Sabarimala row: Lakhs line up to form women’s wall across Kerala

The women's wall in Thrissur, Kerala, on Tuesday. (Express photo: Vignesh Krishnamoorthy)

Lakhs of women lined up across Kerala’s 14 districts on Tuesday to form a human wall as part of the state government’s ‘vanitha mathil’ or women’s wall. The wall was organised by the CPI(M)-led LDF government and community outfits backing its stand on the entry of women at the Sabarimala temple.

Although the wall was envisaged as a counter to the Sangh Parivar campaign against the entry of women of all ages at Sabarimala temple following the Supreme Court verdict, the CPI(M) has managed to project the event as a statement of "progressive Kerala".

State Minister for Health and Family Welfare K K Shailaja was the starting point of the wall in the northern Kasaragod district, while senior CPI(M) leader and Politburo member Brinda Karat stood as the concluding link of the wall at the southern tip of Thiruvananthapuram district.

The entire ruling LDF cabinet, leaders of community organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam – which represents the Hindu Ezhava community – , leaders of the Punnala Sreekumar faction of the Kerala Pulaya Mahasabha representing the SC community, and Left-aligned intellectuals, writers, thinkers, activists and actors participated in the movement.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated on Facebook, "The women’s wall has become the largest women movement in the country to protect their rights enshrined in the Constitution and defend the attempts to deny them gender justice. This wall is a warning to the conservative-communal forces, which try to deny women their legitimate rights and renaissance values. The women’s wall has emerged as a loud announcement that Kerala women are with the progressive thought."

However, the Opposition Congress boycotted the wall, dubbing it "communal" as Hindu organisations were actively involved in the campaign. BJP and upper caste Hindu organisations such as Nair Service Society also kept away from the wall. The BJP had last week lighted an ‘ayyappa jyothi’ across the state to the northern as a counter to the women’s wall.

A human chain, composed entirely of women, from Kasaragod district in northern Kerala to Thiruvananthapuram in the south took shape. (Express photo by Nithin)

NSS general secretary Sukumaran Nair, who is leading the Hindu communities opposed to the entry of women of all ages to Sabarimala, said Kerala would become a "Satan’s land" after the women wall. "No Chief Minister can destroy traditions and rituals," he said.

In Kasaragod district, an attempt to disrupt the wall was reported when a group of men, allegedly belonging to BJP, set on fire a wayside grassland to prevent women from lining up along the road. Police chased them away.

At Edappally – one of the busiest traffic points in Ernakulam district in central Kerala, scores of women lined up on the side of national highway 66. While there were not many minors, there were many elderly women. Exactly at 3.30 pm, the women stood shoulder to shoulder along the entire stretch of the highway, with many wearing the traditional ‘kasavu mundu’. Announcements were made over a microphone, requesting the women to not clog roads and to avoid accidents. Senior CPI(M) leadership, including district secretary CN Mohanan, former secretary P Rajeev, Politburo member M A Baby, Politburo member Subhashini Ali, and writer M Leelavathy were present. Nuns of the Jacobite faction of the Christian Church were also present.

At 4.00 pm, the women were requested to raise their hands forward and take a pledge to uphold and protect the social reform values of Kerala and to support the constitutional tenets of gender equality.

In Kochi, Christian nuns also joined the wall while in Malappuram, Muslim women trooped to streets in large numbers to stand for the wall.

Nithya, 23, who works at the IT hub of Infopark in the city, said she had come to show her solidarity with "the government’s vision of a gender equal society".

"We have to create a new generation that’s well aware of our state’s rich social reform movements and what they stand for. We have to fight against blind traditions and superstitions," she said.

Elizabeth, a school teacher and a member of the Left-backed Kerala State Teachers Association, said the movement was an important marker of female empowerment at a time when the women’s right to pray has been violated by male-dominated protests at Sabarimala. "Viswasam ulla sthreekal keranam (Those who have belief in the deity must be able to enter and pray)," she said. "It’s a Supreme Court order and the Kerala government has to follow it. The government is handling it in a mature manner. Some political organisations are playing games by making women stand in front."

At the same time, some participants could not rationally explain why they were there. It was evident that they had been mobilised by community organisations for the sake of building a crowd.

There were also those who took contradictory positions.

Ani, a housewife, said she came for the programme to stand for the rights of women. "But in the Sabarimala issue, we are on the side of belief (which bars women of menstruation age)," she said. Her friend Sarada, agreed.

Shortly after the women’s wall disbanded, 91-year-old M Leelavathy – one of Kerala’s most admired and respected literary critics and writers – underlined in a short speech at a public meeting that gender equality must not remain restricted to cultural and social spheres.

"There must be changes in the political sphere too," she said. "For example, there’s a women’s reservation bill in Parliament. It advocates 33% reservation for women in Parliamentary constituencies. But I ask, why 33 per cent? Why not 50 per cent? After all, women are half of the country’s population. Political leaders must ensure that they pass the bill, ‘ she said.

Subhashini Ali in her address said she felt wonderful to see scores of women from one end of Kerala to the other upholding principles of equality.

"Many extreme reactionary voices have been speaking on behalf of women in Kerala for the last few months. They have been trying to tell people ‘women want this, women don’t want this’. Today, lakhs of women have come here to say that you don’t need to speak on our behalf. We can speak for ourselves. We want our rights, our equality and we have to move forward. They are telling these people that we have rejected their regressive traditions," she said.