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Saturday, 17 December 2016

Why women should have the right to enter Sabarimala

Found an interesting piece on Sabarimala row on ET written by Charmy Harikrishnan. Enjoy reading:

On August 27, the Bombay High Court came out with a landmark judgment on the Haji Ali Dargah: "Women be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah at par with men," adding that the Haji Ali Dargah Trust cannot enforce a ban "contrary to the fundamental rights" granted by the Constitution.

The very next day, a few posts appeared on Facebook — Malayali's favourite social medium — of a few women holding placards saying #ReadyToWait #Sabarimala.

What they were saying was apparent. While women are fighting to enter the temple in Sabarimala in southern Kerala — which bars the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 — the placard holders are in no rush, they are willing to wait to see Lord Ayyappan.

But the more they talked, their arguments turned into a soup, sorry a sambar, of gobbledygook. What are they waiting for, exactly? Till they turn 55, apparently.

And why? Forty-year-old Padma Pillai, one of the placard women, says the "deity prefers it".

That is indeed clinching. But how does she know what the deity wants? God is really not known to WhatsApp or Facebook. "My mother told me," says Pillai, over the phone from Hyderabad, where she runs a startup called MovingDNeedle.

"In the aitihyam (legend) that she narrated to me when I was a child, only women who have crossed 55 could go to Sabarimala.

It is also there in the Tantra Samuchayam (a 15th century ritual manual) and our folklores." Really, Ms?

If Pillai wants to wait till she is 65 or 85, she could, but the personal whims of a few and age-old prejudices cannot impinge on the constitutional rights of women.

Put the same question — Why can't women between the ages of 10 and 50 enter Sabarimala — to Rahul Easwar, the self-appointed advocate of Ayyappan and whose family members are traditionally the tantris of Sabarimala, and the sambar of gobbledygook boils over.

"See, Sabarimala never restricted young women. They kept away of their own free will." So if women enter, of their own free will, that should not be a problem? "No, they cannot enter.

It is for the creation of ojas and the inward movement of the sexual energy of the male devotees." If women enter the temple, this will be affected. So to protect this seminal national treasure that is the male sexual energy, the entire area from the river Pampa to the temple shall be sanitised of women — blatant gender discrimination hasn't been dressed up in so much poppycock of late.

And why should it be so? "Because Manikandan (another name for Ayyappan) said so in 1150 AD." And how does Easwar in 21st century know what Manikandan said in the 12th century? "That has been the tradition for 900 years and this has been the belief of bhaktas and validated by devaprasnam." Devaprasnam, dear reader, is a group of astrologers "divining the will of God" using horoscopes and cowrie shells. While God hasn't so far spoken out against caste discrimination, female foeticide and the quality of PDS rice in ration shops, He has taken the trouble to specifically instruct astrologers about the age limit of women who can pray to Him. So they say. But since our legislature and judiciary do not make laws and dispense justice by carefully reading Nilgiri tea leaves, shuffling cowrie shells and wondering if the Saturn is retrograde, we should be following only one book: the Constitution, not folklore, bedtime stories and devaprasnam.

While Pillai and Easwar are careful not to utter the word "menstruation", it is the woman between menarche and menopause who is banished from the temple: she is the seat of vice, she is the impure one. This misogynistic notion that women can pollute God or man has no place in an equal society.

Rights and Rites 
A placard woman's devotion to Sabarimala, sorry the Sangh Parivar, can also be quite enchanting. Pillai, in a Facebook post, calls J Nandakumar, All India Sah-Prachar Pramukh of the RSS, an "undisputed spiritual giant", that for a moment everyone from Shankarachaya to Sree Narayana Guru might have experienced grave self-doubts and then chuckled heartily.

Nandakumar came out in support of #ReadyToWait on Twitter, calling it a "sacred cause". But the RSS had taken a different stance at the Akhil Bhartiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagaur in March.

Its annual report says: "Generally, both men and women are naturally permitted entry into the temples without any discrimination...

However, because of some unfair traditions, at certain places there has been a lack of consensus on the question of temple entry.

Wherever such problems exist, attempts should be made to bring about a change of mind through proper discussions." Didn't the report back women's entry to temples?

"Yes, in principle we are for it," says Nandakumar over the phone to ET Magazine. "But these are traditions that have been observed for centuries. There has to be a consensus on it.

It cannot happen one fine morning. It cannot happen today or tomorrow." Is there a consensus in the RSS on it? "We have had two-three meetings, but there has been no consensus." So women should be ready to wait till they find a consensus. Suddenly, it is no longer about what Ayyappan wants, but what men want. Kummanam Rajasekharan, BJP president of Kerala, toes the same line. "As a political, secular party, BJP does not want to directly involve in the issue. Priests, believers and the Devaswom Board have to sit together and find an amicable solution. Unilateral decision to allow women into the temple will have serious, longterm repercussions," he told ET Magazine.

Rights, however, are not decided on the basis of consensus. In fact, the law seeks to protect those whose rights are denied due to the high-handedness of the majority.

And who will come to a consensus? Prayar Gopalakrishnan, the chief of the Travancore Devaswom Board that is in-charge of the temple, had the temerity to say: "Women will not enter Sabarimala until we have a machine to detect periods." And what about the "believers"?

In the right wing's view, only those who are ready to wait are true believers; the rest are "feminists" and "activists" — as if women got the right to work, vote, property and dress because of the untiring efforts of women who held placards saying "We are ready to wait" and posted those photos on Facebook. Will the tantris vote for change?

TThey are Rahul Easwar's family, which has been enjoying a monopoly on the priesthood of Sabarimala (it' is another "tradition" that has to be challenged, because devotion and knowledge, dear lord, are not hereditarily transmitted).

The questions before the Supreme Court, which is hearing the case, and the society are simple: Should Gods reflect our basest instincts or our noblest aspirations? Should a dozen women who hold placards, saying "Ready to wait", decide what is right in this country? Should women be barred from a place where millions of men — age and religion and caste no bar — go to pray every year?

25 Years Ago 
The funny thing is that this rigid ban on women is just 25 years old — after the Kerala High Court upheld traditions in Sabarimala in 1991: "The restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial."

Lord Ayyappan, the legend goes, is Hariharasuthan, born of the union of Vishnu in the form of the beautiful woman Mohini and Shiva.

This has been read as an epic moment for fluid gender identity and homosexual union. But as experts like Bibek Debroy say, there is no mention of Lord Ayyappan or Sastha in any of the 18 major puranas or the epics. A master's thesis at Carleton University, Canada, by one Radhika Sekar, refers to a 19th century Sanskrit text called Bhutanathopokyanam that refers to Ayyappan.

However, there is something more interesting in her dissertation: Sekar did enter the temple during her research in 1986-87. Although she could not take the famous 18 steps, she entered the shrine through the northern entrance.

Since Sekar could enter the temple about four years before the high court order, it can be safely assumed that the restriction on women became a rigid code only with the 1991 high court judgment. That case was filed after the then Devaswom commissioner, J Chandrika, conducted the annaprasan of her grandchild at Sabarimala in the presence of other women.

The Devaswom Board, which defended the presence of the women at the temple, said women were allowed on the first five days of every month but not during the festival season of November-January. The queen of Travancore is also reported to have visited the temple in 1940 when she might have been just 45.

Honouring traditions is tricky, since many are steeped in medieval darkness and discrimination. Here are some "immemorial" traditions that have been done away with: women in Kerala could not cover their breasts until 1865, "avarna" children would not be admitted to government schools until the beginning of 20th century, and lower castes could not enter a temple until 1936.

On September 30, 1921, TK Madhavan, a leader of the backward caste Ezhavas, told Mahatma Gandhi: "The removal o ..

On September 30, 1921, TK Madhavan, a leader of the backward caste Ezhavas, told Mahatma Gandhi: "The removal of untouchability is an abstract idea. Temple entry is a concrete representation of the abstract idea."

Three years later, as the great flood of 1924 swept the land, Malayali activists stood in pouring rain and rising waters before the barricades that stopped them from taking the road to the Vaikom temple. The backward castes were denied entry not just to the temple but even to the roads leading to them.

The clock should not be turned back to 1924. Malayalis should not be standing at the barricades once again for basic rights. The government of Kerala says it wants all women — age no bar — to enter Sabarimala. Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran told ET Magazine: "The Left Front government sticks to the affidavit it filed in its earlier term: that women of all ages should be allowed in Sabarimala temple." By giving access to women, the court and the state will be giving a signal, they will be saying "No" to a pernicious mindset that believes women and men are not equal. Women should not wait, dear lord, women should not be required to wait any longer.

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