India’s top court on Friday revoked a ban on women entering a famous Hindu temple following a decades-long legal battle, ruling that patriarchy cannot be allowed to trump faith.
The decision is the latest by the Supreme Court in recent weeks to reflect a more liberal outlook in the largely conservative and traditional society of 1.25 billion people.
Women in India have been intensifying campaigns in recent years to be allowed to enter Hindu temples and other religious sites.
The Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala - the subject of Friday’s ruling and considered one of the holiest for Hindus - has traditionally barred all women of menstruating age, between 10 and 50.
The temple’s rule emanated from the still widely held belief in India that menstruating women are impure. In rural pockets of the country, many women are still made to sleep and eat separately during menstruation.
The custom in the temple in the southern state of Kerala was challenged by a clutch of petitioners who argued that women cannot be denied the constitutional right to worship.
‘To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the constitution itself,’ said Justice D. Y. Chandrachud, part of the five-judge bench that gave a majority verdict on Friday.
Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said banning the entry of a large section of women was discriminatory and violated their rights.
‘Prohibiting women (from entering the temple) violates the right of a woman to worship and practise religion,’ he said.
While most Hindu temples don’t allow women to enter when they are menstruating, the temple, commonly known as Sabarimala, was one of a few that did not allow any woman of menstruating age.
Indu Malhotra, the only woman judge on the bench, dissented with the majority verdict, saying courts must not interfere with issues concerning ‘deep religious sentiments’.
The case made headlines last month when a regional newspaper editor blamed devastating floods in Kerala on women wanting to enter Sabarimala.
Millions of devotees visit the temple every year to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity who is believed to be celibate.
According to the temple website, pilgrims have to observe celibacy for 41 days before entering the shrine. Some worshippers take an arduous forest route to reach the hilltop temple, located some 1,200 metres above sea level.
Friday’s verdict was welcomed by India’s Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi and other prominent women’s rights activists.
‘It opens up the way forward for Hinduism to become even more inclusive and not a property of one caste or one sex,’ Gandhi said.
In 2016, hundreds of women campaigned in Maharashtra state to successfully end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple.
Women were also prevented from entering Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum until the high court scrapped the rule in 2016.
Rahul Easwar, one of the main activists who backed the Sabarimala ban, said he would appeal to the Supreme Court for a review before the temple reopens next month. The revered shrine only opens for certain auspicious days each year.
‘We will go ahead with the fight as it (the verdict) affects the very core and belief of temple systems,’ Easwar told reporters.
‘Deities have certain rights and their rights should be protected,’ he said.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court scrapped a ban on gay sex dating back to 1861, and on Thursday it said adultery would cease to be a crime.
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