Millions of women in the southern Indian state of Kerala formed a 620-km human chain on New Year’s Day amid a simmering row over granting menstrual-age women access to a historic Hindu temple.
Kerala is home to the 12th-century Sabarimala shrine, which traditionally barred women of menstruating age — defined as between ages 10 to 50 — from entering its premises, ostensibly to respect the celibate nature of the deity Ayyappan.
That tradition was enshrined into law by a Kerala High Court judgement in 1991. However, India’s Supreme Court struck down the ban in September, saying that it violated gender equality laws.
READ MORE: India opens Sabarimala temple to women who menstruate
The Supreme Court ruling drew the ire of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose supporters have threatened and attacked women trying to enter the hilltop temple.
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Tuesday’s “Women’s Wall” demonstration was organized by Kerala’s left-wing coalition government in support of women’s right to enter the temple.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which spearheads the coalition government, said Tuesday’s demonstration was organized to “fight against divisive forces” of the BJP and its ideological mentor organization, the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
However, BJP lawmakers in Kerala said the wall was a symbol of the state government trying to divide people along religious lines, NDTV reported.
Organizers said an estimated five million women showed up, significantly higher than the predicted three-million turnout.
Government employees took part in the demonstration, with the government delaying university exams and shuttering schools for a half a day so students could bolster the number of protesters, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
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The Women’s Wall demonstration comes less than a week after BJP-backed right-wing groups organized their own human chain to protest the Supreme Court verdict. A few thousand Ayyappan devotees, including a large proportion of women, took part in that protest, the Times of India reported.