The fight for gender justice in Kerala continues in 2018. Even as the Supreme Court deliberates on the entry of women of menstrual age into the Sabarimala temple, there is another fight brewing in the state. Women activists are battling the LDF government for their right to scale the peak of Agasthyarkoodam, a mountain range near Thiruvananthapuram, trekking to which has been prohibited to women and children under the age of 14 on account of safety concerns and the opposition by the local tribal community.
A recent notification by the state’s forest department banned the entry of women for the 2018 trekking season to the Agasthyarkoodam peak like every other year since the mid-90s. However, it did not state a reason. This year, the trekking season lasts from January 14 to February 13 with just around 100 people allowed entry passes per day. Activists say the notification goes against the Forest Minister K Raju’s promise at a meeting last year to allow women to be a part of the trekking teams.
“He had promised us that there would be no gender discrimination this year. They have cheated the women of Kerala,” said K Sulfath, a member of the women’s organisation called Pennoruma, who was a part of the meeting last year.
Since the early 90s, owing to ecological concerns, the state government organises a restricted trekking season for those wishing to climb up to the peak of the Agasthya mountain, named after the Hindu sage of the same name, in the Western Ghats. The mountain range, known to contain a plethora of rare medicinal herbs and plants, also has an idol of the sage at the peak, worshipped by the local Kani tribal community. Trekking has always been restricted to men, with safety and security of women in the dense forests cited as official reason. But, activists say the government’s opposition is learnt to largely stem from the reluctance of the tribal community on account of their traditions and beliefs.
“They (tribal community) say that Agasthya was a brahmachari. And that, if women climb the hill, it’s akin to standing on his head. They said floods will come if women are allowed entry,” added Sulfath, who is one of the petitioners who filed a writ petition in the High Court.
“There should be no issue of religion or tradition in this. The trekking is organised by the forest department and the forest is for everyone to see. We want the same rights as men,” she said. However, a forest official, even as he acknowledged the concerns of the tribal community, pointed out safety of women is the only factor.
“This is a highly risky zone. In August last year, as part of a special tourism package, a bison mauled a guard to death when they were trekking. Another guard was injured. We had to immediately stop it. So, we are only concerned about safety of women,” said YM Shajikumar, Thiruvananthapuram wildlife warden.
Forest Minister K Raju was unavailable for comment. Though online booking for the current trekking season begins on Friday (Jan 5), women’s activists are hoping that the High Court, in a hearing scheduled on Wednesday, will pronounce an interim ruling in their favour.
“If there is a threat from wild animals, they should shut down trekking altogether. And all these years, if they were not able to arrange security facilities for women, it’s their fault. Anyway, we will continue with our legal fight. There has to be gender justice in this country,” said Divya, vice-president of a women’s NGO, who has been at the forefront of the agitation.