Indian Women Fight for Religious Rights

On Jan. 1, an estimated five million women celebrated the New Year by lining up in the streets of Kerala, which is located in southwestern India. Extending 385 miles, these women held their arms out in defiance, protesting for gender equality, sensitivity and religious freedom.

The Sabarimala Temple, located in Kerala, has well over 15 million devotees visit every year. The temple denied entry of women ages 10 to 50 for decades, due to the idea that “menstruating women are impure,” according to their priests. But the ban was lifted on Sept 28, 2018, resulting in many protests from groups of feminists and traditionalists.

Since the ban was lifted, only three women of the dozens who have attempted to enter have been able to do so, due to the violence that the traditionalists have been exhibiting. Two of the women had to enter through a backdoor on Jan. 2, at approximately 3:45 A.M., despite being escorted by police. Afterwards, the temple was temporarily shut down by a priest to purify it, and the two women are looking to press charges against him.

On Jan. 4, a 46-year-old woman from Sri Lanka was the first woman under the age of 50 to climb the 18 holy steps since the court ruling.

All three women have been forced into hiding, along with those who attempted to enter Sabarimala. Bindu Thankam, a teacher, activist and mother, is one of the many who tried to enter the temple. Her attempt was made on Oct. 22, when she was chased away by a group of traditionalists. Since then, not only has Thankam been forced to face constant harassment when in public, she has also been evicted from her home and has been asked to stop going to her job. Her daughter has also been denied admission to a secondary school.

Senior Easha Varala is against the idea of allowing women to enter the Sabarimala Temple.

“This matter isn’t about freedom,” said Varala. “It’s about tradition and respect towards God.”

Varala mentioned the shrine that sits in her house as well.

“As soon as I got my period, I was not allowed near the shrine. I can think of it, but cannot approach it until the fifth day of my period.” Varala said. “The violence is unnecessary, but Indians are stubborn and can’t get past certain things.”

As of Jan. 8, over 6,000 people have been arrested, primarily for the destruction of public property, one person has died, and 15 people have been injured. Traditionalists in particular have resorted to using arson, crude bombs and stone pelting. Schools and colleges have been forced to shut down.

Senior Joanna Choi commented, “Those acts of violence are horrifying and terrible. It just shows plain, flat out immaturity.”

Choi said that those who are causing the violence are afraid of change and reform, and she thinks that it’s demeaning because the traditionalists are preventing people from simply expressing their respect for their own religion.

“Why should the feminists be punished for praising the same thing as the traditionalists?” she asked.

Pushing the violence to the side, Choi believes that the women who are able to overcome the standards of being obedient and conservative are taking a huge step towards societal development.

“Since people are willing to act against societal ideas, I think the ‘minority’ is really speaking out and bringing their community a sense of liberty and change,”  Choi said.

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