"Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over...the freedom to practice and profess one's religion." With these words and many other significant proclamations, the Supreme Court opened the doors of Kerala's Sabarimala temple to all women, irrespective of age, on Friday. In a 4:1 majority judgement, the court ruled that the temple, devoted to Lord Ayyappa, could not discriminate against women of menstruating age - between age 10 and 50 - by prohibiting their entry into a public place of worship.
"Patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over...the freedom to practice and profess one's religion."
With these words and many other significant proclamations, the Supreme Court opened the doors of Kerala's Sabarimala temple to all women, irrespective of age, on Friday. In a 4:1 majority judgement, the court ruled that the temple, devoted to Lord Ayyappa, could not discriminate against women of menstruating age - between age 10 and 50 - by prohibiting their entry into a public place of worship.
Four of the five judges on the bench ruled that Sabarimala temple's exclusion of women of child-bearing age was unconstitutional because it discriminated against women based on biological factors, and was against the spirit of equal rights and individual dignity guaranteed by the Constitution. The only dissenting view was of Justice Indu Malhotra, who argued that the Court should not interfere in matters of deep religious faith.
Malhotra's minority judgement, however, contains one noteworthy observation: the Sabarimala petition has far-reaching ramifications and implications for all places of worship of various religions in the country, because they have their own beliefs and customs that might be considered exclusionary.
Despite Malhotra's reservations, perhaps it is time to say that the Sabarimala verdict should indeed have ramifications for all places of worship. Perhaps it is time for all institutions perpetuating menstrual taboos, in blatant or invisible ways, to be held accountable for stigmatising women's natural biological cycles.
Throughout history, the fact that women menstruate has been used as an excuse to systematically exclude them from a variety of religious spaces, positions and practices in most major religions. In recent years, women's protests against such exclusion have focused on holy places that had imposed a blanket ban on the entry of women. In 2016, for instance, activist Trupti Desai and women from the Bhumata Mahila Brigade fought for and won the right to worship in the innermost sanctum of Maharashtra's Shani Shingnapur and Trimbakeshwar temples. That same year, a Muslim women's rights group moved the Supreme Court and won the right to enter the inner sanctum of Mumbai's Haji Ali dargah. Friday's Sabarimala verdict is the latest in a series of such victories for women's equal rights to practice their faith.
But menstrual discrimination is a many-faced beast that continues to thrive with impunity, taking on multiple different forms in women's religious and domestic lives. Amongst Hindus and Jains, an unspoken rule forbids women from entering temples on the three or five days of menstruation. Shia mosques and Parsi fire temples follow the same norm. (Most Sunni mosques in India completely ban the entry of women on the grounds that Islam demands gender segregation - another tradition in desperate need of reform).
Outside public places of worship, deep-rooted notions of women's impurity during menstruation take the shape of myriad restrictions in different homes: no touching religious books and objects, avoiding certain prayers, no cooking or entering the kitchen. No signboards are needed to keep bleeding women out of temples or away from sacred texts - girls are socialised into period rules from a very young age.
The exclusion does not end with the duration of a woman's period - her supposedly inherent impurity becomes a convenient reason to deny women the roles of priests, pandits, qazis, imams and a range of other positions of power and leadership in a community.
Dissent is often seen as a threat to the entire social order, as seen in the case of a Facebook reader who called on all women to participate in this year's Durga Puja, even during their periods. On Saturday, the Facebook user was forced to take down his post and reportedly also received death threats for his views.
'A form of untouchability'
Every time a menstrual taboo is followed, it is an act of active gender discrimination that women and men perpetuate either knowingly or unconsciously. It may not be possible to litigate against every instance of such discrimination, but can each instance be considered a violation of Constitutional rights?
The majority judgement in the Sabarimala case includes several statements that can easily be read in that spirit.
Justice DY Chandrachud, for instance, states: "The Constitution embodies a vision of social transformation...The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values. Notions of 'purity and pollution', which stigmatize individuals, have no place in a constitutional order."
Chief Justice Deepak Mishra's judgement observes that "the law and society are bestowed with the Herculean task to act as levellers", and emphasises the need to abandon hypocritical beliefs: "The dualism that persists in religion by glorifying and venerating women as goddesses on the one hand, and by imposing rigorous sanctions on the other hand in matters of devotion has to be abandoned."
Through the Sabarimala judgement, the Supreme Court has already taken the first step of recognising the unconstitutionality of all forms of menstrual taboos enforced by Indian religious and cultural traditions. At what point will religious institutions and society at large choose to reform their traditions in light of the Court's judgement? When will the people of India stop tolerating the indignities of menstrual discrimination?