Recently I had an out-of-my-feminist-body experience when someone showed me an article by (as usual) a half-educated Sangh 'techie' on how the Kerala government's determination to implement the Supreme Court's order allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple was actually the result of an 'elite feminist conspiracy'.
As I blithely floated above, looking at my poor body, I was actually exulting. Really, wasn't it something that finally my life's mission—turning feminism into a force to reckon with in this wretched hypocritical Malayali society that flaunts its political progressiveness and hides its social conservatism—seems to be done? And despite this body that is clearly so perishable, tired from fighting all day and all night, from writing and speaking almost non-stop, vulnerable to start with, and now even more so because the mainstream left and the right have both found a common enemy in 'activist feminists'?
I was, of course, not in agreement with the claim that the government of Kerala was determined to implement the Supreme Court order. During the brief intervals in which the Sabarimala temple had opened after the judgement, some women who had taken the Supreme Court and the chief minister's assurances seriously had sought to enter the temple as pilgrims. They knew that their way would be barred by the Hindutva hordes of Kerala, male and female. After all, they must have faced some of this opposition in their neighbourhoods and workplaces as well.
But what they did not anticipate, perhaps, was the range of dirty tricks that would be played on them by both the enemies of the Supreme Court's verdict and the Kerala government authorities who were (and still are) responsible for implementing it. For example, the hoodlums who had gathered in the vicinity of the temple had also brought children with them and, like cowards always do, used them as shields. The women who trekked to the temple with police protection decided not to proceed further when they came to know of this. As any decent person would, and in sharp contrast to the self-proclaimed protectors of Hindu dharma.
Wasn't it something that finally my life's mission—turning feminism into a force to reckon with in this wretched hypocritical Malayali society—seems to be done?
The police, however, chose a tactic which involved, as a Malayalam expression goes, throwing the stick a gap ahead to hit a running dog. The state minister for Cooperation, Tourism, Devaswom affairs—and, it seems, misogyny as well—Mr Kadakampally Surendran of the CPM, went on a tirade against 'activist feminists' trying to defile the shrine.
The police got his cue and set about checking the antecedents of every Malayali woman who tried to enter. One woman was found unsatisfactory because she had posted pictures of herself on Facebook that shocked the grey-haired Malayali middle-class. Another was found to have participated in two political agitations for land redistribution to the Dalit poor and hence inauthentic in her devotion to Ayyappa. The intensity of faith was found lacking in a third. A fourth was found to have made a joint decision about the pilgrimage with her husband (Ah! Now that is a criterion for disqualification!).
I kid you not. While Hindutva thugs kept women away by threatening rape, decapitation and the worst kinds of injuries, all the while showering the worst-possible obscenities at a shrine they deem holy and in front of young children, the police proceeded in a humdrum governmental way to prevent contamination by weeding out 'activist feminists' by combing through the data on them. And later, by largely looking away when these women were hounded and harassed on a daily basis in their homes and workplaces after they returned.
I do not exaggerate, you can check. These are matters widely reported by the press here. Of course, it is another matter that the Sabarimala summit is being guarded by some of the most notorious criminals in Kerala. Valsan Thillenkeri of the RSS for example. A veteran of the RSS-CPM violence at Kannur and facing trial for murder and other cases, the man reportedly admires Narendra Modi because he believes that Modi murdered 4,000 people single-handedly. Under his leadership, a mob attacked a 52-year-old woman devotee (i.e. old enough to enter the shrine, because the ban was applicable to only women of the 10-50 age group) because she did not look old enough, attacking her and screaming "Kill her" even as she, her son (who was also injured) and her infant grandchild were being rescued by the police.
So why has the police been so successful in smelling out an 'activist feminist' in nearly every Malayali woman who wanted to visit Sabarimala?
That relates to certain sociological features of Malayali society. A very large share of the women in the 10-50 age group in the state are married and have young children. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, only 21% of the women in the age group 15-49 in Kerala were employed in the year preceding the survey, compared with 75% men in the same age group. On making decisions about one's own healthcare, major household purchases and visits to family and relatives, the large majority of women surveyed said that the decisions are made 'jointly'; only 8-16% of women made these decisions on their own. Even when a large share of the surveyed population of women claimed that they had some money that they decide how to use, only 12% of the women surveyed said that they could freely visit the market, healthcare facility and places outside their village/community. Indeed, even among employed women, only 21% enjoy that freedom. As for a home of their own, a lesser number of women own their homes and the numbers rise with age—this means that younger women, below 50, are more insecure. In other words, women in Kerala are heavily dependent on patriarchal authorities despite their education and other social development achievements.
If you consider the different women who decided to go to Sabarimala, you would find a sharp contrast. Most of them live in families that are considerably democratised compared with the picture that may emerge from the above figures. They have full mobility, political views, experience of participating in public politics and independent incomes. For these reasons, they were able to make that decision—and therefore, irrespective of whether they hold feminist beliefs or not, they are, for the police and the Sangh goons, feminists-by-default!
To check this hypothesis, I made a quick visit to some friends and acquaintances, all believers who had initially been excited by the prospect of praying at a forest shrine. An old schoolmate ambushed me at her gate, begging me not to say a word about Sabarimala. Her husband's aged parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, who had nary a care for Indian culture when they were in India but were foaming at the mouth at the very mention of it now that they had found firm ground in Australia and Boston—all of them were aligned against the wicked women who sought to despoil Sabarimala and I am a known supporter of the breed.
Women in Kerala are heavily dependent on patriarchal authorities despite their education and other social development achievements.
We spent a tense 20 minutes in her drawing room with relatives scouting us, some slowly ambling across the room to the balcony and back into the inner quarters, almost like thunderclouds in their menacing slowness. Her mother-in-law was terribly ill, she said, she could pass away any moment. A "wrong" word about Sabarimala, and the Nair Service Society would boycott her last rites. An old acquaintance told me that she simply had no money and her husband wouldn't relent for fear of displeasing relatives and neighbours. Her daughter, who had been enthusiastic to start with, was now reconsidering visiting Sabarimala because she was sure that her young children would be abused at their tuition and dance classes.
But the most interesting instance was of a distant cousin—earlier, she had been convinced that women are as worthy as men in matters of devotion and should be granted equal rights. Now, she was chanting the mantra of ready-to-wait-till-50. I could see that she had also gained something from this. She had been a virtual nobody in her family until then, but now they were taking notice of her, even allowing her to go to Sanghi meetings to feed on utterly violent misogyny.
Jocelyn Chua, in her book on suicides in Kerala, says that women 'accumulate death'—through random threats, fantasising, and other ways, and that this is a way they may present themselves as moral subjects and draw attention to themselves. I say that in the silence or the raucous assent many women offer Hindutva violence, we see them 'accumulating self-erasure', as yet another way of presenting themselves as moral subjects and gaining some attention. Both strategies arise from the sheer powerlessness of the 'respectable woman' in Malayali society.
I am so glad I am not one. And by identifying women less bound by patriarchal power as 'feminists', the police and the Minister of Misogyny have finally got it right.
J Devika is a feminist historian and social science researcher based in Kerala.