A standoff is under way in the south Indian state of Kerala, where mainly female protesters are attempting to stop other women from entering the Sabarimala temple.
On Wednesday, the Hindu shrine will open its gates for the first time since 28 September, after the supreme court struck down an entry ban on women of menstruating age. The judges ruled the ban against girls and women aged between 10 and 50 as discriminatory and, therefore, unconstitutional.
The decision triggered a public outcry in Kerala, with some female devotees saying it was more important to uphold religious tradition than be swayed by notions of gender equality.
Thousands of protesters gathered on the roads leading to the hilltop temple and heckled any woman they suspected was going there. On Tuesday, the protesters intercepted all oncoming vehicles to prevent female passengers from visiting the shrine, one of Hinduism’s holiest. Female journalists have also been attacked.
One devotee who was walking to the temple with her son and daughter was forced to turn back by hecklers, despite a heavy police presence.
The protesters have threatened to lie across roads to prevent motorists from reaching the temple. They have also said they were considering mass suicide; one woman who tried to kill herself was stopped by police.
Kalyani Jacob, a student and devotee of Lord Ayappa in New Delhi, said: “We don’t mind not being allowed in. We don’t mind waiting until we turn 50. The ban is not anti-women. This is just a very old custom the supreme court should not have interfered with.”
The Kerala government has said it will uphold the supreme court ruling. Those against it include a large number of female devotees, the former royal family who are custodians of the temple, the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
The female-led demonstrations have surprised many liberals in Kerala, a progressive state that has led calls for reforms to the Hindu caste system and challenged sexism.
Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said: “At one point, women had no right to cover their breasts in Kerala and the lower castes were made to stand far away from Brahmins. We had many such wrongful traditions. Some traditions need to be broken.”
Some conservatives have also criticised the protests. Udit Raj, a BJP MP, said: “This is a first in the world: women saying ‘make me a slave, treat me unequally; we’re inferior to men’. I don’t understand.”