One night in December 2014, a woman journalist, with her two small children, was asked to step down from the state-run KSRTC bus that was carrying pilgrims to Sabarimala. The driver and the conductor had divined that the purity of the bus carrying pilgrims would be desecrated if a woman of menstruating age was allowed to ride it. This triggered the ‘Catch the Pampa Bus’ protest that urged women to board the KSRTC Pampa special bus. The police arrested the protestors before they could get on, and they were let off only late at night. “This is body politics of the worst kind. Soon they will tell menstruating women not to walk on the public road to Pampa. Religion and culture are being used to subjugate and control us women in this democratic state. The system is actively ensuring that our mobility and visibility are controlled. This is gender-based discrimination and it is a clear violation of our rights,” activist Jolly Chirayath told this reporter at that time.
And even after the Supreme Court pronounced its historic verdict on September 28 this year, which lifted the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 years entering Sabarimala temple, a great mob of protestors blocked all women from entering the temple during the five days from October 17 to 22, when it had opened for the first time after the judgment. Though the state government had assured young woman devotees wishing to go to Sabarimala of full police protection, no woman between the ages of 10 and 50 was able to enter. In fact, women of all ages were questioned, and woman journalists who were reporting even 20 kilometres away from the temple were blocked by the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and other senas. More than 10 women in the age group attempted to worship at the temple, but were turned away by the protestors; some women from rural areas of other states, unaware of the protests, were literally chased downhill.
Meet the resistance; Kerala society is witnessing a churning of sorts as the institutions of patriarchy—political parties, religious institutions and companies—resist the increasing incursions of women. As the educated Kerala woman’s role shifts adukkalayilninnu arangathekku, ‘from the kitchen to the stage’ (read centre stage), which assures her of greater independence, she must negotiate for gender equity in all spaces; that’s not been an easy fight. Nevertheless, the narrative has marched on: the word ‘menstruation’, hardly mentioned in public until a few years ago, has shed a little of its taboo nature following women’s protests against prejudice and sexual harassment at the workplace, and after movements like ‘Red Alert: You’ve Got a Napkin’, ‘Ride the Pampa Bus’ and #MeToo caught the public imagination.
Strangely, in a convoluted sense, woman suffers not just sexual harassment at the workplace, but is also viewed as the insatiable seductress; this is evident from the dress code of a non-banking finance corporation in Kochi, where it’s mandatory for woman employees to wear a dupatta over their salwar kameez—or have half a day’s wage deducted from their salaries. “The strict dress code suggests that woman should doubly cover herself so as not to seduce the male employees. Instead of sensitising the men about gender issues, the women are penalised,” says a former employee. In December 2014, 45 women working in Asma Rubber Products in Kochi were allegedly strip-searched by supervisors because a soiled napkin was found in a toilet. This created outrage on social media, and a ‘Red Alert’ page was created to send napkins, used and unused, to the MD of the company. Police registered a case against the management, and the company had to temporarily close shop.
Police escort a woman who was heckled trying to reach the temple
Before the Sabarimala issue played out in Kerala, the dominant issues hogging media space were the nun’s rape case and matters related to the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). For the first time in the history of Christianity in India, five nuns belonging to the congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus came out in their religious garb to protest police inaction against the bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, after a complaint was filed by a fellow nun against him for rape. Though Mulakkal was finally arrested, it came almost two weeks after the nuns sat in protest in Kochi, and more than three months after the FIR was filed. There was huge media pressure for the government to act—but no political party spoke up for the nuns. Though woman politicians came to the protest venue, they came in their personal capacities, not as representatives of their parties.
Interestingly, women are used to combat women. After the Sabarimala judgment, woman protestors were mobilised by the Ayyappa Dharma Sena and the BJP’s Mahila Morcha. A ‘Ready to Wait’ protest was launched by woman devotees who believed that women should wait till they were over 50 before climbing the hill temple. No woman leader across the political spectrum in Kerala has so far spoken out against those protesting the court verdict. As for the nun’s case, the mother general of the Missionaries of Jesus made statements against the rape survivor and sent her picture to the media.
Such methods find precedent in history. Commenting on women as the true keepers of patriarchy, C.R. Neelakandan, activist and AAP convenor, Kerala, says “Women have been used to safeguard patriarchy historically too. It’s a brahminical concept of considering women to be property; the saying is ente mannu, ente pennu (my land, my woman). And women are expected to remain pure, for the purity of the race lies vested with the woman, not the man. The Maru Maraykkal Samaram or Channar Lahala in the 19th century, during which lower-caste women fought for the right to cover their breasts, resulted in an executive order from the Travancore raja granting this right. A thousand bare-chested women from the upper castes marched to Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple protesting the order because it was against tradition. They were also convinced that the raja would not have given the order.”
The prominent figures accused in the rape cases find supporters among both men and women. Actor Dileep, who was accused of masterminding the operation of abduction and rape of an actress in 2017, was arrested and is out on bail—but the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) had no problem reinstating him, even as the actress, lacking support, had to resign from the association. When the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC)—formed to support the rape survivor—questioned AMMA’s actions, veteran actress KPAC Lalitha was fielded to negate their arguments. The WCC finally had to move the courts to ensure that a complaints committee would be set up at every film location, and the government also decided to act. As #MeToo rages across the world, with its winds making women speak up against their harassing bosses, women in Kerala are pushing the Lakshmana Rekha in all areas.
- Protestors blocked all women aged 10–50 from entering Sabarimala when it was open from October 17 to 22.
- The temple opened as it usually does, in non-pilgrimage times, at the start of each Malayalam month—in this case Thulam.
- This was the first time the temple opened after the SC judgment on September 28 that lifted the ban on women’s entry.
By Minu Ittyipe in Kerala