Women’s Right at Mt. Athos

Three years back, the Kannada actress Jaimala triggered a major controversy when she said that she had entered the sanctum santorum of Sabarimala. This triggered a debate on if women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala, discrimination of women in Hindu society and what not. In 1930s, Aliki Diplarakou, who had won the Miss Europe title, dressed up as a man and sneaked into Mt. Athos in Greece generating a similar controversy for only men are allowed there.
Mt. Athos is an autonomous monastic state on a peninsula in northern Greece. Though Greece protects the peninsula, it is self governed by the monks of the 20 monasteries of the Eastern Orthodoxy. Special permission is needed to visit Mt. Athos and only a few visitors are allowed each month. Mt. Athos does not permit women to enter and this ban has been in place since 1045 CE, since the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos. Mt. Athos does not even permit female animals (female cats are allowed since they catch rats).

Entry to the mountain is usually by ferry boat either from the port of Ouranoupoli (for west coast monasteries) or from Ierrisos for those on the east coast. Before embarking on the boat all visitors must have been issued a diamoneterion, a form of Byzantine visa that is written in Greek, dated using the Julian calendar, and signed by four of the secretaries of leading monasteries. [Mt. Athos]

Amin Maalouf’s novel, The Gardens of Light, based on the life of the Persian mystic Mani (216-274 CE), mentions traditions of an all male Jewish sect which had similar feelings about women. In the palm grove where the sect lived, anything female was prohibited; the only women mentioned were Eve, Bathsheba and Salome. The other women in the scripture were never mentioned and sect members were prevented from mentioning their mother or wife.
While discriminating against women was not unusual in those times in the Middle East and Europe, you would think that would not be the case after the age of enlightenment. But when Greece joined the European Union – which does not support discrimination against women – a special clause was added for Mt. Athos.

Recognising that the special status granted to Mount Athos, as guaranteed by Article 105 of the Hellenic Constitution, is justified exclusively on grounds of a spiritual and religious nature, the Community will ensure that this status is taken into account in the application and subsequent preparation of provisions of Community law, in particular in relation to customs franchise privileges, tax exemptions and the right of establishment.[30 Jan 2001 : Column WA43]

When the Schengen visa came into effect, the monks saw it as Devil’s work. In 2003, the European Parliament criticized the ban on women on Mt. Athos and asked Greece to abolish the law which gives jail sentences to women caught entering this place. And guess what the answer was from the country which gave the West, rational thought:

“The Holy Mountain is subject to… a special status regarding which an insistence on the implementation of very important principles — such as equal rights of access, unrestricted movement, free trade or competition — would be in direct confrontation with fundamental, 1,000-year-old traditions, our faith and the monastic spirit of the Mountain,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tassos Yiannitsis said.[Athens defends Mt Athos ban]

15 thoughts on “Women’s Right at Mt. Athos

  1. Wow! Did not know about this. Go figure!! All these idiotic rules (no woman etc.) seems like a weak (as in spineless) interpretation of even the most sensible philosophical ideas that religion had used. Many of the saints/philosophers in many religions found that mental strength/balance/evenness to handle the ups and downs of life gave one the peace needed in life. Now, passion surely rattles that chain – and it seems that in general men who “followed religion” are downright scared out of wits of it. So instead of trying to be “mentally stronger” than it, they indirectly admit defeat. Thus anything/anyone that has the remotest possibility of causing passing to them must simply not come into the picture. The fault is theirs but they obviously cant face up to it

  2. JK:
    Nice post, as usual, but it is a mistake to think present day Greece as a source of Western thought. Other than the name there is nothing in common to the civilization that gave us Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
    Those Greeks who fancy themselves as the original Greeks prefer to be called Hellenistic.
    The Greece of today is part of the Balkans, hence the East. not the West. And the Eastern Orthodoxy practiced in Greece is one of the most reactionary sects in Christendom.

    1. Niraj, you have a point about modern day Greece, but if you pick any course in Western philosophy, it starts with the Greeks.

  3. Nice post, however even though most of Western Philosophy may originate from Greece, it is no longer part of Western Culture.
    In my opinion culture is made by the common men – philosohy is for those who have the luxury of spending time to analyze and think beyond the realms of running around for daily bread and butter!!!

  4. I side with Shabarimala’s traditional rules as well as with the Greeks in this case.
    Hindu religion is not so unrealistic as to take unrestricted free will for granted.
    Arunji‘s comment :
    it seems that in general men who “followed religion” are downright scared out of wits of it. So instead of trying to be “mentally stronger” than it, they indirectly admit defeat.
    illustrates how westernization and political correctness has caused departure from that realism.
    Remember Sri Ramakrishna’s statement that when a plant is young and tender it needs to be hedged around to protect it from cattle. When it becomes a tree, the hedge is no longer necessary. Living for a few days in solitude, observing brahmacharya is highly recommended in our religion. And Shabarimala especially, has a tradition of people observing brahmacharya for 41 days before visiting it. There may be people abusing it, but there are several people who are extremely strict about observing these kinds of norms.
    Men are more sexually aroused than women by visual stimuli. This is accepted by science, if not following from common sense.
    Now suppose Hindu religion is wrong in the above belief. Why can’t people leave it to its own terms? After all, the denial of entry for women is not based on any inferiority of women but based on the ideas regarding brahmacharya. Compare with Sania Mirza apologizing, saying “While I am fully aware that a woman must not enter the sanctity of the mosque…”. Now where are all these liberal worthies and self-righteous girls to protest against that?
    BTW don’t we have Thiruvathira celebrations in Kerala where women meet up, play or do some such thing and have goodies? Is that discrimination?

  5. Arun, while it’s true that passion can rattle one’s chains, if one’s goal is trying to practice and cultivate brahmacharya, you’ll agree that living in a brothel or reading erotica won’t be conducive to that goal at all – at least for a beginner. Nor is it logical or practical to ask that neophyte to live in a brothel or continue reading erotica while cultivating brahmacharya. So I don’t quite understand the point you’re trying to make. It’s like saying if a student has to study for an exam, he shouldn’t complain about the noise from a loudspeaker; or those who don’t go out and party the night before an exam, don’t deserve it if they do well on the exam. Just because women are not allowed in a temple, does not automatically imply some kind of discrimination. Women are also not allowed in men’s bathroom in offices and buildings.

  6. Women are also not allowed in men’s bathroom in offices and buildings.
    ..and you think this is comparable in logic to why women are not allowed in Sabarimala and Mt. Athos? If women can enter all other Ayyappa temples in Kerala, why not in Sabarimala? Previously it was hard to walk till the temple, but not the facilities have improved and there are many services.
    The temple enrtry proclamation gave permission for everyone to enter. Previously, women had to wear traditional dress to go to the temple, now I see many temples allowing women wearing churidar to enter. So changes do happen and that is what is great about Hinduism.

  7. Ah Jacob, did you even read my full comment and its intent and that it was in response to Arun’s comment, i.e. there was a context? Or are you more interested in nit-picking? My point was simple and I’ll repeat it: “Just because women are not allowed in a temple, does not automatically imply some kind of discrimination.”
    And yes, I’m well-aware that traditions and rules can and do change with time. Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

  8. Based on my (admittedly limited) understanding, per the highest principles of the religion, the ultimate goal is not an exclusive property of the man alone. It is equally entitled to the woman also.
    Hence while all these practices certainly has a logic to it (I would even dare propose logic constructed to fit/protect tradition), somewhere along there is an underlying presumption that certain aspects is either exclusive domain of the male, or that situation must be made most conducive to the male, at the expense of the female. To me, this alone is enough to point at discrimination. Some may not agree – so be it. You can say that is reality/truth, that doesn’t make it not discrimination – as there is certainly a lot that is unfair in the real world 🙂

  9. I had also meant to post this – but somehow got cut:
    About visual stimuli and men: If this were true, then the sculptures in (most of) our temples aren’t exactly neutral in this regard – are they? Particularly per today’s standards? Particularly when you compare them to how women dress to temple (yes even after churidhars etc.)? So obviously the rule/tradition makers somehow felt men aren’t that weak to focus on these sculptures at a temple. Otherwise the sculptures would be different in the first place. Or these kinds of outfit were “ok at an earlier point” – which would point to a way more open society. Either way, it doesn’t seem to add up. Perhaps they are considered ok, because that points at tradition/history in which case this seems like a case of logic constructed to fit/protect tradition/practice. So while men are supposedly very comfortable by these sculptures, the mere presence of women who presumedly would be in dressed to show devotion at the temple on the other hand means trouble and only trouble?

  10. Arun : The idea is not that “women being present” invites trouble to Brahmacharya. The idea is that keeping a much stricter vrata on Brahmacharya for a few days keeps you stronger. Shabarimala represents one kind of austerity, other temples represent some other. Let us have both kinds of austerity facilitated by society.

  11. I am not questioning that undertaking such an effort can help someone with the right framework become mentally stronger. But then isn’t the validity and rigor of the vrata itself diminished by imposing restrictions on *others* in the effect of making it easier for you? Wouldn’t it be stronger to undergo it in spite of the presence of woman? Besides, tpeople undertaking the penance before going to the mala, are out there in the real world in the presence of women day in and day out during that time. How does the presence of the woman AT the temple going to introduce any new wrinkles? I am sorry – like I said, it just does not add up. Also, there is “willful avoidance of that thing which can cause violation of vrta” – where the person undertaking it willfully avoids it by mental strength. Then there is one where he enjoys the benefits of societal coercion which arranges for these obstacles from appearing in his path. Which is better for his mental strength? And which is fairer to the society on a whole?
    However, ultimately if one wants to establish some form of exclusive rite or club etc. (i.e. religious or otherwise), it cannot be stopped. But it cannot be perceived as far either by many.

  12. There is really no point in defending something (yes, even in HInduism) that just doesnt make sense. And if it doesnt make sense, it most probably is against what the shaastra says in this regard.
    There are many such cases when aachaaras have, over millennia, become atyaachaaraas (ati + aachaaraas). This is high time we weed out such atyaachaaraas from our system.

  13. Arun : did I ask for stopping women from entering any of the existing temples? I am only saying that if tradition has reserved a temple for one group, we might as well respect it considering the possible reasons.
    And would you protest against Sharada Maths not allowing men to go as much into the temples as women?

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