Sabarimala row: Increasing attacks on women by right-wing lead activists to warn of 'unprecedented danger' facing State

Women in Kerala have been shocked by the silence maintained by civil society over the growing attacks on young women trying to visit Sabarimala temple or those assisting them in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict lifting the ban on menstruating women. Women activists have started raising concern following the attack on the home of a 39-year-old activist who offered support to women below the age of 50 to undertake the pilgrimage. Stones were pelted at the home of Aparna Shivakami three days after she arranged a press meet at Kochi for three women who prepared to visit the temple by observing the 41-day ‘vrutham’ (penance).

The three women had no intention of undertaking the pilgrimage provoking those opposing the entry of young women in the temple. They told the media that they were ready to wait till they are allowed to visit the shrine peacefully. Yet, protesters were not ready to listen, first attacking them and later vandalising their homes. “I did not anticipate a personal attack as protesters had targetted only those who tried to go to the temple,” says Shivakami, a teacher and cancer survivor. “I made it very clear at the outset that I had no plan to undertake the pilgrimage. The attack on my home shows protesters won’t spare even those who are supporting the case of women.”

Aparna Shivakami's home was attacked by vigilantes. Image courtesy: TK Devasia

Aparna Shivakami's home was attacked by vigilantes. Image courtesy: TK Devasia

She said those opposing the apex court verdict were trying to terrorise women so that none would dare to go to Sabarimala, saying protesters felt emboldened after driving away gender activist Trupti Desai from the Kochi airport. Trupti, the first woman below 50 years to attempt the pilgrimage after the commencement of the Mandalakala Makaravilakku festival season, was forced to turn back as protesters besieged her at the airport for nearly 13 hours on 16 November.

Half a dozen other women were similarly waylaid in various parts of the state and forced to abandon their plans to go to Sabarimala. Since then, no women in the restricted age group, including those among the nearly 800 young women who registered for darshan in the Kerala Police-run Digital Crowd Control Management System, have made any attempt to enter the temple. The showdown saw not only women but also many male pilgrims keeping away from Sabarimala, leading to a steep decline in footfalls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, who have been leading the protests, termed the 'decision' of women below the age of 50  not to exercise the right granted to them by the apex court as a clear sign of their abiding belief in the customs and traditions of the temple. However, a number of social activists said women in the restricted age group were not coming forward due to the war-like situation created by the Sangh at the hill shrine. Dr AK Jayasree, a community health specialist and social activist, said hundreds of young women will make the trek if the Sangh and the BJP withdraw their cadre.

“The faith of Kerala women remains unshakable, but plenty of them strike a balance between faith and human rights. The State has achieved a new social order through relentless struggle against all barriers of caste, religion and gender. Modern women are educated, employed and accomplished in various ways. It is foolhardy to believe that they will sacrifice their hard-earned rights for the sake of faith,” said Jayashree.

She added that a large number of women remained suppressed due to the economic order that subsumes traditional values in marriage and family life. “Women have no other option but to accept this for the sake of their existence. Right-wing outfits are trying to exploit this predicament for their narrow gains,” she further stated. Jayashree feels that that the Right has been unleashing its vigilantes as there has been no pushback from progressive sections of society. Jayashreesaid she was surprised by the silence maintained by civil society, especially cultural leaders, who were, at one time, extremely vocal when it came to human rights violations.

The social activist warned that people will lose freedom and security if the right-wing is allowed a free run. She urged all democratic-minded people to resist efforts to target and isolate women who showed the gumption to make the trek for the Ayyappa darshan. Human rights lawyer Sandhya Raju said cultural leaders who play a major role in moulding public opinion, had a social responsibility to fight regressive forces that could 'take the State back to the Stone Age. She said many have started realising the danger but their voices risk being drowned out by vigilante groups.

Political analyst BRP Bhaskar said the movement to allow women access to Sabarimala has not been gaining traction as political parties have decided to compromise with regressive elements of society to hold on to power. “Apart from a few progressive women who have come out against the resistance to the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict, it has not yet developed into a movement. This is mainly because women have accepted the patriarchal system and are unable to see the principles of equality in the issue,” said Bhaskar.

Social activist Preetha GP believes civil society may be maintaining its distance as they consider it as a religious issue rather than one of gender discrimination. Right-wing outfits are using the custom allowing women outside the 10 to 50 age group to enter the temple to try to go after the claim of gender discrimination. Scholar and activist Swami Agnivesh said the imbroglio is the result of propaganda by the BJP-RSS combine to "devastate Kerala’s social and spiritual landscape". He urged Keralites to ask themselves whether if they are being misled and their trust is being abused by an unscrupulous political formation that thrives by selling gods, hijacking temples and corrupting popular religiosity.

“The Sangh knows Kerala is the strongest bastion against communal and caste-driven politics,” the social activist said in a statement. “They believe that the only way to make inroads is to use religion as a Trojan Horse. This is not the time to count petty gains or caste equations. The State is facing an unprecedented danger. If not handled wisely, this could inflict permanent wounds on its psyche.” He added that the RSS-BJP strategy was erected on a presumption of the gullibility of Keralites with respect to religion. Now is the time for Keralites to prove that the people are wiser than the politicians, Agnivesh added.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2018 16:30:46 IST

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