Hundreds of thousands of women have linked arms across the southern Indian state of Kerala in a show of defiance against moves to keep women away from a famous Hindu temple.
- A human wall consisting of up to 3 million women was formed as a pledge towards gender equality and to protect women’s constitutional rights
- A Supreme Court of India order had overturned an old tradition that prevented women from entering a sacred temple, which sparked outcry from right-wing groups
- India’s ruling nationalist party has called for a counter-protest
Organisers say as many as 3 million women joined what they are calling the “women’s wall”.
The state government enabled the protest by giving many workers and schoolchildren the day off, and the movement has expanded into a demonstration for gender equality.
The campaign was sparked by controversy over a court ruling to allow women into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.
The temple has historically banned women of “menstruating age” — deemed to be between 10 and 50 — from entering on the grounds that menstruating women are “unclean”.
A Supreme Court verdict from Delhi last year mandated that women be allowed into the temple to worship.
The decision sparked massive protests, with crowds physically stopping women from accessing the temple.
More than 2,000 people were arrested in October for throwing stones and blocking a small group of women who were trying to reach the temple.
Hindu women of all ages blocked roads and highways across Kerala by forming the human chain, extending their arms to make a pledge for gender equality.
Women from the state’s large Christian and Muslim communities also joined the human chain.
The head of Kerala’s left-wing government, Pinarayi Vijayan, said the “women’s wall” was aimed at protecting women’s constitutional rights to equality.
“This wall is a warning to the conservative-communal forces, which try to deny women their legitimate rights,” he said in a statement on Facebook.
“The women’s wall has emerged as a loud announcement that Kerala women are with the progressive thought.”
What happened when women finally entered the temple?
Two women entered the Sabarimala Temple in the early hours of the morning after the Women’s Wall event.
It is believed to be the first time women have successfully entered the temple since the Supreme Court ruling last September.
The leader of a Hindu collective opposed to women entering the Temple, Sukumaran Nair, said Kerala would become “Satan’s land” thanks to the women’s wall.
He accused the protest of triggering division between upper and lower castes in the state.
Local media said the temple was shut down for cleansing rituals after the women entered the premises.
It has also been reported that police are providing security at the homes of the two women, fearing retribution from groups who oppose women entering the temple.
Mobile phone footage aired by Indian news channel ANI showed two women wearing full-face veils hurriedly entering the shrine in the early hours of the morning.
India’s nationalist ruling party’s reaction
An official from India’s ruling party, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called for a counter-protest.
The BJP condemned the Supreme Court verdict allowing women to enter the Sabarimala shrine, saying it attacked religious values.
The party’s Kerala state president PS Sreedharan Pillai called the ruling “a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples”.
In an October speech, BJP president Amit Shah called on women to respect the sentiments of other temple devotees.
The Opposition Congress party also spoke out against women entering the temple.
“This is treachery,” said senior Kerala Congress Party official K Sudhakaran.
He said Kerala’s left-wing state government “will have to pay the price for the violation of the custom”.
The Sabarimala temple is devoted to the deity Lord Ayappa, who according to legend was born from a union between two male gods.
Some opponents to women entering the temple say it insults the wishes of that deity, who was a celibate bachelor.
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