TEMPLE DISPUTE SPARKS GENDER EQUALITY DEBATE IN INDIA

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The decision of India’s top court to allow women of reproductive age to enter a Hindu temple in Kerala has snowballed into massive street protests and started a debate on gender inequality in other religions including Christianity and Islam.

Thousands of Hindus, mostly women, continue to protest on the streets of the southern state against allowing women aged 10-50 to enter the 12th century Sabarimala, a popular hilltop temple. The Supreme Court in its Sept. 28 ruling said “the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender.” The ban was an expression of gender discrimination, it said.

Christian groups, which together form some 18% of Kerala’s 33 million people, have not taken any stand in the dispute.

Father Varghese Vallikkatt, spokesman for the regional bishops’ council, said there was no need for the church to intervene. “The Hindus protesting for their faith are enlightened enough to resolve the issue,” he told ucanews.com.

However, Hindu leaders like Rahul Easwar believe the top court’s verdict sets a precedent for the court to interfere with the faith issues of other religions such as Christianity and Islam.

“There is absolute discrimination in the church that women cannot do what men do. Women are endowed with the ability to reproduce and thus they are treated as unclean,” said Virginia Saldana, a theologian in Mumbai.

She told ucanews.com that Vatican II had “removed this idea of women as unclean, but still they are not given their due share in the church.”

There is a custom among Christian women in India to abstain from entering a church for 40 days after giving birth.

“Though I visited church after my delivery, my parents and seniors strictly asked me not to step inside the church and pollute it. I had to follow them,” said Christian activist Philomina Joseph.

In some Catholic Churches, nuns and women distribute communion but are not allowed to enter the area of the altar.

According to Holy Spirit nun Sister Lizy Thomas, based in Madhya Pradesh State, the problem rests with the mindset and perception of men, which keeps away women, including nuns, from leadership positions in the church.

“Generally, men tend to treat women as inferior and until and unless it is changed, gender equality is a mirage in the Catholic Church,” she said.

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a women’s leader and theologian based in Mumbai, said women in the Catholic Church have been asking for gender equality for ages.

Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur said: “The Catholic Church is all in favour of the maximum participation of women in all activities of the church except the ordination of women.”

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