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Women Entering A Sacred Temple Spark Protests In India


Protests erupted in southern India this week...


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

SIMON: ...Over the fact that three women set foot in a Hindu temple, the Sabarimala temple. It's a famous pilgrimage site that attracts thousands of devotees each year. And for centuries, the temple did not admit women between the ages of 10 and 50. But this week, three women who are in their 40s managed to enter the shrine. NPR's Lauren Frayer reported on the story for us last month. And now she joins us from her base in Mumbai, India. Lauren, thanks so much for being with us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And what sparked these protests?

FRAYER: Well, the Sabarimala temple is dedicated to a celibate deity - Lord Ayyappa. And some faithful believe that women of childbearing age could be a distraction to him. Some also believe that women who menstruate - who are old enough to menstruate - are impure. And in fact, after these women visited the temple this week, Hindu priests did purification rituals at the shrine.

We should remember that temples, churches, mosques around the world have similar restrictions. I mean, some have separate areas for women and men to pray in. Other religions do have rules about what women who are menstruating can and cannot do.

But this ancient temple and its rules really hit a nerve in modern India. It became the target of a right to pray campaign by Indian feminists. So this is a religious issue, but it's also becoming political. In fact, the Indian Supreme Court ruled - back in September - that the temple's ban on women aged 10 to 50 amounts to gender discrimination.

SIMON: And how are Indian politicians handling this in a country whose politics is sometimes so divided along these lines?

FRAYER: That's right. India's prime minister is a Hindu nationalist - so is his ruling party. So this issue plays very well with his base.

But the state where the temple is located, Kerala, is ruled by communists. And they have lined up behind the women. They say they'll uphold the Supreme Court order and ensure women of all ages can pray there. They've even ordered police to escort women to the temple.

But that may cost them votes. Protesters have burned effigies of Kerala's chief minister. And even the main opposition party in India, Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi, is backing these Hindu nationalist protesters rather than the women. And that may be because elections are coming. And polls show a majority of Indians think this temple has a right to set age restrictions on women. In fact, the Supreme Court now says it will review its ruling later this month. It may change its mind amid such a backlash.

SIMON: Well, how do we read what's happened?

FRAYER: Small step towards gender equality or infringing on religious freedom - you know, that depends on who you ask. To some, the fact that these three women got into this shrine, yes, is a victory. Before they did, there was a feminist protest, a human chain encouraging women to enter the temple. But the three who did are now under police protection - in hiding for their own safety.

I mean, I can tell you, I went to the temple late last year - or rather, I tried to get close to it. I couldn't get a taxi driver to take me within 20 miles. I had to have a police escort. Hindu men are stopping cars, checking for women who are under age 50. My hotel receptionist warned me to stay away.

And so many devotees I talked to, though, said they didn't want to discriminate against women. That's not their aim. They just want to practice their religion as they see fit. And their freedom of religion, to them, means keeping women who could be menstruating away from a certain god, a celibate god.

SIMON: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai, thanks so much for being with us.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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