One of patriarchy’s fundamental sleight of hand — its black magic, if you will — is to make women, their needs and desires, their anger and joys, invisible — even to themselves, and definitely to a larger collective. That lack of visibility is replicated everywhere in India — in public spaces and politics. To be heard, one has to be seen.
Did you see them? The lakhs and lakhs of women (5 million is the government estimate). Standing together across 620 kilometres to build not so much a wall, as a joyous, inspiring wave of assertion. The Vanitha Mathil (Women’s Wall), organised by the Left government in Kerala, a state which is grappling with tangled questions of faith and gender equality, was a powerful, stirring image of our time.
Women have erupted in public consciousness before — when pushed to the edge of disempowerment. The image of elderly Manipuri women, carrying a banner that said “Indian army rape us”, to protest the murder and rape of a young Manipuri girl was a searing rebuke to the Indian state’s record of violence in the state. In December 2012, waves of grieving women and girls occupied the streets of Delhi to demand accountability for the gangrape and death of an innocent — but also for their own battles against the epidemic of sexual violence.
Images of playfulness are rarer to find. One is reminded of the story of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (recounted in Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi), who broke not just the oppressive salt laws but also Gandhi’s diktat that women not take part in the satyagraha that mobilised thousands (It was a “men’s fight” and it would be better if they mobilised themselves to ask for prohibition, he advised). Nevertheless, Chattopadhyay gleefully turned up at the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell the forbidden salt, whipped up an impromptu auction and was dubbed the “leading lawbreaker” by a Bombay newspaper.
The Wall, even if not rebellious in spirit, was a public image of women in happy, puckish camaraderie — young and old, in trendy hijabs and starched saris, some with children at their hips, or by their side, others who had stepped out of cricket practice or their workplaces.
There are those who have dismissed it as merely optics — as a staged political mobilisation, ignoring the umbrella of progressive organisations, including those who represent the “lower caste” Ezhavas and Pulayas, who also backed the move. The same nay-sayers insinuate that the women turned up to take an oath on gender equality only because they were told to — revealing a mindset in which even the incontrovertible evidence of millions of women can be dismissed as a conjuror’s trick.
That is not to say that all the women were there to support the entry of women (below the age of 50) to the Sabarimala shrine, even if that was the backdrop to it. Several news reports revealed a diverse range of opinions and attitudes to the idea of temple entry. My colleagues in this newspaper have reported on the anger of Hindu women, across castes, at this reform. Nevertheless, the reminder of Kerala’s history of reforms, of Nengeli, an Ezhava woman who cut off her breasts to protest against the “breast tax” imposed on lower caste women for covering their torsos, and reformers Narayan Guru and Ayankali swirled in the air during the Wall as much as the idea that women in Ayyappa’s abode amounted to a transgression.
Images are simplification of a complex reality, for sure. What I argue, here, can very well be critiqued as an outsider’s uncomplicated view. But some images are important because they slice through the clutter.
The Wall, snaking across 14 districts, places the idea of women’s equality solidly in the middle of the public square — through their bodies, their presence and visibility. However that idea is interpreted, the state’s politics cannot from hereon choose not to respond to it. The tantris, who “purified” the Sabarimala shrine after the entry of three women, including a Dalit, cannot wash it away with the water of their demeaning rituals. The debate about the “impurity” of menstruating women’s bodies and a larger worldwide questioning of patriarchy will inevitably arm future generations of women with the tools they need to question a long legacy of discrimination.
Sometimes, a fine-grained view from the ground or the calculations of realpolitik are not enough to gauge how a society changes. The Left government has been criticised for “choreographing” women’s entry to the shrine and violating its “essence” for political gains. This view seems to me to be blind to the fact that this season of unrest in Sabarimala is not only about claims of hoary tradition (by many accounts, this bar on women’s entry is only a few decades old) but a part of a larger churn in Indian life.
The challenge from #MeToo has roiled up extreme anxiety in our institutions about women. In several cases, women who have spoken up have been faced with punishment and ostracism. But if Sabarimala illustrates something, it is that the backlash, however strong, will be met continually with resistance. Some walls will inevitably fall, while others are built. We have to pick which side we are on.