In a landmark verdict to ensure gender equality at places of worship, India's Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny women entry to Kerala's Sabarimala temple. Murali Krishnan reports.
For decades, women of menstrual age were not allowed to enter the temple as its presiding deity, Ayyappa, is believed to be a celibate. Temple authorities justify the long-standing practice on the basis of "tradition."
In many South Asian cultures, menstruating women are considered "impure." For instance, menstruating Muslim women are not allowed to perform certain religious rites while having periods.
But in a judgment on Friday, the Supreme Court lifted the ban that prevented women and girls from entering Sabarimala temple, which draws millions of pilgrims and devotees every year.
"Restrictions can't be treated as essential religious practice," the top court ruled.
"Morality cannot be viewed with a narrow lens. It has to be in harmony with the constitution. Patriarchy and religion cannot topple the power of devotion," said Justice A M Khanwilkar.
However, Justice Indu Malhotra, the only dissenting judge on the five-strong bench, said "religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court."
In the last month alone, the Supreme Court has delivered a number of progressive rulings, including striking down two separate colonial-era laws that criminalized adultery and gay sex.
Civil society groups welcomed the court's verdict.
"Women have a constitutional right to be able to visit any place of worship," Mariam Dhawale, the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, told DW.
M C Josephine, chairperson of the Kerala state's Women Commission, said the "judgment paves the way for Hinduism to be even more inclusive."
"Now temple authorities will have to implement the court's order," she told DW.
But not everyone has hailed the judgment.
The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which manages the affairs of Sabarimala temple, urged the top court to avoid getting involved into sensitive religious matters.
TDB president K Padmakumar says the board will take into account all viewpoints before implementing the court's verdict.
"We are disappointed but accept the Supreme Court's verdict on women entry," Kandaru Rajeevaru, the head priest of the temple, told DW.
Fight for equality
In recent years, rights groups have filed a number of cases against restrictions on women's entrance to places of worship, arguing it is unconstitutional to allow such practices.
In 2016, women were allowed to enter Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai. Prior to that, women could only go up to the mazaar (grave) of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, a Muslim saint, but their movement was barred beyond that area.
"It is a fight for equality. We want an end to gender bias and demand our constitutional rights. We are happy that our campaign has yielded positive results," Noorjehan Niaz, who was at the forefront of the Haji Ali mosque movement, told DW.
Similarly, women gained entry into the famous Shani Shingnapur shrine in the western state of Maharashtra last year, ending the six-decade long tradition.
But activists say the battle for gender equality in India has a long a way to go. Many temples in the northern states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan do not allow women of menstruating age to enter temples. But they hope that the Friday ruling would set a legal precedent that could be applied to all places of worship in India.