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Women’s Wall – a renaissance for gender equality?
Kerala

Women’s Wall – a renaissance for gender equality?

Rejimon Kuttappan

While Communist leaders state that the Women’s Wall will fortify gender equality, the Indian National Congress-led opposition in the State slams it as a Communal Wall. A few women activists have opted to stay out as they consider the “wall” hollow symbolism.

By Rejimon K

Will the Women’s Wall being ‘erected’ today by pro-Left progressive groups in Kerala fortify gender equality and protect the social reform values that the state has stood for, so far?

Despite political and social groups in the State lacking consensus on this, preparations are on full swing to organise what will be a human chain of women that will begin from the streets of Kasargode in the northern district, to Thiruvananthapuram in the southern district in Kerala.

While the Communist leaders say that the Women’s Wall is need of the hour – as they state that Rightist forces have become a threat to gender equality and social reform values – the Indian National Congress-led opposition in the State has slammed it as a Communal Wall. A few women’s groups have also opted to stay out stating that the “wall” is but a hollow symbolism.

Reactions To The SC Verdict And The “Wall”

The Women’s Wall was announced by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on December 1, 2018, following a meeting with some 150 organisations. This follows the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP)-led Rightist forces’ opposition to women’s entry into the Sabarimala Shrine, despite the Supreme Court verdict in September stating that women are not lesser or inferior to man, and that the patriarchy of religion cannot be permitted to triumph over faith.

The 75-page verdict read that biological or physiological reasons cannot be accepted in freedom for faith.

“Religion is basically way of life; however, certain practices create incongruities,” the verdict added.

But Rightist groups opposed the verdict claiming that Ayyappa, the deity in Sabarimala is celibate and therefore, the ban on women entering the shrine should be in place to protect its celibacy.

This had created differences among political parties, social and religious groups in the State.

Women devotees aged between 10 and 50, women activists and even journalists who tried to enter Sabarimala to report on the issue, were stopped by Rightist groups.

The State government was forced to deploy additional police and even the Rapid Action Force, to maintain law and order in and around Sabarimala.

There were five Hartals observed by the Rightist groups in the State, since the women entry verdict was issued. A relay Satyagraha is being held by the BJP in front of the State Secretariat in the capital city and it continues. On December 26, 2018, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, backed by the BJP, along with volunteers from other Hindu organisations and Ayyappa devotees, organised the Ayyappa Jyothi, a human chain of people holding lamps, that stretched across districts, to counter the Women’s Wall.

Renaissance and Lunatic Asylum

After meeting like-minded groups to organise the Women’s Wall, the Kerala CM said that social renaissance values and women rights have been threatened by Rightist groups.

The Kerala CM said that the message from the Women’s Wall will be that Rightist groups cannot be allowed to turn Kerala a Lunatic Asylum again.

The term Lunatic Asylum alludes to Swami Vivekananda calling Kerala thus, in the early 19th century, when the caste system and untouchability prevailed in the State.

It was thanks to the efforts of social reformers like Sree Narayana Guru, K. Kelappan, V. T. Bhattathirippad and many others, which led to the eradication of untouchability. Social reformers like Chattampi Swamikal, Ayyankali and others, led protests like Channar Lahala, Vaikom Satyagraham and the Guruvayur Satyagraham, which eventually resulted in reforms like Temple Entry Proclamation and others. This movement also paved way for sweeping social reformation, popularly thought of as a renaissance in Kerala.

The reforms also created religious harmony and set the stage for guaranteeing rights for women in the State.

Need Of The Hour

Talking to The Lede, Brinda Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member and patron of the All India Democratic Women Association, said that the Women’s Wall is the need of the hour.

“Following the Sabarimala verdict, Rightist groups in Kerala led by the RSS and Sangh Parivar are trying to dilute the social reform values gained through struggles led by reformist leaders in the state. A movement and campaign like Women’s Wall is the need of the hour,” Brinda said.

“Social reformists like Sree Narayana Guru and Sahodaran Ayyappan led several protests, which eventually brought respect to women and social reforms in Kerala. However, now, we feel that, that those values are under attack from Rightist forces who are following Manuvad theories. So, we need to act now,” she added.

When asked why only Hindu groups are being invited to “build” the “wall”, she said that anyone can join the movement, adding that there will be follow-up campaigns, mainly door-to-door ones, to spread the importance of upholding gender equality and protecting the social reforms that the state has achieved.

Communal Wall?

When the Women’s Wall was announced, it was criticised by the Congress-led opposition who called it a “Communal Wall” as there were only Hindu groups in the organising panel.

Ramesh Chennithala of the INC, who is also the State Opposition leader, called the Women’s Wall a Communal Wall, adding that the government is dividing people in Kerala on the basis of religion.

“This is not Renaissance. The credit of Renaissance belongs to the Indian National Congress. Communists in the State are trying to seize it from us,” he stated.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), a major Christian organisation, has given a statement that the Women’s Wall will only create “unhealthy factions” in society.

The KCBC said that at a time when the State should focus on rehabilitating flood-hit areas, any divisive move with a political motive should be avoided.

“History reveals that it will be improper for any caste or institution to claim the ownership of Kerala’s Renaissance. Several factors led to Renaissance. Hindu, Christian, Islamic religious philosophies and movements played a key role creating those factors,” the statement read.

Similarly, the Nair Service Society (NSS) has also chosen to stay away from the Women’s Wall.

Criticising the Women’s Wall and the government’s move to revive renaissance, the NSS said in a statement that the Women’s Wall will divide society.

“The Sabarimala issue is connected to faith. It has nothing to do with renaissance. The government is trying to divide the society into upper caste and lower caste people,” the statement added.

However, the NSS’s opposition to the Women’s Wall has led to a unification of Dalit groups in support of the Women’s Wall.

Support from Dalits

Sunny M. Kapikkad, a Dalit thinker, said that they will support the Women’s Wall, and that it has to be a success.

“Even though, the original goal of the Women’s Wall has been lost, we cannot afford to have it fail. If it does, it will lead to a strengthening of the upper caste groups. That is a danger, especially, when upper caste groups are finding safe havens in Sangh blocks,” Sunny said.

He added, “Even though the Women’s Wall was announced to ensure gender equality and protect social reform values in connection with the Sabarimala women entry, now, Left leaders seem to be confused.” Sunny alleged that Left leaders are not linking the Women’s Wall with Sabarimala issue, choosing to make it an effort at social renaissance instead.

“Whatever it may be, we will join the “wall”. We understand its political value. We understand the need,” Sunny said.

The media, quoting CPI (M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, reported that around 3 million women from all walks of life will participate in the Women’s Wall and script a Guinness Record.

No Long Term Impact

Meanwhile, NM Pearson, a political observer in the State, emphasises that while the Women’s Wall will be a huge success and will create a Guinness record, it will not have a long-term impact on society.

“This is political strategy. However, I doubt whether it will have an impact and result beyond this one day,” Pearson said, adding that to see result and impact, the organisers should have planned a long term initiative, with sensitisation and other programmes.

“However, these controversies have created an interest among people to read and understand what renaissance is. On that front, we can say that there has been success,” Pearson said.

Women Against the Wall

Meanwhile, a group of women activists have expressed their dissent against the wall.

Dr. P. Geeta, a feminist writer and activist in Kerala, said that even the decision to create the Women’s Wall has been patriarchal.

“The meeting held to organise the wall didn’t have even one woman member, either from the caste groups or the political parties convened there,” Geeta said.

Geeta, who represents some 40 leading women activists in the State, said that the government is trying to revive the old renaissance.

“We are not devaluing the old renaissance. But when we take a step now, we should realise that times have changed. Bringing a change in dress code and all that is not going to help now. What we believe is that places of worship are public places where anyone regardless of his or her gender, caste, creed, religion can go, pray and find solace,” Geeta said.

Geeta also added that while women activists who tried to enter Sabarimala were pushed back and chased away by Rightist groups, the government, citing security reasons, had persuaded women activists to step back.

“Additionally, they are now trying to harass women activists legally, by filing cases on different charges. When the government itself is doing this, what is the difference between them and the those who oppose women’s entry?” Geeta asked.