Agasthyarkoodam, one of the highest mountain-peaks in Kerala, is a trekkers’ paradise. It is home to rare medicinal herb species in the world. Named after the Vedic sage Agasthya, the mountain-range is close to state capital Thiruvananthapuram and has a tribal population living in its deep forests. However, it has another odd, infamous distinction. It remains possibly the only mountain range that women are not allowed to climb. Though trekking is conducted by the state government in restricted formats during the months of January-March, women are always kept out, often citing safety and security. This year too, despite vociferous opposition from women’s organisations, trekking is likely to be restricted to men alone. Indianexpress.com spoke to Divya Divakar, Vice President of WINGS (Women Integration and Growth through Sports), a school-teacher from Nilambur, who has been at the forefront of the agitation for women’s entry to Agasthyarkoodam.
Excerpts from the interview:
When did you start the agitation with the objective of climbing Agasthyarkoodam, the second-highest peak in Kerala? What was the catalyst?
We started our agitation in 2016 when we noticed gender discrimination in a notification of the state forest department for organised trekking to the peak of Agasthyarkoodam hill. We protested against it on social media and informed the television news channels as well. As a result, then forest minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan stated that the notification would be changed next year (2017) and women would be allowed for trekking.
But in 2017, the new LDF government repeated the same violation of fundamental right. Right to equality. In a forest department notification last year, it was written that ‘women and children under 14 are not permitted (for trekking). Women organisations then conducted protests in front of the secretariat and the forest office at Vazhuthacaud. Media also took the matter seriously and as a result, the forest minister called us for a meeting.
So what happened at the forest minister’s meeting?
The minister K Raju promised us that the notification would be changed next year and women would be allowed for trekking. But we were not ready to wait for one more year. We demanded that the government provide an opportunity to all the 51 women in our list. As the result of our struggle, the list was finally approved by forest minister K Raju and we got a date in February to start our journey to Agasthyakoodam. But before we could begin our journey, members of the Kani tribe (who live in the hills) obtained a stay order on our trek from the High Court based on a petition that they had submitted. We couldn’t go.
What is the stand of the tribals? Why are they against women climbing the hill?
We don’t know the attitude of the real tribals. Some people who claim themselves to be representatives of the tribals oppose the entry of women. They raise stupid beliefs to defend their arguments. According to them, Agasthya was a ‘brahmachari’ and women shouldn’t touch upon the Agasthyarkoodam peak as it will cause the destruction of the whole world. But as per the puranas, Lopamudra was the wife of Agasthya and he was not a ‘brahmachari’. The arguments of these people are baseless and stupid. The LDF government often says that one of their goals is to build a ‘sthree-paksha Keralam’ (women-friendly Kerala). But how can they create such a Kerala by violating the fundamental rights of women?
But what does the government achieve by barring women from trekking?
The government has no sense of gender justice. That is the main problem. Ministers and political parties are in a hurry to satisfy the patriarchal, male-dominated society. They are afraid to take a stand against the interests of such a society. It is stupid that the government is still talking about the safety and security of women, which is not the actual reason of the discrimination. Safety is needed for both men and women. No wild animal would select and attack only women. Men and women are the same for them.
Did you expect this from a Communist party-led government?
All governments are the same nowadays. They come to power only to protect their vested interests. Not for the people, not for the marginalised ones. No doubt, a Communist government should never do this. But unfortunately, Communism exists only in theory, not in practice.
How do you plan to take the movement forward now that the case in High Court is in limbo?
We will continue the legal fight till we win the war. We believe in the constitution of India which stands for gender equality. We are ready to approach even the Supreme Court for justice. We will continue our campaigns to make people aware of the issue.
How do you see the gender rights movement, are women as empowered as they should be in a state like Kerala?
Women are getting more and more empowered. Just analyse the incidents that have happened in 2017. After the brutal rape of a young actress in a moving car, women in the cinema field realised the need for an organisation for them. It led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). The bold and brave members of WCC showed the courage to challenge the male domination in the film industry.
Parvathy (an actor) openly criticised the misogyny in Malayalam movies. When she was attacked by the so called ‘Mammootty fans’, women in social media united to defend and support Parvathy. We ‘Feminichis’ on Facebook are now considered strong rivals of these fans’ groups. The flash mob protests conducted in various parts of the state prove that even Muslim girls are becoming more and more brave. Girls like Jazla Madasseri are raising their voice for women’s space in public places.
How should women in Kerala be mobilised for them to achieve their rights?
We are going forward. Women’s organisations like WINGS (Women Integration and Growth through Sports) are adding more and more members to the team. We were able to initiate the entry of women even in Pulikali (a folk art). We were able to break the 250-year history of the traditional art of Pulikali. We will go forward, break barriers and conquer public places. A world without discrimination is our ultimate goal.
GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read our reportage here