Vanitha Mathil (Women’s Wall) a human chain by women from Kasargode to Thiruvanathapuram took place on January 1st 2019 in Kerala. Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala had announced the campaign on December 1st and the decision was taken after meeting with leaders of various Hindu organisations. A meeting attended by leaders from different religious groups decided that a women-centric campaign should be organised to uphold ‘renaissance’ values and to spread awareness.
From the day of its announcement itself the campaign has been mired into different controversies. The decision for the campaign came amidst the massive resistance and protests by various Hindu organisations in relation to the Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of all age groups to enter the Sabarimala temple which had earlier banned menstruating women from entering the temple. However, leaders who are in the Women’s Wall committee are saying that the campaign is not aimed at letting the women enter the Sabarimala temple.
The opposition led by Congress had condemned this campaign saying such campaigns would instigate “communal passions”. Malayalam film actress Manju Warrier who had initially given support for the campaign later backed out. She wrote in her Facebook post that, she didn’t want to associate with a campaign that has “political undertones”. The utilisation of funds for the campaign taken from the fund earmarked for women’s safety also became controversial. The usage of state resources for such a campaign when the state needs it for rebuilding and rehabilitation after the recent floods was also criticised by many.
The mainstream media and online spaces thus began dividing people into two sects. The renaissance spirited LDF supporting group vs the Hindutva regressive sect. However, there was another sect of women who were against the idea of the campaign from day one. This included prominent women leaders from Dalit, Adivasi and trans communities. But why are these women against the Woman’s Wall?
The utilisation of funds for the campaign taken from the fund earmarked for women’s safety also became controversial.
The Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala which had open up conversations on questions of purity, menstruation and so on have taken an ugly turn with widespread attack on women who have attempted to enter the temple. Not a single woman was able to enter the temple until now. Dissatisfaction with the failure of the state and the police force in ensuring the rights of women to enter the temple, the patriarchal politics beneath the campaign and the failure of the CPI(M) party to deal with the sexual harassment within its party were among the main reasons stated by these women to not participate in the campaign.
Many women who tried to visit the Sabarimala temple have been attacked by the devotees saying the presence of menstruating women would defile the temple. Rehana Fathima was arrested in November 27th alleging that some of her Facebook posts hurt religious sentiments. She was in jail for 18 days. She along with journalist Kavitha had attempted to trek to the Sabarimala temple in October which was unsuccessful. Activist Trupti Desai was earlier not allowed to even step outside the Kochi airport.
Another group Manithi (a Chennai based women’s rights organisation) consisting of 11 women under the age of 50 was also unsuccessful in entering the temple as the male devotees protested and forced them to leave by pelting stones at them. The women from Manithi were alleged as not being ‘true devotees’ and a propaganda was put out alleging these women to be Maoists. Two other women, Bindu and Kanaga Durga were taken into custody by police for attempting to visit the Sabarimala temple. Ammini K Wayanad, an Adivasi leader, said that the attack on these 11 women shows “the lack of will to implement the Supreme Court verdict by the ruling CPI(M)”.
The question that is raised by many women is how can a campaign for women be decided without discussing with any women which clearly shows there is excessive patriarchy and male domination in the decision making process of the state government. Writer Sarah Joseph withdrew her support demanding that action should be taken against PK Sasi, a CPI(M) MLA who was accused of sexual harassment of a woman leader. According to her the campaign is not valid as it’s the police themselves who are stopping women from entering Sabarimala. She also asked why Rehana Fathima who wanted to visit Sabarimala was arrested by the Kerala police.
A joint statement signed by more than thirty women activists and writers including J. Devika, Rekha Raj, Archana Ravi, Tasni Banu, M. Sulfath, transgender activist Sheethal Shyam stated different reasons for not supporting the Women’s Wall was published in the Newsrupt website. According to the joint statement, they condemned that the Kerala government was unsuccessful in ensuring the entry of even a single woman since the Supreme Court verdict and government along with the police tried to hurt the self-respect of the women who tried to enter Sabarimala.
Moreover, the state government has not taken action against those who unleased violence on these women and cases were taken on those who criticized the violence by the Sangh Parivar. They questioned the double standard of the state government who is campaigning for women empowerment on one hand and on the other hand are discouraging women from going to Sabarimala. Why is a campaign which is meant for promoting ‘renaissance values’ only for women why can’t it be a program including everyone? The statement also says that a fight against male domination and patriarchy can not be led by men and patriarchal religious organisations.
Kerala government was unsuccessful in ensuring the entry of even a single woman since the Supreme Court verdict.
On December 16th, a Villuvandi Yatra (form of protest with bullock carts which was earlier taken by social reformist Ayyankali) led by Dalit and Adivasi women was organised to challenge Brahminical patriarchy and ensure the fundamental rights of people to enter public spaces irrespective of their gender. According to the leaders, neo-Brahminical patriarchy is the main reason behind the resistance against the entry of women in to the Sabarimala temple. They also had demanded that the Sabarimala temple belongs to the Adivasi people and it must be returned to them. They have also declared that Dalit and Adivadi women will enter the Sabarimala shrine this January.
Ironically, post the Women’s Wall, social media began discussions on why Muslim women attended the Wall with their purdah and hijab, pointing it as a regressive practice rather than looking at the agency of a Muslim woman to choose what she wears. Social activist and journalist Mrudula Bhavani points out about the inefficiency of the state government in dealing with the Hadiya issue. She asks, “Why did the State government declared that they will ensure safety for young women who enter Sabarimala? Why is the police instead of guarding them is stopping young women and even making them run from attackers? Why can’t the state forces control RSS goons instead? This attitude is another pathetic moment in the history of Kerala. And added to it something called ‘Vanitha Mathil’. Vanitha mathil’s formation meeting had no women. This mobilisation in the name of equal rights for women must be seen as a move from the part of government to divert attention from its failure to ensure Sabarimala verdict allowing young women entry.”
She adds, “C.P Sugathan had openly said that he will kill Hadiya and burn her hijab. Pinarayi Vijayan’s affiliation with Hindu Parliament is known for all. Hadiya lived here for six months putting her life at stake. Pinarayi Vijayan was not bothered about that. He is not bothered about ghar wapsi centres in Kerala too.”
The leader of Pembilai Orumai (a movement by women labourers of Munnar plantation). Gomathi began a sit in protest in front of the Munnar police station as she was constantly being harassed by the state police on false charges. She wrote in a Facebook post, “Do you know how many women have been affected by Chief Minster Pinarayi Vijayan’s government and police? Will the problems of women get resolved if Pinarayi becomes the renaissance hero?”
The question is – is the Women’s Wall just a form of tokenism then? Is it possible to create a change in ideas within a single day? Is this new renaissance and women empowerment possible without the end of Brahminical patriarchy and caste system which creates the division of pure and impure? What can be done to end Islamophobic attacks on Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab? Isn’t it high time we talk about what is gender rights and equality for women who practice a religion? Is this renaissance inclusive of all?
Featured Image Source: New Indian Express