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Feminist Movements in India and the Sabarimala Temple Protests

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, all 193 United Nations’ Member States haves committed to working toward gender equality.[1] The UN has acknowledged the inequity women face around the globe, with hundreds of millions of girls being married before the age of eighteen, the continuance of female genital mutilation, and lack of parity in wages, land ownership, and political representation.[2]

In recent years, women’s movements have driven global and national action to push for women’s equality and the advancement of women’s rights.[3]  The month of January has recently become tied to women’s rights movements, particularly in the United States with the Women’s March, a movement and organization that sprang up in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency and is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through intersectional education on diverse issues.[4]

On January 1, 2019, a similarly momentous demonstration occurred in Kerala, India. Just before the start of the new year, two women entered Sabarimala, an ancient temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Ayyappa and one of the holiest sites in Hinduism.[5] Traditionally, women of menstruating age have been barred from entering the temple, with proponents of the policy arguing that since Lord Ayyappa is considered celibate, allowing menstruating women inside the temple would be disrespectful.[6] The policy derives from  a belief held by some practitioners of the Hindu faith, that menstruating women are unclean.[7] This belief has manifested in problematic practices that require girls and women to be excluded from their homes while they menstruate and make it difficult for menstruating girls to remain in school.[8]

In September of 2018, India’s Supreme Court held that the rule banning women of menstruating age from entering the temple was unconstitutional.[9] Several dozen women had attempted to enter the temple after the ban was lifted, but all were confronted with large groups of right-wing protesters preventing the women from gaining entrance.[10]  On New Year’s Day, millions of individuals joined together to create a “human wall” that stretched for three hundred miles along highways in southern India.[11]  The protest was not only in response to the tension that surrounded the entrance of two women into the temple, but also to stand for the equality of women throughout India.[12] India has been named one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, due to the high risk of sexual violence and the risk of being sold into slave labor.[13] Crimes against women have been increasing, particularly brutal crimes such as rapes, dowry deaths, and honor killings.[14] Over the last decade, there has been a decline in female labor force participation, with only about 27% of women participating in the labor market, and the pay disparity between men and women has stagnated at about 50%.[15]  

Protestors in the human chain chanted that they stood to uphold values of education and equality for women.[16] This protest is particularly meaningful in one of the most populous countries in the world,[17] where cultural institutions and laws still favor patriarchal systems, including dowry systems, patrilineality, and patrilocality[18]. Although the movement for women’s equality has been comparatively modest in India,[19] this recent protest, considered in light of the country’s nascent #MeToo movement, could show that progress for women’s rights is gaining momentum.  

Christine Gartland is a staff member of Fordham International Law Journal Volume XLII.

This post is a student blog post and in no way represents the views of the Fordham International Law Journal.

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[1] United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/ (last visited Jan. 18, 2019)

[2] Id.

[3] Women’s Movements, UN Women, http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/womens-movements (last visited Jan. 18, 2019)

[4] Women’s March: Mission and Principles https://march.womensmarch.com/mission-and-principles (last visited Jan. 18, 2019)

[5] Adam Withall, India’s Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on ‘Menstruating’ Women Entering One of Hinduism’s Holiest Sites, Independent, (Sept. 28, 2018, 5:23 pm) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/women-periods-hindu-holy-site-sabarimala-temple-kerala-india-supreme-court-menstruating-female-a8559531.html

[6] Joshua Berlinger, Sugam Pokharel, Two Indian Women Become First to Enter Temple After Centuries-Old Ban Overturned, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/01/asia/india-kerala-chain-intl/index.html (Jan. 2, 2019, 10:08am)

[7] See Roli Srivastava, Not a Dirty Word: Indian Girls Shatter Menstruation Myths, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-women-taboos/not-a-dirty-word-indian-girls-shatter-menstruation-myths-idUSKBN1FJ169 (Jan. 30, 2018)

[8] Gagandeep Kaur, Banished For Menstruating: the Indian Women Isolated While They Bleed, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/dec/22/india-menstruation-periods-gaokor-women-isolated (Dec. 22, 2015)

[9] Suhasini Raj and Kai Schultz, Religion and Women’s Rights Clash, Violently, at a Shrine in India, The N.Y. Times

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/23/world/asia/india-sabarimala-temple-women.html?module=inline (Oct. 18, 2018)

[11] Kai Schultz and Ayesha Venkataraman, 2 Indian Women Enter Sabarimala Temple, Setting Off Protests Near Hindu Shrine The N.Y. Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/world/asia/india-women-wall-sabarimala.html (Jan. 2, 2019)

[12] Id.

[13] Belinda Goldsmith and Meka Beresford, India Most Dangerous Country for Women with Sexual Violence Rife, Thomson Reuters Foundation, http://poll2018.trust.org/stories/item/?id=e52a1260-260c-47e0-94fc-a636b1956da7 (Jun. 26, 2018)

[14] Smriti Sharma, Achieving Gender Equality in India: What Works and What Doesn’t, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/achieving-gender-equality-in-india-what-works-and-what-doesnt.html (Dec. 1, 2016)

[15] Id.

[16] Schultz and Venkataraman, supra n. 9

[17] United States Census Bureau Current Population, https://www.census.gov/popclock/print.php?component=counter  (last visited Jan. 18, 2019)

[18] Sharma, supra n. 12

[19] Vindu Goel, Ayesha Venkataraman, and Kai Schultz, After a Long Wait, India’s #MeeToo Movement Suddenly Takes Off, The NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/09/world/asia/india-sexual-harassment-me-too-bollywood.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer (Oct. 9, 2018)