Blood Sisters

In Kannur, the Women’s Wall goes beyond Sabarimala

“We have gathered here to support the constitutional outlook of gender equality with the slogan that we will stop any attempt to turn Kerala into a mad house.” The pledge taken by participants during the 1 January Women's Wall in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. R.S. Iyer/AP Photo
03 January, 2019

As Kerala slowly woke up to the first day of the new year on Tuesday, the streets of Kannur, in the northern part of the state, were unusually calm. The quiet was interrupted by a woman’s voice amplified by speakers atop jeeps that were driving through the light traffic: “Those who believe that women are not impure will not be able to stay away from participating in the Women’s Wall.” Speaking into a microphone while seated on the front seat of one of the jeeps, she continued, “Uplift the renaissance values. Join the Women’s Wall.”

The chain of women, called the Vanitha Mathil, or Women’s Wall, was organised on 1 January 2019, starting from Kerala’s northernmost district, Kasaragod, and ending at its southernmost district, Thiruvananthapuram. The formation was spread across a 620-kilometre route on the National Highway 66. It was conceptualised as a counter to conservatism, and was billed as an attempt to remind people of the social reformers who worked to eradicate gender and caste inequalities during the state’s renaissance period. Punnala Sreekumar, a Dalit leader, conceived of the idea for the wall in a meeting convened by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, on 2 December 2018. Sreekumar is the general secretary of the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha, or KPMS—an organisation of Pulayas, a scheduled-caste community in Kerala. At least 176 Hindu organisations attended the meeting, to discuss the Supreme Court’s 28 September 2018 verdict concerning women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple and the ensuing protests by those who viewed the verdict as an attack on a sacred tradition.

The mobilisation of women to participate in the wall was led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its affiliated organisations. The KPMS, the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam—an organisation working for Ezhavas, a backward class community—and Kudumbashree, government-sponsored self-help groups for women, all joined with the CPI (M) for the event. According to Prabhakaran, secretary of the CPI (M)’s branch in Kannur’s AKG Nagar village, the opposition in Kerala used the Sabarimala controversy to dissuade women from participating in the wall. “We told them that this has nothing to do with the Sabarimala issue,” he said. “This is to do with going against a system that sees women as second-class citizens.”

On 1 January, in Kandoth village of Payyanur taluk in Kannur district, women arrived in huge groups, in tempos, buses and cars, at 3 pm. They assembled at the section of the highway facing the Kandoth temple. Some began to form a line in accordance with the numbers allotted to them, which had been marked in white chalk on the road. Others sought refuge in the shade as they waited to be arranged into sections by the organisers conspicuous in their bright yellow badges. “21 women have come from our small area which has five families,” K Leela, an 80-year-old woman, told me, adding that she has been a CPI (M) member for ages.. When I asked why she participated in the wall, she said, “I believe in my party. It has been there with me through thick and thin. So I believe in this initiative too.” Leela, who visited Sabarimala when she was 75, supported the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all age groups to enter the temple.

At 4 pm, the women, and the girls accompanying them, stretched out their right hand and recited a pledge in Malayalam: “We have gathered here to support the constitutional outlook of gender equality with the slogan that we will stop any attempt to turn Kerala into a mad house.” The pledge referred to an episode in 1892 when the Hindu revivalist Vivekananda famously described Kerala as a mad house, based on the rampant casteist practices he witnessed during a visit to the state. The pledge implored people to recall the “sacrificial protests” which led the state to its now vaunted status as “god’s own country.” It underscored the reformist character of the state’s history, with the mention of the Melmundu Samaram, a revolt by women of Scheduled Castes in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, where the mulakkaram, or breast tax, was imposed on women of backward castes who covered their breasts.

The chain broke immediately after the pledge and the women dispersed to look for the vehicles that would take them back home. I approached one of the groups waiting for their car. They were emphatic in stating that they had not been compelled to join the wall. One of the women told me, “No one forced us. They came and invited us. We came here because we wanted to.” For some, the participation in the wall didn’t even translate to support for the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict. Another woman in the same group told me, “Gender equality is alright. But we have our beliefs, right? It has existed for ages. So we follow it accordingly. Entering the temple just to prove a point is wrong.” When asked about female worshippers who wish to visit the temple, she responded, “Those who want to go can go if they have that belief. What can we do about it?” The woman declined to be named, aware that her opinion differed from the stated views of the party which organised the wall.

In Kannur, home to the chief minister, area-wise committees of the CPI (M) conducted door-to-door campaigns to sign women up to join the wall. Women from rural areas, who otherwise stay away from public meetings, came forward to participate in this historic event, party members from AKG Nagar told me. Prabhakaran said, “Not more than ten women participate in our meetings and even that happens only within the village. But at least 50 women would have participated today. It is for the first time in our branch’s history that so many women have shown up.” Another participant, PP Lakshmi, a 70-year-old teacher and party member from AKG Nagar, said “There were reports that there would be violence here. But women ignored that and showed up in numbers larger than what we expected. Four to five people came from each family.”

According to Lakshmi, Kerala’s social structure “is in a much better space today” because people believed in the renaissance values propounded by reformers such as AK Gopalan, Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. The village is named after AK Gopalan, a freedom fighter and revered communist leader from Kannur, who led the Guruvayoor Satyagraha—a social reform movement for entry of Scheduled Castes to the Krishna temple in Thrissur district’s Guruvayoor. In the early 1930s, Gopalan had been brutally assaulted by some Ezhavas at the Kandoth temple, while travelling through to spread the message of the Guruvayoor Satyagraha—I had spoken to Prabhakaran metres away from the temple where the assault took place over seven decades ago.

Lakshmi said that children brought up in this generation don’t know about caste differences and atrocities suffered by the avarnas—communities like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who don’t fall within the ambit of the Hindu caste system. “You don’t know what I went through when I was growing up,” she said. “I have seen issues like dressing in accordance with one’s caste. We have outgrown that and are now in a place where all humans are equal. Now we are free to wear what we want. We can walk with dignity. The renaissance figures of those days sacrificed their lives to give us our rights.” She then showed me a photo of a drawing done by her: a depiction of Nangeli with blood spilling from her chest. Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who inspired various protests against the breast tax, is regarded as a historic figure in the state’s renaissance movement.

Lakshmi added, “As soon as I heard the news, I said that is the least that can be done to realise gender equality. They say that menstrual blood is impure. None of us would exist if menstruation did not.” She also emphasised the necessity of more activism by women. “It is not enough that gender equality is written into the constitution. All of us have to get out onto the streets. More women must come forward.” She told me that she tells her children there “will be a time when men and women share household chores. It will definitely happen. You will not suffer the way we have.”

A day after the Women’s Wall, on 2 January 2019, Bindu and Kanaka Durga, both women in their 40s, completed the trek to the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala, successfully becoming the first women since 1991 to break the status quo. Protesting the women’s entry, the Bharatiya Janata Party called for a state-wide strike on 3 January and the Congress has decided to observe Thursday as a “black day.” Violence has also been reported from several parts of the state where BJP workers and worshippers against women’s entry to the shrine have clashed with CPI (M) supporters.

An earlier version of this story referred to 1882 as the year Vivekananda commented on the caste practices of Kerala. The year was in fact 1892. The Caravan regrets the error.