Key takeaways from Kerala Women's Wall: Burqa-clad ladies took part in the 'Vanitha Mathil'; Sister Lucy wore a churidar
If you're wondering why what women wore at the Kerala Women's Wall is important, you must know that what women wear is a major political attraction, regardless of the significance of the event.
On 26 December, right-wing Hindu groups in Kerala organised an event called Ayyappa Jyothi in anticipation of the ambitious "Women's Wall", or "Vanitha Mathil" protest against patriarchy, which the LDF government had scheduled for 1 January. Thousands of people turned up with lamps and chanted praises of Lord Ayyappa at the event.
As always, I am filled with admiration for anyone who can get middle- or upper-middle-class people out of their homes for anything. So you know, congratulations to all parties concerned for engaging in excellent photo-op warfare. I did have mild nausea when I saw some of the media coverage though. It was as though the pages had been designed by the ghost of painter Raja Ravi Varma. The lamp-lit "adarsh nari" or "adarsh baby" photographs at dusk was even captioned on the front page of the Bangalore edition of Malayala Manorama the way Ravi Varma would have: "Waiting for Papa while defending Hindu Pride with a Serene Smile."
The genuinely pretty photographs seamlessly fit into a certain kind of upper-caste Hindu pop culture that Kerala sees plenty of on television and cinema — old grandma addresses her granddaughters as "kutty" in a trembling, long-suffering voice, as kutty, clad in a starched sari, prepares to go to office to support the crumbling tharavad (ancestral home); savarna culture as Malayali Culture; as gentility; as normal.
The appearance of two good-girl actors from the 1980s, Jalaja and Menaka, at this protest only added a little more to the feels. It was what my good Malayali friend likes to call "Dignikutty", and what my good Punjabi friend likes to call "performing politics as a matrimonial ad". Very few of those Ayyappa Jyothi photos would have been out of place on a matrimonial site.
Luckily, my tiny home state, even in these genteel times, continues to have lots of bloody-minded, non-genteel instincts. So on 1 January, when the Vanita Mathil rose, it looked like a group of anything but suitable girls. In all, 50 lakh women are said to have turned up to form a chain stretching 620 kilometres. What women wore at this event were working clothes. Saris. Salwars. Since the wall was the coming together of many organisations, a lot of photos included women in uniform saris. Nurses in white. Nuns in Habits. Women in Hijabs. Actor Rima Kallingal in a white sleeveless top and dark pants. Many wielded umbrellas, caps and dupattas on their heads to deal with the afternoon sun. Small girls in their best, voluminous frocks and kannmashi-lined sceptical gazes in the afternoon. A sari-wearing woman striding forward with her fist in the air and a baby at her hip, never mind the government's mumbling that children should not be brought to the wall. In the Malayalam equivalent of "as if": pinnale!
Now, if you are wondering why I am talking about what women wore at a major political event as though I was an E!News reporter at the red carpet, you must know that what women wear is a major political attraction. Major anti-caste struggles in Kerala were borne out of women's protests about humiliation via clothing. In Vaikom Basheer's best-known novel Mathilagal (walls), Basheer and Narayani are madly in love but always separated by the wall of their adjoining prisons. Now those walls were literal, but some bricks in our metaphorical gender prisons are clothes, folks. When women's clothes and bodies cease to be political, we won't have to line up in the afternoon Kerala sun to mark our humanity. And prime ministers won't try to sound deep and knowledgeable about gender equality versus tradition.
You know who agrees with me about the significance of women's clothes? Shefali Vaidya, a confident woman you'd know about only if you are on Twitter. On 2 January, two young women entered Sabarimala, a full three months after the Supreme Court gave the green signal, and a day after the Chief Minister of Kerala demonstrated the Malayali buy-in with the Women's Wall. Promptly came the temple priests wanting to faint, rise and wash everything with Dettol because everything was now so dirty, I will arise and go live in Innisfree. Shefali Vaidya was concerned but cautious because she suspected that the two women were burqa-clad heretics, not disrespectful Hindu women bent on sacrilege. (Once, not so long ago, Pakistani security expert Zaid Hamid, engaged in sartorial political analysis like me and Shef, was convinced that 26/11 was carried out by Sikh RAW agents identified as Amar Singh and Hiralal because Ajmal Kasab, aka Amar Singh, wore an orange thread on his wrist.) Friends and foes had to reassure Shefali that the black clothes the two women were wearing were not burqas, just the black gear that is worn to Sabarimala.
Images of actual burqa-clad women at the Women's Wall were a major source of moral fibre and roughage for online critics. Hijabi women were frequently mocked for having the gall to protest patriarchy when they were wearing "garbage bags" or "dressed like penguins". The troll gold-standard emoji of laughing-till-tears was very much on display. The photo of a hijabi woman holding up a poster against Brahmanical patriarchy was particularly highlighted as fodder of comedy and unintended irony.
Now who is to explain at length that the metaphor of Brahmanical patriarchy is an affliction that affects women in every religious community? If only in the last two decades, we had watched 300 Malayalam/Hindi television shows of women in hijabs leaving their house to support the family, then perhaps it would be clearer that the "Noble Feminist with a Mind of Her Own" is not limited to the white Trivandrum sari and the heirs of Menaka and Jalaja.
In case you worried that the trolls were only going after Muslim women, not to worry. There were plenty of equal opportunity attacks against Christian women. The presence of groups from churches and nuns triggered lots of darkly-knowing conversations about rice-bag converts, paedophiles and rapist priests, meaning that Christian women from whichever denomination should not publicly protest anything until every Christian denomination has been cleansed of every last sexual predator (not just Jalandhar diocese Bishop Francis Mulakkal), presumably like the way the tantri is cleansing Sabarimala right now. Not to be repetitive or anything, but pinnale! Also, this is the time to discuss Sister Lucy.
If you say Sister Who, come on! Sister Lucy Kalapura. She has been a vocal supporter of the nuns battling Bishop Mulakkal and has faced a lot of criticism, abuse and institutional reprimands for her clarity. Yesterday, Sister Lucy wrote a Facebook post in support of the Women's Wall. In the accompanying photo, Sister Lucy, who is usually seen in a habit, was wearing a green salwar kameez, or as Malayalis like to call this favourite ensemble, a churidar. She took time to address that important detail. Her clothes. She said, "I am travelling. For convenience, I am wearing a common Indian outfit. I don't want any priests to see my clothes and wrinkle their brows, or beat their chests, or go running to our superiors. After all, priests can wear anything they want, unlike nuns, who decorate the altar with flowers, or sweep and swab or wash clothes, for whom plain clothes are banned."
Hey sister, go sister, soul sister, go sister, churidar sister, wall sister. Or as the aforementioned Punjabi friend translated: Tum chup raho/chanta laga.
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