Rehana Fathima has been hogging the headlines following her attempt to enter Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala and the resultant furore. The 31-year-old has courted many a controversy in the past, beginning with her participation in the 2014 ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against moral policing. Fathima is a former model and acted in an art film about intersexuality.
In 2016, she became the first woman to perform Pulikali (Tiger dance) in Thrissur, traditionally a male domain, as part of the Onam festivities. Earlier this year, she made news for posting pictures on social media with watermelons covering her breasts in protest against the sexist comments of a college professor.
Fathima spoke to The Wire about her visit to Sabarimala, its fallout and more. Excerpts:
What made you visit Sabarimala? Are you a devotee or an activist?
It was my dream to go to Sabarimala. I didn’t go as an activist. When the Supreme Court verdict came, it was possible for me to go. I also observed a 21-day mandatory austerity regimen. If I was simply an activist, would I have done that? I could have informed people and gone with pomp and show. Did I do that? I just felt like going, that’s all.
Are you a believer or an atheist or agnostic?
I respect all religions. I believe in Tat Tvam Asi. I believe my God resides inside me. Whoever I am searching for, resides within me. Tat Tvam Asi is also inscribed on the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala.
Since you are a Muslim by birth, do you go to mosques or follow Islamic rituals?
I used to follow the rituals and say namaz five times a day as a child. But I was soon disillusioned with my religion following the restrictions imposed by Islam on women. I appreciate the good characteristics of every religion. In any case, only a few mosques let entry of women in Kerala.
Your home got vandalised by right-wing goons even as you were at Sabarimala. Were you worried?
They didn’t spare even the toys of my daughter. My kids were very sad when they saw what happened. We had dropped them with our relatives when we were away. Our kitchen garden was also vandalised among other things.
There have been newspaper reports of your employer BSNL transferring you to another branch following your Sabarimala visit?
Yes. At first, I was given to understand that I would be transferred to the Ravipuram office near my home. But I was actually transferred to the Palarivattom office. My new job involves no public contact. Earlier, I was working at the Boat Jetty office. The right-wing activists even took out a protest march to my new office.
Have you sought police protection?
Yes, I have police protection round the clock. I am facing a lot of threats. Some people have even threatened to rape my six-year-old daughter. I had filed a complaint with the cyber cell following that. I have the police escorting me to work.
There have been reports in the press that you have been expelled by the Muslim Jama’at. Is that true?
Well, even I heard that. But I was under the impression that I was already expelled 13 years ago – when I opted for a live-in partner. Clerics had threatened to expel me even back then. Suppose they wouldn’t let me bury my mother when she dies, I will offer her body to a medical college. Now they reportedly want me to drop my Muslim name. I don’t know what issue they have with my name. Do they have any patent on it? Can religious bodies have any right to demand someone to change her name?
Do you have the support of your parents?
My mother is a believer and that’s her freedom. She is scared of reactionary elements in the religion but I have her blessings. My father died long ago when I was in Class 12.
Is there any basis to the claim that you carried sanitary pads in your irumudikkettu? (Irumudikkettu is a prayer kit offered to the deity of Sabarimala and usually contains puja items)
It’s a baseless claim. In fact, even the police officers had checked the contents of the irumudikkettu. They checked and verified for themselves and even photographed the contents as the fake news had already spread upon my return from the hilltop.
There have been charges, counter-charges and your visit has turned into a political slugfest in Kerala. While the CPI(M) leaders have been talking about your alleged friendship with BJP general secretary K. Surendran, BJP leaders have been claiming your Sabarimala visit was sponsored by the CPI(M)?
Someone had tagged me on a Facebook post written by BJP’s K. Surendran in 2016 when he had taken a position supporting the entry of women of all ages. I do not know him and I have never met him in person. As for the CPI (M) sponsoring my Sabarimala visit, it’s laughable.
There have been many controversies attached to you in the past. How long have you been an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist. I only react to a few things and that too when I have the time to do that. I have a full-time job and remain busy with that. I follow my passions like acting, modelling in my free time.
If not an activist, how would you describe yourself?
I am just a normal girl. I react to things when I am outraged by something. I would like to voice my opinion to help people in whatever little way I can. I am a strong proponent of equality. But I don’t want to define myself in any way.
As a feminist, are you also passionate about gender issues?
Yes. But I don’t want to limit myself to gender issues. I was vocal about transgender rights and have consistently spoken up for them. They are also just like us but they are discriminated against. So the idea is to support the weak and the marginalised whosoever they are.
Anand Kochukudy is a political journalist and lapsed academic.