While examining a Public Interest Litigation filed by the Indian Young Lawyer’s Association in 2006 challenging the bar on the entry of women aged between 10 years and 50 years into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, the Supreme Court not only questioned this practice but emphatically said it will only be guided by the rationale under the Constitution. “The gravity of this petition is that gender justice is endangered.”

On April 2, Trupti Desai and others of the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade stormed the sanctum sanctorum of the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra following a Bombay High Court order allowing the entry of women into the sanctuary – that had been denied to them for centuries. Though the temple authorities resisted their entry at the time, on April 8, Desai and other women finally offered prayers at the temple’s inner sanctum. It was a historic moment, and big victory for women in their fight for gender equality.

While this marks a historic beginning for Hindu women to enjoy equal status in temples, Christian and Muslim women are still being denied entry into sanctum sanctorums in their respective places of worship.

Women and sanctity

The word tradition is most often deployed by the world’s patriarchal religions as a euphemism designed to discriminate against women and demean them as impure – while menstruating, or otherwise.

I belong to the Malankara Marthoma Syrian church, demographically minuscule among the Christian community, and a minority even among the Syrian Christian churches. The Syrian churches believe that they have existed from the time of St Thomas the apostle, and are often referred to as Saint Thomas Christians. At a meeting I attended at a Malankara Marthoma Syrian church, someone mentioned that a woman visitor at a wedding, who was perhaps unaware of the traditions of the Marthoma church, was asked to leave the madbaha (Aramaic for holy of holies, or sanctum sanctorum) that she had either wandered into, or perhaps approached out of curiosity. The madbaha is enclosed with a railing and curtained off. The curtains are drawn aside only during worship. Even as someone narrated the incident, one venerable gentleman added that the sanctity of the church will be lost if a woman enters the sanctum sanctorum. Here, we women were told ever so casually that we were pollutants who could defile the sanctity of the church. No one objected to that statement – the women present at the meeting acquiesced silently. It was a disturbing discussion. Sleepy boys are allowed to assist the priests in the madbaha during mass, but in the name of tradition girls or women are not allowed to step in. What is this if not gender discrimination?

The Marthoma Syrian Church of Malabar broke away from the Jacobite Syrian Churches more than a hundred years ago. In what was considered a progressive movement, it pared away elaborate ritualistic practices while keeping the traditions of the East, and adopted the minimalist style and beliefs of the Anglican church.

An auxiliary wing for women was later started and at least 20 per cent of the Sabha Council, the highest decision-making body of the Marthoma church, are women today. The Sabha Council elects the bishops of the church. That may seem democratic, but what kind of democracy is it when priests and bishops the council women elect are all male? The muscular character of the sacred spaces perpetuate the myth that men are far superior in the eyes of God!

Jesus and women

Strangely Jesus had no need for protection from women in his lifetime. He was born of a woman and brought up by his mother Mary. The Marthoma church regards Mary in high esteem. It is very evident from Mary’s canticle, which she sings while Jesus is in her womb, that she imparted the most powerful revolutionary ideas to her son. It was not the song of a meek and mild woman. During the three years that Jesus preached, the Bible clearly writes about his compassion and closeness to women whether they were prostitutes or untouchables. Mary of Magdalene was one of his closest companions, and she learnt at his feet like a true disciple. As for the Samaritan woman (considered untouchable by the Jews of that time), she was the first missionary sent out by Jesus.

Then is it menstruating women that the church is protecting Jesus from? A specific passage in the Bible (Mark 5:25-41) clarifies that Jesus was not afraid of breaking the ancient Mosaic Law (Leviticus 15:19-30) regarding the impurity of menstruating women. On the way to heal a young girl, as the crowd pressed against him, a woman who suffered from constant bleeding for 12 years and was desperate to be healed, touched Jesus’s robe from behind. Jesus, who was familiar with Mosaic law, did not rush to cleanse himself. Instead, he stopped, and perhaps, in a bid to teach the crowd that such laws had exceeded their expiry date, asked who had touched his robe. It was a strange question as a crowd was pressing against him. But finally, the woman came forward and told him about her sickness and healing. However, Jesus did not rebuke the woman for breaking the law. Instead, he commended her faith! He then proceeded on his journey to heal a young girl who was sick using these powerful words: "Talitha cumi (Little girl, I say to you arise)." The time has come for the Church to put into effect these words.