Why do women keep going to Sabarimala?

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 26, 2019 17:06 hrs

I’m often asked for my opinion on Sabarimala, and whether I think women should be allowed to go or not.

I have never understood either the restrictions on entry at religious places or the temptation to fight them. The restrictions strike me as ill-informed; the fight against them strikes me as a waste of time and energy. 

Why would anyone want to go where they are not wanted, knowing they will be personae non grata for as long as the powers that actually decide on ground whether they are wanted or not are brute forces?

When, on November 16, a five-judge bench referred the question of whether women “of childbearing age” could go to Sabarimala to a bigger bench, I was amused by the phrase. Who are “women of childbearing age”, and how are they different from “women aged 10 to 50”? Are they, to use a pejorative term, “menstruators”?

And now, when the nation is in a tizzy about a 12-year-old girl being barred entry into the shrine, I find myself wondering what motivations the girl’s family had to behave as they did.

Media reports say they had lied that the girl’s age was 10 in their online application, whereas her Aadhaar card revealed that she was 12 years old, and therefore the police detained her while her family went ahead and worshipped at the temple.

There are some things here that make little sense.

Clearly, the family was one of believers and wasn’t taking the girl along as an experiment but because they really wanted to go and they really wanted her to go. Under these circumstances, why did they lie about the child’s age? Whom were they trying to fool – the gods, the middlemen, or themselves? I’m not entirely sure about everything the 40-day period of abstinence involves abstaining from, but I’m fairly certain one is advised not to lie during this period.

Second, if they had lied about the child’s age, why did they carry identity proofs that would reveal her age anyway? If they had made up their minds to lie, would it not have been a lot easier to leave the proofs behind and claim their bags had got stolen?

Third, how could the people accompanying the child leave a wailing pre-teen behind with no one to watch her, and go ahead and worship at the shrine right after they had been stopped and barred from taking her along?

The righteous religious and the institutions they control don’t tempt me to interact with them.

Sometime ago, I had written about the dress code at religious institutions, which I’m not in agreement with. Do the gods need to be protected from the temptations of body shapes and a face framed with hair? Or do other devotees need to be protected?

I have had or witnessed ugly interactions in practically every kind of place of worship.

At a gurdwara, a man screamed at me as if I had committed a grave act of desecration because a tendril of hair had slipped out of the dupatta with which I was covering my head.

In Tirupati, a woman who was trying to sneak past me in the queue pinched me and trod hard on my foot.

At the Nizamuddin dargah, a friend who identifies as left-liberal told me I couldn’t go right into the shrine, grinned sheepishly, and went in himself, apparently seeing no contradiction between his politics and his subservience to religion.

I have watched a tourist being shamed for wearing jeans at the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Three men at the entrance nearly spat at her before they directed her to a shop to buy something to “cover” herself with. She came back with a length of material she wore as a skirt, and apologised obsequiously to the men, who seemed mollified. It made me wonder why she wanted to visit. Did she think the view would be worth the insult? Did she believe she had to make amends for offending the men by wearing jeans? Had her afternoon not been ruined by how she had been treated?

Soon after I posted the piece online, an atheist acquaintance shared it and declared that all women should go to Sabarimala wearing what they wanted.

I will never understand that attitude. If one doesn’t believe in religion, why take the trouble to visit a place of religious significance? It would be rather absurd, for instance, to file a case saying non-Muslims should be allowed to do the Hajj, and then prove a point by spending a lot of money to visit a place that has absolutely no personal significance to one except that it was once forbidden fruit.

I will not understand the people who prevent women from going to the shrine after a court has passed orders and resort to violent means to do so. What are they protecting? The temple from sacrilege? Their god from the women? Religion from jurisdiction?

It is fairly easy for a court to pass orders, and it ought to be easy for a state to implement them when it has the will to do so.

When the law and order situation is not under control, it implies the state’s machinery isn’t running smoothly. When this is the case, why would people risk their safety when it appears neither the gods nor the courts can protect them?

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: