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]