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India: temple controversy litmus test for equal rights

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Reuters

Tensions where high in India on Wednesday when traditionalists tried to stop women visiting one of Hinduism's most sacred temples. Angry crowds opposed to female pilgrims surrounded vehicles and intimidated journalists at the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in the state of Kerala in South India.


Last month India's Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged between 10 and 50 who are having their period from entering and praying.

It is still an arduous task in India to change the mindset of the men in this country

Indian temple tests patience of feminists

The temple issue in Kerala State pitches reformers against traditionalists, political right against political left but first and foremost raises many questions about the position of women in India.

The Constitution of India guarantees equality of religion, of freedom of speech, of all equal rights of men and women in this country,” says Pria Hingorani, a lawyer who works at the Indian Supreme Court in Delhi.

She was happy with the ruling of the court last month, and says it should be respected. “Keeping the constitution in mind, the Supreme Court said that this practice is not right, it discriminates against women,” she says.

“Everyone should be allowed to their practices and religion and beliefs. Why should you discriminate on the ground that women are having menstruation and discriminate against women in general?”

Politics got involved too, in this confrontation.

Currently there’s a nationalist government in power, headed by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP.)

“In Kerela, the right wing has been the power in force,” says Kamal Chenoy, a political scientist with the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“But now the right wing is trying to mobilise the women to oppose the Supreme Court. So the Temple is actually a minor reason for demobilising women from becoming more open in entering in temples and such places,” he says.

And they have the support of the local royal family as well.

All that support resulted in the curious fact that some women also protested against other women to enter the temple, claiming that it was against traditional practices.

“This particular temple is run by a royal family that is respected,” says Chenoy.

“And they even have some support from the women. And this protest may also play in the next national elections (to be held in the spring of 2019). And the BJP is hoping to get a majority for the first ever time by using the issue of the Sabarimala Temple to mobilize women,” he says.

But this approach may backfire as India’s feminist movement is growing stronger.

“It is still an arduous task in India to change the mindset of the men in this country,” says Hingorani.

“We have many of the political leaders [ ... ] whose mindset has to be changed. I very strongly believe that.

“But still we are progressing, very slowly,” she says.

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