Since defying a centuries-old ban on women entering a Hindu temple in southern India, Kanaka Durga has been beaten, thrown out of the family home and separated from her two children. Yet she says she has no regrets — and would do it all again.
The 39-year-old civil servant made history this month when she and a female lecturer became the first women in centuries to enter the Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on women of childbearing age was unconstitutional.
The move sparked violent protests by hardline Hindus in Kerala state and death threats that forced the two women into hiding. When Durga tried to return home, her mother-in-law beat her so severely she ended up in the hospital.
“She beat me on my head, pushed me out and shut the doors,” Durga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Wednesday.
“I’m desperately sad that I can’t return to my own home and live with my children. I miss them so badly,” she said of her 12-year-old twin boys.
Durga, who is now staying in a government-run shelter, said her family had turned against her “because I have done something different from their way of life and they are facing problems because of me”.
The Sabarimala temple administration has refused to abide by the court ruling and thousands of devotees have blocked attempts by women to visit.
They believe the presence of menstruating women, who some Hindus consider impure, would disturb the temple’s chief deity Ayyappan.
Durga said she wanted to challenge the ban because “every believer in God should be able to go to the temple”.
“I also had the strong feeling that women should be given permission to go to Sabarimala,” she said.
She and Bindu Ammini, 40, a law lecturer at Kerala’s Kannur University, succeeded in entering the temple through a side entrance in the middle of the night on January 2. Since then, some others have claimed they have got into the temple.
“I have no sense that what I have done was a mistake or that I should not have done it,” said Durga, who has been buoyed by the support of her brother, friends, colleagues and well-wishers from around the country.
“I don’t regret it now and I never will, despite all the difficulties.”
The Kerala state government, led by the Communist Party of India, has tried to implement the court’s order, but with little success.
In response Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has accused it of showing little respect for a centuries-old religious tradition.
Durga, who has filed a case in court for permission to live in her own house, was prepared for the backlash — any reform of male-centric customs and rituals faces resistance, she said.
“When you look at history, you see there has been stiff opposition to such changes in society,” she said, urging other women to join her fight for a “new Kerala”.
“Changes are inevitable if society is to progress, and I want to be part of the campaign to bring about positive change.”
(Writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in New Delhi, Editing by Claire Cozens, Thomson Reuters Foundation.)