam, which finds spiritual grounds for social equality. To progress, you have to change the story, loosen the beliefs, mobilise most believers and shame the others. The Supreme Court petitioners had only learnt of Sabarimala from articles by Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. The women going in have not led a movement within the frames of belief — while it is now their legal right to go where they want, the activist/devotee distinction does matter.
Can beliefs and practices of a place change with external pressure? They seem to have, in the similar standoff at Maharashtra’s Shani Shingnapur, with some skilful negotiation and soothing. But both sides need to feel acknowledged, rather than invalidated by the other. The good-faith defenders of the Sabarimala tradition must accept that while Hinduism is spiritually heterodox, it is also socially rigid and hierarchical. Kerala is seeing a long-deferred and tremendous wave of feminist activism, and the CPM-organised Women’s Wall is proof of these powerful energies. Women’s voices have been stifled in all organised faiths, including in Kerala’s Devaswom boards. This patriarchal stranglehold must be fought by progressive parties and activists. To inappropriately quote Salman Rushdie in this context: ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more.’ But don’t tear it open.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.