Indian Supreme Court Allows All Women To Enter Sabarimala Temple: Is Legal Reform Enough?

India’s Supreme Court recently struck down a law banning women from entering one of Hinduism’s holiest sites – the Sabarimala temple, in India’s southern state of Kerala. This decision quickly intensified ire and anger amongst the violent mobs of Indian men who view allowing women of menstruating age (usually defined in India as women between the ages of 10 and 50) into the Sabarimala temple as a sacrilegious act. Soon after the court decision, their animosity compounded into violent demonstrations along the temple trail.

The Sabarimala temple brings millions of pilgrims every year, but until now, women of childbearing age had been barred. In the past, this exclusion of women had been justified by Hinduist beliefs  regarding the celibate Lord Ayyappa – whom the temple is dedicated to – and the perceived impurity of menstruating women in Hinduism. since 1991, The Kerala High Court had upheld the de facto ban, but the Indian Supreme Court overturned this ban 4-1, citing that the denial “denudes [women] of their right to worship,” and that to “treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the Constitution itself.”

However, the increased crowds of incensed men at the temple’s trail are still attempting to bar women from entering. Despite being accompanied by armed police a female New York Times journalist who recently attempted to visit the temple, was forced back by unruly mobs who violently hurled insults, and rocks at her.

Indian society, culture, and tradition are heavily rooted in religion and as part of this, women are often treated as lesser. Their value isn’t as recognized as that of mens in homes, communities, and society at large. In fact, the Supreme Court recognized that religious freedoms are often “invoked as a ‘cover’ for sexist policies.”

While the court’s vote has been heralded by women’s rights activists across the country, it has found opposition in many devout Hindus. Political parties within India including  the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also concdemened the decision – although the Kerala state government has vowed to uphold the ruling. This event has once again highlighted the ways in which the more liberal-leaning Supreme Court – which recently decriminalised homosexuality – has often found itself at odds with the more traditionally conservative government.

Eventhough, the overturning of this ban can be considered a start, much more still mus be done to bring equality to women in India. In a country that often places religious beliefs above the rights of minority groups, there are many people in India – including women, the LGBTQ community, and people of different castes – that suffer the consequences, and find considerations for their equality continiouslly jeaporidized.  

The Sabarimala temple is not the only religious building in India that denies women their right to worship, nor is it the only example of a law or de facto rule that discriminates against women. These laws must continue to change to allow women equal rights. Most importantly, deeply rooted discriminatory opinions about women, and minorities across the country must also change, if formal reforms are to be upheld, enforced, and respected. The disparity between formal reform and incessant informal dissent is evidenced by the fact that whether or not women will now be able to safely and peacefully enter the Sabarimala temple, remains a question.

Ashika Manu