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Sabarimala protests: As two women enter the temple, look at past struggles for equality in Kerala and what lies ahead

Bindu, a 42-year-old lecturer in the School of Legal Studies in Kannur University and 44-year-old Kanaka Durga who works in the Civil Supplies Department in Malappuram unobtrusively entered the Sabarimala temple at 3.30 am on 2 January.

They walked in with other devotees, their faces uncovered, clad in black and carrying the irumuddi kettu on their heads. They did not sneak in stealthily as their opponents alleged. They were neither “foreigners”, nor “activists” nor “feminists” (all words of insult in today’s charged atmosphere). They were regular Malayali women who said they had observed all the rituals just like their male counterparts who accompanied them. They entered and left peacefully protected by a group of unobtrusive policemen. The other pilgrims did not even realise a historic step had been taken.

Yes, it was a historic step. It was not the first time ever that women in the “prohibited” age group had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple… and probably not the last. What made their entry unique was the fact that they were the first to enter the temple after the Supreme Court verdict was passed and hence they had the backing of law behind them.

 Sabarimala protests: As two women enter the temple, look at past struggles for equality in Kerala and what lies ahead

A still from a video grab shows two women, Bindu and Kanak Durga (both in black outfits), walk to offer prayers at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala. PTI

Will this first step be the harbinger of something bigger? Will women now be able to enter the temple and pray if they wish to without being questioned about their age, their menstrual cycles, their political affiliations, their activism or their stand on women’s issues? Will they, just like their menfolk, be able to walk into the temple without being harangued, threatened and insulted?

This first step might be historic, but the battle has just begun. When the temple priests came to know about this event, they closed the temple down and “purified” the sanctum sanctorum for an hour before they threw open the doors again. The same sanctorum which activist Rahul Easwar had famously declared, some time ago, that he and his followers would protect by urinating and spilling blood near the sacred 18 steps to prevent impure women from entering. He forgot then perhaps that the “unclean” menstrual blood of women had given him and his band of boys life…

The archaic tradition of “purification” is as offensive as it is prevalent. In Kerala, even a century ago, lower caste mortals were not allowed to walk on the same roads or even be seen by a high caste Brahmin. Brahmins polluted by their sight or touch would have to purify themselves. Across most castes and communities menstruating women were considered impure. Any contact with them would require purification.

In Kerala, reform came in a big way thanks to far-sighted individuals like Sri Narayana Guru, spiritual leader of the Ezhavas and EMS Namboodiripad, Chief Minister of the first democratically elected Communist government. They fought retrograde forces to give dignity to the oppressed. Side by side, women in Kerala had also over decades fought for many rights including the right to cover their breasts.

In 1936 the historic Temple Entry Proclamation was issued by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma who threw the temple doors open to Avarnas who were hitherto prevented from entering. But the road leading to this event was not smooth. In 1924, during the famous Vaikkom Satyagraha, Ezhavas led by Sri Narayana Guru and his disciple Kumaran Asan had demanded the right for Avarnas to walk on public roads. This revolt was centered around the famous Shiva temple in Vaikkom where the roads surrounding the temple were barred to Avarnas.

When Sri Narayana guru himself was prevented from entering the road one day before the start of the Satyagraha, the editorial of the Malayala Manorama said, “If a venerable sage like Sree Narayana Guru and his disciple Mahakavi Kumaran Asan were driven away from the road around the temple by a drunken upper caste buffoon in the name of caste, can their people take it lying down? If they rise up in revolt can any authority stop them by force?”
So Kerala does, in fact, have a history of taking action and throwing out hurtful traditions. But once more the path is not smooth.

On 1 January 2019, a Vanitha Madhil (women’s wall) was created by five million-strong women from across the state. They said they were not focusing on the temple entry issue but were supporting a “Renaissance” movement to prevent Kerala from being pushed back into the Dark Ages. A few days before that an Ayyappa Jyoti event was organised by the Karma Samithi and the Nair Service Society where thousands of women from across the state lit lamps along the highways crisscrossing the state in support of the temple entry ban. These were the “willing to wait” women who did not want to go against tradition.

The Sabarimala entry issue has certainly thrown up some strange bedfellows and even stranger situations. It has made the usually suave supporter of women’s rights Shashi Tharoor turn into a supporter of an irrational tradition even at the cost of being accused of defying the Supreme Court. It has got Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah fighting over the same voters' constituency because they think they see bigger political gains in supporting the ban on women’s entry into the temple. It has made people who have not observed a single ritual or tradition in their lives suddenly become all sanctimonious when it comes to “permitting” women into the hilltop shrine. It has made the Communist parties plunge into temple politics. It has pitted the “right to pray” women against the “right to wait” women.

A young school teacher who said she believed it was her right to enter the Sabarimala temple unquestioned said, “I know many men who have no bhakti at all and who do not observe any of the rituals entering the temple without being questioned. Why do I not have the same rights? I should be able to go when I wish and no one has the right to ask me any personal questions.”

On a side event of the Vanitha Madhil, women artists created another wall of powerful paintings. One of them, painted by Sreeja, an executive member of the Lalithkala Academy was a striking figure of a dark woman with a glowing uterus. She said she believed a woman’s uterus was the home of the next generation and should be viewed as the epitome of purity.

Will these loud and clear messages reach the ears of the people who matter? Many battles have been fought and won in the past… many archaic traditions have been shed by the wayside. Will this one also be shed? Or will there be more court cases... more street battles…. All in the name of a god, who according to the myth retreated to the hilltop shrine to find peace.

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Updated Date: Jan 03, 2019 11:32:01 IST