A Supreme Court bench lifted the ban on women entering the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district by a majority decision in September 2018. According to the ruling, subjecting devotion to gender discrimination is illegal and unconstitutional. The temple has traditionally prohibited women of menstruating age from ten to fifty years of age from entering due to the belief that the deity, lord Ayyappan, is celibate.
In response, Hindu upper and middle caste communities in Kerala organised Naamajapa yatras - localised rallies in which worshippers chanted Ayyappa mantras. Right-wing Hindu political outfits saw this as an opportunity to make significant inroads into Kerala's politico-cultural fabric, something they had been trying hard until then. Their involvement in these rallies mobilised women to protest against the temple entry and made it a state-wide issue. It is worth noting that their protest was directed at the leadership of the CPI(M) and not the Supreme Court that issued the verdict. A campaign was launched in which they mobilised pious Hindus on a war footing and women protestors against the temple entry under the banner of a 'ready to wait' campaign which emphasised devoutness towards lord Ayyappan and their willingness to wait until the age of 50 to enter the shrine.
After the verdict, two women, Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga entered the temple secretly and evidently with the knowledge and support of the CPI(M) government and its police forces. It caused a huge furore in the state wherein public anger was directed solely towards the ‘supposed’ malicious act of Kerala’s Chief Minister and his government. Later on, Rehana Fathima, an activist, tried to enter the shrine but failed while S P Manju, president of the Kerala Dalit Mahila Federation, claimed she entered disguised as an old woman to escape scrutiny. However, the Kerala government informed the Supreme Court during the consideration of a revision petition that 51 women out of about 7,500 women registered online for admission to the temple had entered without trouble.
Interestingly, despite their heroic act which jeopardised their safety, these women were not widely acknowledged, let alone celebrated. Does this lack of acknowledgement and public recognition even in so-called progressive and feminist circles in the state have a plausible explanation? These women paid a heavy price in their personal and political lives ranging from domestic and social violence to multiple overt physical assaults.
As soon as the verdict was announced, the CPI(M) leadership seemed to take a pro-entry position, hoping that it would serve as a historic moment to unite progressive elements across caste, class and religious divisions in Kerala society to fight Hindutva ideology and to win the general state assembly elections scheduled for May 2021. Vanitha Mathil (women's wall) was organised on January 1, 2019, as the first step toward Navodhanam - the social reform agenda for the new era inclusive of women, Dalits and other marginalised groups.
There was however little acceptance of this position among party cadres and sympathisers, and many senior leaders within the state secretariat of the CPI(M) criticised it. Unlike the congress-led UDF, the LDF is primarily a coalition of political parties with a large Hindu support base whose support is crucial to the CPI(M)'s election success. After UDF's landslide victory in 2019, the CPI(M) leadership retracted from their commitment to women's temple entry as a matter of equal rights, seeing it as a backlash.
While the Congress party, on the other hand, took a soft Hindutva stance from the start to not hurt the religious sentiments of the pious Hindu majority. Congress MLA Shanimol Usman, who led a rally supporting Sabarimala protesters from Palakkad to Pathanamthitta, asserted that religious customs and rituals should be left to the believers, implying that the state should not interfere in matters concerning religion, which is a position that suits her as a member of the Muslim community.
Due to these stances taken by both LDF and UDF, women who entered the shrine and a few of their supporters on social media did not receive any protection from any political party while they were cyber-lynched and assaulted. Despite individual feminists lending support to this cause and to the attacked women, the Malayali feminists were unable to publicly articulate a collective position on the issue. The confusion over acknowledging this as a feminist protest stemmed from multiple locales due to the fact that their entry sparked wide protests which gave ground to right-wing politics and they channelled the public anger to the state leadership of CPI(M). Moreover, if most women oppose temple entry and many are protesting against it, who do they represent?
It is intriguing to observe how these women navigate this difficult social terrain in their everyday lives and the nature of their challenges. Uma Chakraborty's concept of Brahmanical Patriarchy helps in understanding their different experiences as it refers to the patriarchy in societies organised based on caste. Because of their distinct caste locations, Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga faced unique challenges. As a homemaker and Brahmin woman without sufficient social networks, Kanaka Durga had to face complete ex-communication from her family and was not even allowed to see her children. Evidently, this abandonment, as with many other women, provided her with the opportunity to create a new life and the agency to choose a life partner. In contrast to Kanaka Durga, Bindu Ammini was the subject of more cyber and physical attacks by reactionary elements in Kerala society, which were shaped by the social conceptions of purity and pollution. She was attacked by a man on January 6, 2022, and told India Today magazine that "I have been attacked over ten times. The major attack was in front of the Commissioner's office. I already have police protection as per a Supreme Court order. Sometimes, Kerala police protect Kanaka Durga and not me because of my Dalit identity." As a committed fighter, she drew support from her existing networks and maintained her spirit to confront reactionary right-wing forces.
A Muslim by birth, known for her unconventional lifestyle and activism, Rehana Fatima did not receive any assistance from the police for entering the shrine for fear that her entry would add a communal angle. For posting a picture on Facebook wearing a Sabarimala pilgrim's attire of a black dhoti and black shirt revealing her legs, a case of hurting religious sentiments was filed against her. Precisely due to her religion and history of social activism, she also had to deal with cyber-attacks and police cases. SP Manju's claim does not seem to have been acknowledged either by the protesters or the police, possibly because targeting more women will not help the protesters much as they already targeted two other women and because of her affiliation with the Congress party.
It appears that the events following the court ruling have exposed the fragility of Kerala's secular fabric, which progressive groups have long championed. It also unmasked a regressive gender ideology which lies at the heart of the Kerala model and calls for significant social interventions.
(Binitha Thampi is an Associate Professor at IIT Madras. She is a feminist scholar.)