For Dhanya Sanal K, the first inkling of what it feels like to overcome lofty gender barriers came from her mother, Malukutty. In the early 1970s, when women travelling long distances to study mostly invited scorn in Kerala, Malukutty, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste (SC) community, did precisely that. Under the tutelage of a feminist father, Malukutty left behind her tiny village in Malappuram district to study nursing at a college in Ernakulam, 170 km away. Even after her marriage to a government officer, she was adamant on earning for herself.
“Because of my mother doing that at that time, I’m sitting here today,” says Dhanya. On January 15 this year, Dhanya’s name got etched into history books after she became the first woman to mount the peak of Agasthyarkoodam, a 1868 m tall mountain in Kerala.
Every year, the state forest department conducts treks to the mountain peak, but on paper, women are barred from climbing citing security and safety risks. Add to that, the opposition mounted by the local Kani tribe, which believes that the mountain is the abode of Agasthya, a celibate Vedic sage, and, therefore, should remain closed to women. In December last year, though, the unofficial ban was swept aside by the Kerala High Court, paving the way for women to register for the trek as well.
Dhanya, who’s currently serving as the spokesperson of the Defence Ministry in Thiruvananthapuram, likes to believe it was fate that made her the only woman in the first batch of 100 trekkers that day. “Maybe, the world destined that I should be there that day. Maybe, that’s why no other woman registered for the first day. That’s fate,” says the 38-year-old, who entered the civil services in 2012.
As a public officer, Dhanya understands the responsibility of respecting people’s sentiments and makes it clear that she would not have climbed the hill had there been massive protests, as seen in the case of Sabarimala, where a similar ban on women, when overturned by the Supreme Court, invited angry reactions.
The trek, however, was quite tough. The three-day trek involved hiking about 14 km on the first day to the base camp of Athirumala, resting for the night there, before climbing up to the peak of Agasthyarkoodam the next day. Time was of essence as the trekkers had to make sure to climb the peak by noon so that they could return to the base camp by dusk. Trained forest guides, including members of the Kani tribe who live deep in the forests of the mountain, were present along the way to make all arrangements for the team, she said. The expedition in many ways is considered a trekker’s paradise as it offers different variants of terrain — from deep deciduous jungles infested with wild animals to barren grasslands where the sun shows its might.
“The challenge was not the climbing part, but completing the trek without any injuries. I was very particular about that. The trek had already gotten a lot of publicity. If I had injured myself, the story would have been completely different,” she said. “They would have said the trek was prohibited to women for a reason. And then a woman entered and got injured. It would have resulted in another ban. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to make it difficult for women of future generations.”
After her successful trek, Dhanya has been receiving a lot of calls from clubs, schools and NGOs to speak publicly about her experience. She’s happy that her baby step could help a lot of women further their own dreams. It’s been a long journey for her, too. In 2002-03, when she was 22, she lost both her parents in the space of nine months. A nursing graduate without a job and a younger sister to look after, Dhanya knew she had to work hard.
“It was a tough time. Both families of my mother and father completely ditched us. They couldn’t afford to look after two young girls.If we were boys, maybe we would have been taken care of,” she says She began as a lecturer at a private college, before moving on to anchoring health programmes on television. The money helped fund her coaching classes for civil service and in her fourth attempt, she cracked the exam, securing the 771st rank. She got into the Indian Information Service (IIS) and was posted first in Delhi, before moving to Thiruvananthapuram. Here, too, the stark evidence of a broken glass ceiling is evident on a wooden board in her office that lists the names of all those who has occupied the defence spokesperson’s position. She’s the first woman defence PRO in Thiruvananthapuram and one of the only two women PROs in the country.
The other day, a close friend’s mother, called Dhanya. Inspired by her trek to Agasthyarkoodam, she wished to go on a similar trek. “A 62-year-old woman wants to go trekking with me. That’s women empowerment,” she says with a smile.
This article appeared in print with the headline: No Mountain High Enough