Right To Religious Freedom And Gender Equality: A Sabarimala Case Study


The convergence of the right to religious freedom and gender equality poses intricate challenges within the realm of human rights. An eminent illustration of this intersection is found in the Sabarimala Temple situated in Kerala, India. This temple, devoted to Lord Ayyappa, historically prohibited women of menstruating age from entering its premises, citing entrenched religious customs and traditions. However, in a landmark ruling in 2018, the Supreme Court of India deemed this practice unconstitutional and a violation of women’s right to equality.

The Sabarimala case captivated widespread attention and ignited fervent debates, shedding light on the delicate equilibrium between religious practices and gender equality. It spurred contemplation on the boundaries and implications of the right to religious freedom and its potential impact on gender equality. This article delves into the intricacies of the Sabarimala case, with the primary objective of offering a comprehensive analysis encompassing its legal, social, and cultural dimensions. Additionally, it explores the ramifications for religious practices, women’s rights, and the broader discourse surrounding human rights. Ultimately, it aims to provide valuable insights to inform future actions and policy decisions.

History of Sabrimala

Sabarimala, nestled in the scenic Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, is a revered pilgrimage site dedicated to the deity Lord Ayyappa, known as the vanquisher of evil and guardian of truth. Deeply rooted in ancient scriptures, it is believed that Lord Ayyappa, bound by a vow of celibacy, instituted a tradition prohibiting menstruating women (between the ages of 12 and 50) from entering the temple premises. This longstanding custom has been upheld for centuries.

The temple itself boasts a rich and storied history, intricately intertwined with the lives of its devotees. Managed by a hereditary lineage of priests, Sabarimala holds great significance for pilgrims who embark on a spiritual journey. Prior to setting foot in the temple, devotees pay homage to Vavar, a companion of Lord Ayyappa, by visiting the adjacent mosque. Additionally, they visit the church dedicated to St. Andrew and St. Sebastian, symbolizing the harmonious coexistence of different faiths in the vicinity.

The Kerala High Court Judgement

The Kerala High Court addressed a PIL filed by petitioners who alleged preferential treatment and a violation of the principle of equality. The court, consisting of Justices K.S Paripoornan and K.P Balanarayana Marar, affirmed the state’s legitimate role in regulating religious activities and emphasized the importance of respecting traditional customs. The court upheld the ban on women aged 10 to 50 from entering the temple, considering it valid due to its alignment with established customs and historical religious significance. This ruling highlights the court’s recognition of the state’s authority to intervene in religious matters to maintain social harmony and preserve cultural traditions while balancing individual rights, including equality.

In summary, the Kerala High Court’s ruling on the PIL acknowledged the state’s role in regulating religious practices, emphasized the importance of respecting traditional customs, and validated the ban on women of certain ages entering the temple based on historical and religious grounds. The court’s decision reflects the delicate balance between individual rights and cultural preservation in religious matters.

The Supreme Court Judgement

In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyer Association saw five women, namely Bhakti Pasrija, Prerna Kumari, Laxmi Shastri, Sudha Pal, and Alka Sharma, file a public interest litigation challenging the denial of entry to women at Sabarimala. The Constitutional Bench, comprised of Justice Dipak Misra (then Chief Justice), Justice Ajay Manikrao Khanwilkar, Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, and Justice Indu Malhotra, delivered its judgment on 28th September 2018. With a majority of 4:1, the court declared that the exclusion of women at Sabarimala violated the fundamental rights of women aged between 10 and 50 years. Furthermore, Rule 3(b) of the Public Worship Rules Act, 1965, was deemed unconstitutional.

The court held that every individual is entitled to exercise their fundamental right to practice religion and that religion serves as a means to express one’s faith. The devotees of Lord Ayyappa were not considered a separate religious denomination and, therefore, could not claim the protection provided by Article 26 or Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, 1965. This landmark judgment marked a departure from the social prejudices of the past, which undermined the dignity of individuals. The dignity of women is an emanation of Article 15 and a reflection of Article 21, and equal participation of women is a vision of a just social order.

The court emphasized the aspect of time, stating that the practice of barring women aged between 10 and 50 from entering the temple did not qualify as an essential religious practice due to the lack of uniformity in its application. The notions of public order, morality, and health cannot be used to curtail the freedom of individuals, and religious morality must be balanced with constitutional morality. Exclusionary practices were deemed contrary to constitutional morality, and it was asserted that such issues should be addressed and eradicated proactively. The division of gender is a human construct, not a divine decree for well-being, and therefore, such prohibitions are impermissible.

Hence, the Apex Court, through its judgment, rejected the existence of a fundamental right vested in an idol. Rule 3(b) of the 1965 Kerala Act, which differentiates women solely based on their sex, was deemed unconstitutional, violating Article 25(1) and Article 15(1) of the Constitution.

Justice Indu Malhotra’s Dissenting Judgement

Justice Indu Malhotra, the first female judge to be appointed directly from the bar to the Supreme Court judgeship, expressed a perspective on the issue that goes beyond the constitutional angle and considers the religious aspect. She argued that the judiciary should refrain from interfering in religious matters. Justice Malhotra emphasized the universal nature of Article 14, which encompasses the doctrine of equality and applies to the protection and propagation of religion.

According to her opinion, every religious denomination enjoys complete autonomy when it comes to their religious rites and ceremonies. In the case of Sabarimala, the worshippers constitute a religious denomination or sect adhering to the “Ayyappan Dharma.” Therefore, she believed that the issue was beyond the jurisdiction of the court and should be left to the decision-making of the devotees and temple trustees. Justice Malhotra emphasized that notions of rationality should not be invoked by the courts in matters of religion.

In her view, the ban on women belonging to a specific age group is an essential and integral part of the custom, and therefore, it should be upheld. Her opinion suggests that the judiciary should exercise restraint in interfering with religious customs and practices, recognizing the significance of religious autonomy and the role of the community in determining matters pertaining to their faith.


Public Opinion on the judgement

The Sabarimala verdict evoked diverse reactions from society, with varying perspectives on its significance. For many, the judgment delivered by the apex court represented a ground-breaking milestone in achieving gender equality and marked a crucial turning point in Indian legal history. It was perceived as a powerful blow against the foundations of patriarchy. Activists argued that the tradition of barring women from entering the temple lacked a rational basis and was rooted in outdated philosophies that no longer hold relevance in modern times.

The verdict, which granted women aged between 10 and 50 the right to worship at Sabarimala, was seen as opening new horizons for the future of a progressive India. Supporters viewed it as a step towards inclusive practices and an affirmation of women’s agency in expressing their faith.

However, there were those who emphasized the importance of respecting traditions and believed that the judiciary should not intervene in matters of religious belief. They argued that the followers of Lord Ayyappa should adhere to the faith established by the Swami, who is revered as celibate and would be deemed impure if women within the age group of 10 to 50 were allowed inside the temple. According to this viewpoint, true devotees of Lord Ayyappa should abide by the norms laid down by the Kerala Hindu Places of Worship Act, 1965.

These differing perspectives reflect the complex interplay between faith, tradition, gender equality, and the role of the judiciary in shaping religious practices. The Sabarimala verdict ignited a broader societal debate on the balance between religious customs and individual rights, highlighting the ongoing struggle to reconcile age-old traditions with evolving societal norms in contemporary India.


The Sabarimala case highlights the inherent tension between religious freedom and gender equality. On one hand, religious practices and beliefs are deeply personal and hold immense significance for individuals and communities. The freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion is a fundamental right that should be protected. On the other hand, gender equality is a core principle of modern societies and is enshrined in the constitutions of many nations, including India.

Resolving this tension requires a delicate balance between respecting religious autonomy and ensuring gender equality. It demands a nuanced understanding of the religious practices in question, their historical context, and their impact on women’s rights. It also calls for a recognition that social norms and traditions evolve over time, and the interpretation of religious customs must adapt to contemporary values of equality and inclusivity.

The Sabarimala case exemplifies the evolving nature of legal and societal attitudes towards gender equality and religious freedom. It demonstrates the role of the judiciary in interpreting and safeguarding constitutional principles, while also acknowledging the complexity and sensitivity surrounding matters of faith.

Moving forward, it is essential to engage in meaningful dialogues that bridge the gap between religious traditions and gender equality. Open conversations, education, and awareness can help foster an environment where religious practices can be scrutinized without undermining individuals’ deeply held beliefs. Striking a balance between these fundamental rights is a continuous process that requires the active participation and cooperation of all stakeholders.

Ultimately, the Sabarimala case serves as a poignant reminder that the quest for gender equality and religious freedom is an ongoing journey. It calls for a nuanced understanding of the complexities involved and a collective effort to create a society where individuals can freely exercise their religious beliefs while ensuring that no one is marginalized or discriminated against based on their gender. 

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