For Dhanya Sanal K, the first semblance of what it felt to overcome lofty gender barriers came from her mother, Malukutty. In the early 1970s, when women travelling long distances for studies in Kerala mostly invited scorn, 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 kms 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, an 1868-metre high 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 open for women to register for the trek as well.
Dhanya, who is currently serving as the spokesperson of the Defence Ministry in Thiruvananthapuram after entering civil service in 2012, likes to believe it was fate that made her the only woman in the first batch of 100 trekkers that day. Several other women have climbed the hill in the footsteps of the 38-year-old civil service officer, but the honour remains coincidentally reserved for her.
“Officially, I am the first woman. But I believe in fate. Unknowingly, my name has been recorded in history. 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,” smiles Dhanya, as she sits on a couch in her office in Thiruvananthapuram.
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 if there were massive protests, as seen in the case of Sabarimala, where a similar ban on women, when overturned by the Supreme Court, invited angry reactions.
“Through my own ways, I inquired if there were protests. But there weren’t any. In fact, some members of the Kani tribe participated in the trek as well. They served us food and were very helpful,” she said.
The trek, Dhanya admits, was quite tough and involved certain stretches where you have to bring your knees up all the way to the chest in order to climb. The three-day trek involved hiking about 14 kms on the first day to the base camp of Athirumala, resting for the night there, before climbing the next day up to the peak of Agasthyarkoodam. Time was of the essence as the trekkers have 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 in the deep forests of the mountain, were present all 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 them different variants of terrain from deep deciduous jungles infested with wild animals to barren grasslands where the sun shows it’s might.
“The challenge was not the climbing part, but completing the trek without any injuries. I was very particular about that. The trek was already clouded with 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, these days, 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 of walking along the same trails that she did, without being questioned on the basis of gender.
Unlike others, Dhanya says there’s no ‘family factor’ pulling her back. In 2002-03, when she was 22, she lost both of her parents in the space of nine months. A nursing graduate without a job and a younger sister to look after at that point of time, Dhanya knew she had to work hard.
“It was an extremely tough time. Both families of my mother and father completely ditched us. They had mediocre set-ups and they couldn’t afford to look after two young girls. Now, I understand why. If we were boys, maybe we would have been taken care of,” she said.
She began as a lecturer at a self-financing college, before moving on to anchoring health programmes on television. The money helped her fund her coaching classes for civil service and in her fourth attempt, she cracked the exam, securing 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. There are ten names of which you’d have to scroll way down to the end to spot a woman’s name. That’s Dhanya. She’s the first woman defence PRO in Thiruvananthapuram and one of the only two woman PROs in the country.
Rather than sit within the safe confines of a bureaucratic office and restrict to releasing press statements, Dhanya likes to wield the camera during rescue operations and defence drills. In fact, the photographs she clicked aboard Air Force choppers during the floods last year and on the Navy/Coast Guard ships during Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 were extensively used by the local media and helped to document the challenges faced by the military during rescue efforts.
“Other women may have to step out of the comfort zone to do these things. I’m already out of the zone. I’m not scared for my life,” said Dhanya, smiling.
The other day, a close friend’s mother, inspired by Dhanya’s trek to Agasthyarkoodam, wished to go on a similar trek.
“A 62-year-old woman wants to go trekking with me (smiles). That’s women empowerment. They also have desires and sentiments, that they feel shy to share with their own sons. All we have to do is prick a little and it will come flowing out.’