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2 women defy protesters and centuries of tradition by entering Sabarimala temple

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Men talk to two women who entered the Sabarimala Temple in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, India, January 2, 2019

[NEW DELHI] Two women in southern India made history early Wednesday by entering a renowned Hindu temple where women of childbearing age have not been allowed for centuries.

The women - a university professor and a government employee, both in their 40s - entered the inner sanctum of the Sabarimala temple around 3.45 am, according to a local news agency which released video of the visit.

The shrine is dedicated to the deity Lord Ayappa, who is considered celibate, and tradition forbade women of menstruating age from entering.

Last September, however, India's Supreme Court ruled that all women had the right to worship at Sabarimala, which sits in a tiger reserve in the state of Kerala and draws tens of millions of visitors each year.

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The verdict set off intense protests by religious conservatives and Hindu nationalists. The controversy represented a crucial test for the rule of law in India, pitting a legal judgment by the nation's top court against religious custom.

After the ruling, more than a dozen women between the ages of 10 and 50 attempted to enter the temple. But all turned back after facing threats and physical intimidation by protesters.

A backlash swiftly followed the news of the women's entry into the shrine on Wednesday. The head priest shut down the temple for an hour to carry out a "purification ritual." Clashes broke out between protesters and the police in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, on Wednesday afternoon.

Indira Jaising, a lawyer who argued against the ban before India's Supreme Court, said that Wednesday's visit marked "a historic moment." The ban on menstruating women entering the temple amounted to a form of "untouchability" and gender discrimination, she said.

Bindu Hariharan, 42, a professor of legal studies, was one of the women who entered the temple on Wednesday. It was her second attempt to visit the shrine: on an earlier try on Dec 24, she was forced to return by protesters.

"We did the trek to the shrine just like any other devotees," said Hariharan in remarks released to reporters. None of the other worshipers "had any problems with us visiting the shrine."

To reach the temple, devotees must walk nearly three miles uphill, and Hariharan began the trek at midnight. The group consisted of six men in addition to the two women, who had covered their faces. Four policemen in civilian clothes also accompanied them. At one point, the group was questioned by a couple of protesters but simply continued walking.

Prasad Amore, a psychologist based in Kerala who was part of the group, said the journey was not a political statement. "We are proud of these women who helped to implement the Supreme Court verdict," he said. "We broke the inequality being carried out in the name of God for all these years."

The development came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented on the Sabarimala controversy in a rare interview, calling the issue a matter of "beliefs."

Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party spearheaded the local protests against the Supreme Court ruling in Kerala, India's only communist-led state and considered one of the most progressive in the country.

The entry by the two women is "a midnight drama carried out by the atheist [state] government," said Rahul Easwar, an activist leading the fight against the Supreme Court decision. "Even the prime minister of the country has supported the Sabarimala tradition."

On January 22, the Supreme Court will hear a petition challenging its landmark ruling on the temple. The controversy over Sabarimala is not the first time the entry of women in religious spaces has sparked debate in India. In 2016, courts ruled in favor of a petition by women's rights group to enter the inner sanctum of a famous Muslim shrine in Mumbai.

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