The Women’s Resistance We Aren’t Hearing About is Happening Now In Kerala.
On New Year’s Day, 5.5 million women formed a human chain across 385 miles spanning the state of Kerala, India. They demanded that the Hindu temple at Sabarimala should open its gates to women in accordance with a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court in September 2018. But this brave act of resistance , called #VanithaMatil, joined by women in Kerala of all faiths and backgrounds — and what has followed since, is receiving little attention in the United States.
I’ve been following these developments for many reasons. I was born and raised in Kerala. As a young girl, I grew up hearing the story of Ayyappa (the Hindu god to whom the Sabarimala temple is dedicated), and performing dances about his life and his devotees. At some point in their lives, my grandfather, uncles, and father have all made the trek up the hilly terrain that leads to the Sabarimala temple base. Yet, on our many family visits to Kerala over the years, we have not visited the Sabarimala temple because of its policy that women of menstruating age (between 10 and 50) are barred from entry.
Some Hindus believe that menstruation is unclean, and that women should be excluded from daily activities and live in isolation when they have their periods. And some Hindu temples bar women from entry while they are on their periods under the belief that their mere presence could “defile” the religious space. The Sabarimala temple took this patriarchal and discriminatory practice even further by barring entry by women of menstruating age altogether.
Women have long challenged Sabarimala’s edict, and recently, Indian women lawyers took up their cause. In September of 2018, the Indian Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling that required the Sabarimala temple to be accessible to women of all ages. Since then, women have been seeking entry to the temple but have continued to face obstruction, protests and harassment. The women’s human chain on New Year’s Day and subsequent acts of resistance continue the struggle over Sabarimala — and signify much more.
The women’s struggle in Kerala is not just about changing beliefs around menstruation; it’s about advancing gender equality, it’s about confronting Hindu patriarchy, it’s about bridging with the #MeToo movement and struggles for economic and reproductive justice, and it’s about inspiring a spirit of collective resistance.
Since the women’s human chain action on New Year’s Day, several women have sought and obtained entry into the temple. Bindu Ammini, one of the two women who entered the Sabarimala temple this past week, is clear that her cause is much bigger. “Gender justice is a big issue facing our society,” she told the BBC. However, the aftermath has been dire: the temple priest closed the temple after the first two women left in order to clean it (signifying that their presence had defiled the shrine); there has been violence on the streets in protest of the women’s resistance; and the state of Kerala has shut down schools and businesses, an action reportedly called for by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s Hindu nationalist political party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Clearly, women standing up for their bodies and their rights threatens and intimidates many people and institutions everywhere.
Here in the United States, we must stand in solidarity with the women’s resistance in Kerala. As women around the United States march for our rights later this month, let us remember and express our support of the women’s wall in Kerala. As we build the #MeToo movement in the United States, let us also uplift the brave stories of Indian women who are speaking up (read more about India’s #MeToo movement here and here, and watch a video from Scroll.in called From a List to a Movement here).
Those of us who are South Asian and have any connections to Hinduism can do even more. Using the Sabarimala struggle as a point of entry, we can initiate bold conversations with our families about Hindu practices and beliefs that demean, marginalize, or exclude women. We can call upon Hindu temples and community-based organizations who speak for Hindus in the United States to clarify their own positions on women’s bodies and rights, and to speak out in solidarity with the women in Kerala (an example is this message from Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus). And, we can stand with Dalit feminist activists to demand the dismantlement of the Hindu caste system. The perception that women’s bodies are unclean and impure during menstruation is tied to the concept of untouchability which has undergirded the oppression of Dalit communities for centuries.
At great risk to their bodies and rights, women in Kerala are struggling for gender justice. We must link arms with each other to support them, and stretch the human chain they began across the globe.