Kannur: The year 2019 began in Kerala with the state immediately gripped by the spiraling conflict over the Sabarimala temple.
On January 1, the ruling front organised a historic display of women’s strength and solidarity, the ‘Women’s Wall’. Until this demonstration, women – who deserve to have a significant say on the Sabarimala question – had remained largely invisible in a growing display of power by men.
Millions of women formed a spectacular human chain, stretching across more than 600 km and all 14 districts in the state, to “preserve Renaissance values” of the state and promote women’s rights.
Hours later, two women, with the help of officials, entered the shrine – the first women of menstruating age to enter the temple since the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude anyone based on their gender.
To ‘protest’ this entry and its perceived violation of tradition and ‘purity’, the Sangh parivar has been protesting across the state, targeting women, journalists, police, public transport and commercial establishments.
As violent disruption continued, The Wire met a group of ordinary women who stood in the Women’s Wall. All of them – a teacher, student, office staff and homemaker – expressed happiness about the event, though their experiences and views were not the same.
Sheena P.P., an administrative staff member at a hospital in Kannur, asked how the temple could become ‘impure’ because of women. “The right to worship is equal for both men and women. No place will become impure because a woman enters, and no woman will enter into a temple during their period.”
The ongoing violent protests in the name of women’s entry are “politically motivated”, she believes.
“Keralites enjoy more freedoms than people in several other states…we have to preserve the freedom won by our predecessors. There must be freedom both to enter and not to enter Sabarimala.”
For Sheena, the Women’s Wall also upheld the value of secularism, as Muslim women participated in good numbers. “A Muslim woman I know came with her three-month-old child in her arms,” she said. “Every woman wants to resist the injustice and violence they face.”
Pravija, a homemaker from Kannur, said that she felt “pride” while participating in the Wall, and that it was an “inspiring” experience for her. “I participated because I value women’s empowerment,” she said.
What stood out for her was the participation of older women. “They came with their years of experience as women. They shared their experience, and asked us to work for change.”
“God doesn’t discriminate between men and women. Some try to ‘own’ God exclusively, but in the eyes of God, everybody is equal,” Pravija said. She also said repeated hartals should be avoided as they unnecessarily affect livelihoods.
Rajasree R.,who teaches Malayalam at Government Brennen College in Kannur, went to participate in the Women’s Wall not just as a woman, but “to protect constitutional values”.
She also said the Wall was a continuation of a legacy of women’s empowerment. “We could stand in the streets as a result of struggles of various women in the past, without which the present movement would have been impossible.” The Women’s Wall was “never meant to challenge any faith or violate any tradition”.
According to Rajasree, many people who first questioned the Wall finally supported it. Participation went beyond political and religious boundaries. “Women always lived as two different classes: women who enjoy several privileges and women who have neither privilege nor voice,” she said. “The Women’s Wall gave the latter an opportunity to be visible, to have their voice heard.”
Aysha Fida, a college student from Kannur, was “really happy” to be a part of “this historic wall”. The Women’s Wall “has given a reply to all the questions and misinterpreted statements made…on the women in Kerala,” she said. “We are sure that this event is going to be marked in golden letters in the history of the women’s movement.”
Wednesday’s women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple was a “proud moment” and “just the beginning”. Aysha is “hoping more women will fulfil their desire”.
On the violent retaliation that followed, Fida said, “It is such a shame that still there are repressive forces in our state. They are actually pulling our state down.”
The women who participated in the Wall, according to Fida, were “upholding the values of Renaissance and gender equality … The government has provided us a platform to speak our minds against the patriarchy. Just like we have fought and overcome barriers in the past, this event will help ensure equality and justice for women.”
Fida is confident that “the people of Kerala will gradually overcome this and identify the real patriarchal and repressive forces that are sidelining women and development in our state”.
Political opposition to the Women’s Wall
The ‘wall’, largely organised by the ruling Left Democratic Front alliance and supported by the state government, was created to “preserve Renaissance values” and promote women’s rights, according to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The ‘Kerala renaissance’ is a term that refers to a series of socio-cultural reform movements within and across religious and caste groups in the state. Starting in the 19th century, these movements led to numerous changes, including ensuring the unrestricted entry for ‘lower-caste’ communities into temples.
While the state government and many residents consider the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala to be a turning point in the struggle for women’s rights, a section of devotees consider it to be a violation of traditions.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan congratulated on “the largest women’s movement in India, in which women came forward both to protect rights guaranteed by the constitution and to resist assaults on gender justice.”
The opposition United Democratic Front distanced itself from the event. Ramesh Chennithala from the Congress, leader of opposition in the state, said the event was organised by “misusing official machinery”.
Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist and academic.