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Indian Women Believe Struggle for Equality Should Not Be Staged in Temples

Protestors block traffic and shout slogans reacting to reports of two women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, Jan. 2, 2019

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Women
Kanaka Durga, 39, one of two Indian women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, is seen at a hospital in Manjeri town in the southern state of Kerala, India, January 15, 2019.

“From my childhood I believe that those rituals should be saved and I don’t think those beliefs should be legalized,” said Radhika Nair, an economics postgraduate student as she emerged from viewing an art exhibition in Kochi in Kerala state.

She is referring to the centuries-old custom that barred women between the ages of 10 and 50 from climbing the 18 golden steps that lead into Sabarimala, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. A raging controversy has centered on the hilltop temple in Kerala after the Supreme Court lifted that ban, saying it constitutes gender discrimination. The order was seen as a huge step for women’s equality and a blow to entrenched patriarchal traditions.

But in India’s most literate state, lying on its southern tip, the view is far more complex. In towns and cities, many ordinary women, young and old, are vehement that temples are not the place to stage the battle for gender equality and want the traditions in Sabarimala to be left undisturbed. The handful that take a more liberal view prefer not to be quoted on an issue that has raised strong emotions – not just among political parties who have waded into the controversy, but in ordinary households.

Tradition 

Women of menstruating age are barred from the temple because age-old belief holds it would dishonor the temple’s deity Lord Ayyappa, believed to be a celibate. Vowing to preserve that tradition in defiance of the top court’s order, devotees forced the handful of women who approached the temple to turn back until two slipped in undetected with a plains clothes police escort earlier this month. As violent protests erupted, they went into hiding and needed police protection for days.

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Kanaka Durga, 39, one of two Indian women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, is seen at a hospital in Manjeri town in the southern state of Kerala, India, January 15, 2019.

​39-year-old Kanakadurga, who returned home in mid-January, had to be hospitalized after she was allegedly attacked by her mother-in-law and was later locked out of the house. She is living in a government shelter. Her brother has asked her to apologize to devotees. 40-year-old Bindu Ammini’s family has been more supportive and she is back at her job as a law professor.

On the streets of Kerala, not many are willing to defend the temple visit of the two and dismiss them as activists. 60-year-old Vijay Lakshi, who is a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, said that by entering the shrine, they proved that they were not genuine believers. Then why are they going there? As per our opinion women should not go to Sabarimala.”

Ammini told VOA she visited the temple to exercise her constitutional right to equality. “This is not question of activist and devotee. In India rule of law is practiced. All people in India have duty to obey constitution and other laws.”

But what finds wide resonance in Kerala is the sole dissenting voice on the top court’s five-judge bench that delivered the landmark verdict. Indu Malhotra, the only woman judge on the panel had said that “issues of deep religious sentiments should not ordinarily be interfered by the court,” and religious practices cannot be solely tested on the basis of the right to equality.

“I am not that much devoted to God, I am not that much against God also. I am a common person with all the feelings,” says Smita Subhash, a school principal. “But when we are living in a particular society, it is better that we have to follow the rules and regulations of that society, that is very important.”

Some point out that Kerala is home to a temple that does not allow men on certain days. Many non-Hindus also want religious customs to be treated as sacrosanct. “Leave Sabarimala as it was before,” said Kochi resident, Mary Bosco. “It is not the place for showing women empowerment. It is not a place to make problems, issues.”

​Ammini feels differently and said, “Gender inequality is also part of religion” and needs legal redress. The man who facilitated her visit to Sabarimala by launching an online group for women who wanted to enter, Shreyas Kanaran, also asserts that equal access for women into religious spaces is an important facet of ushering in social reform. “We have to be patient. A mindset change needs time,” he says.

But it is difficult to find women who openly favor the entry of women in Sabarimala in a state where, although they are more educated compared to women in many other parts of the country, the hold of conservatism is also strong.

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Kanaka Durga, 39 (L) and Bindu Ammini, 40, the first women to enter Sabarimala temple which traditionally bans the entry of women of menstrual age, pose for a photo on the outskirts of Kochi, India, January 10, 2019.

Two women sitting in a café say they don’t care whether women enter or stay away from Sabarimala and believe that more important issues such as rape should be the focus of governments and society. But they don’t want to be quoted because their husbands and in-laws would be angry.

The final legal word on the controversy has yet to be pronounced. The Supreme Court is due to hear petitions seeking a review of its judgment but it remains to be seen whether it takes a second look at the contentious issue or lets the earlier verdict stand.

Also Read- Pakistan Appoints its First Ever Female Hindu Civil Judge

Either way, strong passions will continue to swirl on the issue in Kerala, and for the time being, the voice of those who favor retaining the traditions at Sabarimala is much louder. That means for some time to come the millions of devotees dressed in black who head to the temple every year after a tough 41-day penance, will continue to be men.

Women like Radhika Nair have made up their minds. “We are ready to wait. I don’t need to go there between these 10 to 50 years.” (VOA)

Next Story

No More Segregation on the Basis of Gender in Restaurants in Saudi Arabia

Saudi restaurants no longer need to segregate women and men

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Saudi Arabia
Restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia, including major Western chains like Starbucks, are currently segregated by “family” sections allocated for women. Lifetime Stock

Women in Saudi Arabia will no longer need to use separate entrances from men or sit behind partitions at restaurants in the latest measure announced by the government that upends a major hallmark of conservative restrictions that had been in place for decades.

The decision, which essentially erodes one of the most visible gender segregation restrictions in place, was quietly announced Sunday in a lengthy and technically worded statement by the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry.

While some restaurants and cafes in the coastal city of Jiddah and Riyadh’s upscale hotels had already been allowing unrelated men and women to sit freely, the move codifies what has been a sensitive issue in the past among traditional Saudis who view gender segregation as a religious requirement. Despite that, neighboring Muslim countries do not have similar rules.

Restaurants and cafes in Saudi Arabia, including major Western chains like Starbucks, are currently segregated by “family” sections allocated for women who are out on their own or who are accompanied by male relatives, and “singles” sections for just men. Many also have separate entrances for women and partitions or rooms for families where women are not visible to single men. In smaller restaurants or cafes with no space for segregation, women are not allowed in.

Reflecting the sensitive nature of this most recent move, the decision to end requirements of segregation in restaurants was announced in a statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. The statement listed a number of newly-approved technical requirements for buildings, schools, stores and sports centers, among others.

Saudi Sex Segregation
A woman leaves a ladies only service area at a restaurant in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. VOA

The statement noted that the long list of published decisions was aimed at attracting investments and creating greater business opportunities.

Among the regulations announced was “removing a requirement by restaurants to have an entrance for single men and (another) for families.”

Couched between a new regulation about the length of a building’s facade and allowing kitchens on upper floors to operate was another critical announcement stating that restaurants no longer need to “specify private spaces”— an apparent reference to partitions.

Across Saudi Arabia, the norm has been that unrelated men and women are not permitted to mix in public. Government-run schools and most public universities remain segregated, as are most Saudi weddings.

In recent years, however, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed for sweeping social reforms, with women and men now able to attend concerts and movie theaters that were once banned. He also curtailed the powers of the country’s religious police, who had been enforcers of conservative social norms, like gender segregation in public.

Two years ago, women for the first time were allowed to attend sports events in stadiums in the so-called “family” sections. Young girls in recent years have also been allowed access to physical education and sports in school, a right that only boys had been afforded.

Also Read- We Should Give the Rape Accused Life Imprisonment: Waheeda Rehman

In August, the kingdom lifted a controversial ban on travel by allowing all citizens — women and men alike — to apply for a passport and travel freely, ending a long-standing guardianship policy that had controlled women’s freedom of movement.

The new rules remove restrictions that had been in place, but do not state that restaurants or cafes have to end segregated entrances or seated areas. Many families in conservative swaths of the country, where women cover their hair and face in public, may prefer eating only at restaurants with segregated spaces. (VOA)