Sabarimala temple protests: 32-year-old teacher from Kannur declares intent to visit shrine, says she is facing abuse, threats

Kannur: Reshma Nishanth, an unassuming 32-year-old teacher from Kerala’s Kannur, declared through a Facebook post, on 14 October, her decision to visit the state’s Sabarimala shrine during Mandalakalam. This was after the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, struck down a ban on the entry of girls and women in the 10-50 age group inside the temple.

Saying that she is looking forward to pray at the temple and is already observing her austerity period (41-day vratham), Reshma added in her post (translated roughly) that there is no binary of men and women in faith, and that menstruation does not mean impurity.

Ever since, Reshma has faced a deluge of threats. Within hours, her social media page got flooded with abuses. A mob, with fire torches, even gathered around her house threatening her and sloganeering in the name of Lord Ayyappa, media reports said. So much so, that Reshma had to quit her job over safety concerns on 16 October. Yet, she sticks to her decision, unperturbed, expecting full protection from the government on her pilgrimage.

Going by the official site of the temple, “eligible” female worshippers are to be called “Malikappurams”. With the Supreme Court verdict, all women have gained this “eligibility”.

“Malikappuram” Reshma, who is now observing her vows and austerities, opens up to a few questions on her decision and the implications thereafter:

Recorded history indicates that women had been entering the shrine till the 1940s, even for "choroonu" (the first rice-feeding ceremony) of their children, and this was observed by the Kerala High Court in 1991. So, women of menstruating age being banned from entering the temple is clearly not a tradition or custom that was followed from "time immemorial", as is being projected now.

People protesting against the Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple. PTI

People protesting against the Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple. PTI

What could be the reason behind the sudden change in practices, finally leading to a high court ban on the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years, in 1991?

I have not found any convincing reason for the restriction of women. People try to come up with varying reasons, which do not seem to have any logic. The majority talk about the theory of 'naishtika brahmacharya' (celibacy). How can this concept restrict a woman believer from praying inside the temple? I consider this as gender inequality.

Do you think there was an agenda rooted in Brahminical, misogynistic hegemony, behind the shift in custom?

Yes, definitely. If a custom gets distorted with respect to a gender, it should be restructured. The prohibition of women was not an inbuilt (existing) custom at all in the case of Sabarimala. It’s not only Brahminical hegemony, but also patriarchy. The menstrual cycle is termed as impure only because of such patriarchal dominance.

Can your trip to Sabarimala be considered a social movement against the prevalent misogynistic attitude in Kerala society, even among women?

I don't consider it a revolution or movement as such. I am not here to challenge any system. I am a believer. Now I have the right and legal support to pray before my lord inside the Sabarimala temple. That is it.

How does your family and your extended family cope with the attacks and the widespread protests against you? Did they tell you not to risk so much and go?

My family members support me and stand by me. At the same time, some of them are very anxious about my safety, in the given scenario. I fully trust the government to give me all support and protection.

Those who are attempting to go to Sabarimala are facing setbacks. I had to quit my job and have lost my freedom of movement, not because of fear, but owing to the concerns of my family members and the elderly at home about my safety. Another girl who started her vows yesterday is also facing similar problems. She has lost her job and her accommodation. She is not able to use her phone because of the threat calls. So, we are getting only setbacks in our personal lives for taking a brave stand. The government has to consider all this and solve problems for whosoever decides to visit the shrine.

Amid the 41-day fast, at least one menstrual cycle is expected. It is just another biological process, you have said on your Facebook post. Do you plan to break your vow during the period or continue with your vratham, regardless of your menstrual cycle, to make it count to 41 days?

The menstrual cycle is just a biological (physiological) process, like anything else in the human body. I do not consider menstruation as impurity. I don't care about it in the 41 days of my vratham. Periods do not matter in belief.

Women, including journalists, were roughed up at the base camps, in public buses on the way to Sabarimala on 17 October. Are you planning to seek police protection when you go for the visit?

Yes, of course. Since the declaration of my decision to go to Sabarimala, I have been facing a lot of problems. My social media pages have been flooded with abuses, dirty comments and threats. It is not just on the virtual platform. Protesters who are against the Supreme Court verdict even surrounded my house shouting slogans and threatening me. I am living in fear, without being able to step outside. Over safety concerns, I even resigned from my job (on 16 October). I will ask the state to provide me all protection as I now have all the rights to visit and pray at Sabarimala.

The Mala Araya tribal community has started a protest in Thiruvananthapuram to re-establish its rights at the Sabarimala temple. It claims that the rights at the temple have been "hijacked" by the forward castes and members of the community are not allowed to perform their traditional customs at the Ayyappa shrine now. So, once women used to enter and tribals had roles in the customs. However, both were stopped in the last 60-odd years, for some unexplained reason. What could have triggered this sudden change in the system?

Customs are subject to change in certain time periods. I don't think it is a violation of the system. India is a democratic country. But casteism and 'chathurvarna' are still followed here. In the matter of worship, "forward" castes resort to suppressing the "backwards". All such social evils will change gradually. Gender discrimination is the first of all. Gender equality has to be the norm. Casteism should also be destroyed.

Now, since women have been again allowed to enter, those in opposition say, these are customs which have been in practice since time immemorial. But it's clearly a lie, as 1940 is not time immemorial. Recorded history has clear references. Isn't it also inappropriate to restrict tribals from carrying out their customs?

God cannot be hijacked. Everyone should get the right to worship as per their belief. As I said earlier, casteism will be abolished. Gender equality is the priority now.

Women in Kerala in lakhs have been out protesting (against the Supreme Court ruling). Did you expect that from fellow women in your state?

It's quite expected. When Roop Kanwar was forced to get immolated as part of 'sati' in 1987, almost 70,000 people, mostly women, had taken to the streets in protest, insisting on continuation of the practice of sati, not against it. It is sheer ignorance.

Many dismissed your decision as a mere attempt to gain publicity. Is there a message you have for the public, those who are against your decision and those who support you?

I had started my vratham much before the post. I was waiting for clarity from the government over how it would facilitate my protection. We had mailed the DGP and the government officials, to clearly know how to go about it. But we got no response. I did not know how I would take up the trip, and that is when I thought about the public post.

If I had decided to venture on the pilgrimage, without informing anyone or the government, or posting on Facebook, I would have been at high risk through my journey. In such a scenario, I would have been held responsible for not informing the police and the government in advance. This is why I posted on Facebook and sought help from the government.

(Sannidha Hari is a Kozhikode-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com)


Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 17:13 PM

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