Rehana Fathima, the women’s rights activist who came closer than anyone else towards entering the Dharma Shastha temple Sabarmala has said she was motivated to undertake the controversial pilgrimage by her desire to know more about the worship of Ayyappa.
“I am extremely interested in knowing the essence of all religions. That is how I tried to enter Sabarimala,” she said in an interview published on Malayalam online portal Abhimukham.com.
Fathima, along with Telugu journalist Kavitha Jakkala, almost entered the temple courtyard at Sabarimala, believed to be the abode of Ayyappa — a medieval martial hero who is believed to have lived at the temple and later become one with the deity there, Dharma Sastha.
Traditionally, female worshipers of Ayyappa do not visit the shrine — where Ayyappa is still believed to be present — before they turn 50, due to their belief that Ayyappa — who took a vow of celibacy when he joined the temple — did not want young women to visit him.
In keeping with these traditional beliefs, the Kerala High Court had, in 1991, ordered the Kerala government to ensure that young women were not allowed inside the temple.
After more than two decades, the order was challenged in the Supreme Court by a group of young lawyers from Delhi, who alleged that it restricted the freedom of worship of female Ayyappa devotees.
A month ago, a bench headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra held that there was no substance to the widespread belief that Ayyappa did not want young women to come to the hill shrine, and asked the Kerala government to ensure that all women were allowed inside.
However, the Supreme Court’s finding that the belief was unfounded did not find much favor among devotees, including women, who continued to stay away from the temple.
Even as the devotees kept away, several women’s rights activists, including Rehana Fathima and Libi CS, tried to enter the temple under police protection after the court’s decision.
They, however, found their way literally blocked by Ayyappa devotees who lay down on the ground in front of the hilltop temple to prevent it from being ‘desecrated’ by the activists.
The Kerala government, loathe to remove the devotees by force, was forced to take the stand that activists and non-believers should not use Sabarimala as a “place to prove themselves”, and that the Supreme Court order was aimed at protecting the rights of “genuine devotees” to pray there.
Faced with the stiff protests from the part of the devotees, including women, activists like Rehana Fathima and Libi too turned back.
Fathima has since come under tremendous pressure from devotees as well as members of Hindu organizations in Kerala, who are irked that she tried to “defile” their holy place.
They allege that Fathima was not a genuine devotee and was trying to use the SC order to generate publicity for herself.
In her interview, Fathima addressed the question of whether she genuinely believed in Ayyappa.
“How do you define belief,” she asked in response to the question. “Everything that doesn’t affect another person’s well-being is part of our belief, isn’t it,” she added.
She was also asked whether she put herself through the traditional abstinence ritual before embarking on the pilgrimage.
By tradition, each devotee is supposed to purify the soul by subjecting himself or herself to a strict life of abstinence for 41 days.
During this period of purification, devotees have to forgo most of the habits of daily life, including wearing footwear, touching the opposite sex, eating non-vegetarian food, saying anything that hurts another person and so on. However, many people have abbreviated the period of penance to cope with the pressures of modern life.
“I observed all the penance that men take before going to Sabarimala,” said the BSNL employee.
“I observed the vows for three days. You know that Ayyappas are not supposed to wear footwear. I did all that. That’s how I tried to enter the temple.”
She also rejected the suggestion that she was ignorant about Ayyappa and Sabarimala in general.
“I spoke to a lot of people about Sabarimala before going. I collected information about the rituals and other things practiced there,” she said.
She also spoke about the case filed against her for attempting to create tension between communities.
“There are attempts being made to demoralize me mentally and physically for trying to enter Sabarimala following the Supreme Court order. All these are part of such attempts. The are various attempts being made to ostracize me,” she added.
She also said that she intends to initiate legal proceedings against the chief priest of Sabarimala temple for saying that he will lock the temple and walk out if the police insisted to bringing the women to the temple ignoring the protests of the devotees.
Asked if she plans to make the pilgrimage at a later date, she said: “No, I won’t go to Sabarimala again.”