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In September 2018, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Sabarimala ban did not qualify as essential religious practice and that it violated women’s right to freedom of religion, the Hindu temple opened its doors to women. The ruling stated: “where a man can enter, a woman can also go. What applies to a man, applies to a woman.” It is one of the rare opportunities women have to be equal with men in India.
As the Guardian reports, a group of seven women, led by the gender equality activist Trupti Desai, arrived at Cochin airport in the early hours of Tuesday to exercise their right to visit the holy Sabarimala temple, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
After encountering Hindu nationalist protesters, one of whom sprayed an activist in the face with chilli spray resulting in her being taken to hospital, the seven women were warned by police that they were putting their lives at risk by continuing their journey. The women have insisted they will continue in their attempt to visit the temple.
The woman who was sprayed with chilli spray said they were explicitly told by the deputy chief of police that they should not continue to Sabarimala. “They said our lives are in danger if any of us try to visit the temple,” said Desai. “But we have told them that we will enter the temple as is our right, even if they don’t give us police protection. We will not go back.”
Before the court ruled that women of all ages can enter the temple, the temple had banned women of childbearing age, between 10 and 50, said to be out of respect for Ayyappan, the celibate Hindu deity to which the temple is dedicated.
“This is about gender equality,” said Desai, speaking over the phone from the office of the deputy police commissioner in Kochi, where the women were temporarily given refuge for their own protection. “The constitution has given us the right to gender equality and a right to pray, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that women could enter, so they have no right to stop us going to Sabarimala temple.”
She added: “Even if I know I might die in this struggle, I will still not go back. I’m not afraid of losing my life, this is a fight that someone has to take on.”
“We are living in the 21st century, where women are working and are in power with men, but still we are following a custom which is 500 years old,” said Desai. “It is the duty of women like us who should take it in hand and change that mindset.”