Religion has been a site for discrimination against many sections of the society, particularly Dalits and women, for centuries. The Supreme Court has made a dent in one such discriminatory religious practice in the Sabrimala judgment which was delivered by a constitution bench on Friday, September 28.
Every year, millions of devotees of Lord Ayyappa undertake a 41-day penance and set out on a pilgrimage to the Sabrimala mountains in Kerala, where a shrine dedicated to the deity in his celibate form is located. In this case, five SC judges of the Supreme Court were tasked with answering a highly contentious question – was it constitutionally valid to exclude women aged 10-50 years from entering and offering prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabrimala?
The challenging part of this question had to do with violating the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, the freedom of religion of Lord Ayyappa’s women devotees and the dignity of women. The petitioners also contended that this practice vitiated the constitutional proscription against untouchability, as women aged 10-50 were excluded owing to notions of impurity and pollution associated with menstruation.
On the other hand, the defence for the practice stated that Lord Ayappa’s male devotees’ right to practice their religion (by worshipping the celibate god in the absence of women) was constitutionally protected and could not be curtailed by the court.
The defence also stated that women were excluded from the temple as the pilgrimage would be too arduous for women; that women’s presence could disrupt the celibacy of male devotees and the god himself; and finally that women cannot complete the 41-day penance as they would menstruate during that period, which made them impure and disentitled them from offering prayers at the Sabrimala temple.
Noting the irony of a religion which venerates women as goddesses on one hand and denies them the right to participate in certain religious practices on the other, four of the five judges struck down the practice of excluding women aged 10-50 years from offering prayers at the Sabrimala temple as unconstitutional. One judge dissented from the majority judgment, holding that this practice was permissible under our constitutional framework.
“Are women the children of a lesser god?” The majority judgments took the view that all citizens, including women, were equally entitled to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution. Women’s right to offer prayers at the Sabrimala temple is as important as that of male devotees, and that the presence of women will not alter the nature of the male devotees’ right to worship Lord Ayyappa. The majority judgments found that the exclusionary practice violated women’s fundamental right against discrimination as well as constitutional morality because the reasons for excluding women were paternalistic, the practice stereotyped women on the basis of their sexuality and placed the burden of male devotees’ celibacy on the women by painting them as ‘seductresses’ and a source of distraction.
Significantly, the court found that barring women from entering the Sabrimala temple because of menstruation is not permissible. Justice Nariman noted that apart from the Dharmasutra and Bhagavata Purana, the Old Testament and the Qur’an forbid menstruating women from participating in religious activity. One of the four judges, Justice Chandrachud, additionally found that the exclusionary practice was based on the notion that menstruating women were impure, which violated the constitutional provision forbidding untouchability in all forms. The dissenting judge, Justice Malhotra, however, was of the view that courts ought not to interfere in deeply religious matters, with no mention on how the practice of exclusion was inextricably linked with menstrual taboos.
The judgment has far-reaching implications, not only on religious practices which exclude women and other groups from partaking in them, but it also opens to door to end customs and practices – both religious and secular – that discriminate against women on the basis of menstruation and associated myths.
As an interesting aside, the question of whether women should participate in religious practices that perpetuate patriarchy has divided feminists for years now. While some identify institutionalised religion as inherently oppressive and propound the outright disavowal of religion, others have recognised the significant role religion plays in women’s lives and have called for changes to ensure that religions are rid of their discriminatory practices to enable all groups to practice the faith they choose.
The importance of religion is underscored in Indian society where it undoubtedly has a major influence in the daily lives of its citizens. This is the reason why the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion is applicable to all and must be exercised in a manner that is consistent with constitutional morality, as opposed to societal morality and other fundamental rights.
In the words of Justice Chandrachud, the constitution cannot be used as an “instrument for the perpetuation of patriarchy.” Here’s hoping that the administrators of religions (predominantly upper-caste males) use this opportunity to introspect whether ‘spiritual well-being’ can be attained while excluding sections of the society from partaking in their religious practices.
Shreya Munoth is a Delhi-based lawyer.
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