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.