Now What? After the Betrayal of Women at Sabarimala

At the end of the five-day worship in the month of Tulam, it is clear that women have been betrayed. The right wing which promised not to violently stop women devotees did precisely that; their leader also hurled vicious insults are trans people. The dominant left which foamed Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru at the mouth ended up reinforcing the ‘good woman’/bad woman’ division, saying first that only the former would be allowed to proceed, made the term ‘activist’ into a code word for ‘bad woman’, and then finally threw up its hands saying that it was impossible to implement the court order. The government and the CPM had obviously not done enough to make sure that women would indeed enter the shrine. Clearly, they are reluctant to touch the savarna moral majority. 

Now that the pain from the blatant insult is beginning to wear off, I am wondering why, after the experience of fighting with Hadiya, we ever thought that the right or left would dare to challenge the moral majority. Let us remember that calling this a BJP-CPM confrontation, or seeing it as a struggle primarily in the field of organized, formal politics, is very superficial. Actually, the struggle is squarely in the field of the social — between the moral majority, at the centre of which are those who have coalesced since long around the savarna ideology at the heart of United Kerala since the 1960s, and the vocal and determined moral minority determined to challenge the stranglehold of the former. This is of course why the savarna moral minority is so ardently supported by the Catholic Church and most Muslim groups (with the exception, please note, of the much-maligned Popular Front!). We also know only too well that the moral majority serves elite community-caste interests and services global capitalism, given Kerala’s peculiar integration into it as a labour-sending society heavily dependent on migration.

I am also wondering why members of this moral majority are lamenting that Malayalis have become ‘culturally backward’ because of the Hindutvavaadi presence here. I wonder if they were deaf all this while to the carefully-researched critiques of the experience of modernisation of Malayali society advanced by feminist historians from the 1980s itself. Again and again, these scholars had sought to show that neither ‘tradition’ nor what came to be identified as modernity allowed gender equality; many times have they demonstrated that women’s voices were muffled, forgotten, or ignored; that the attempts to challenge masculinism in even progressive movements were never encouraged seriously. So by this reckoning, we were never ‘forward’ but it appears that the intelligentsia listens to us but continues to live in denial. If neither the left nor the right has any history of serious action on establishing gender equality on the cultural front, why I wonder were we so hopeful about the CPM? I understand that hope may not be rational, yet?

If the CPM were serious about establishing the equality of women in the Hindu faith, it would have acknowledged the fact that many of its women supporters are indeed believers and they should lead a social revolution. But they too don’t want a social revolution that would upset the balance between men and women anymore. Their support for trans people and non-binary sexualities comes from their (mis)perception that these are merely additive moves. They don’t want to risk unintended revolutionary consequences any more, and among women for sure. Definitely, the moral majority will produce no revolution and why we were under that illusion, I do not know.

I also wonder why we were dismayed that women did not arrive at Sabarimala in droves. I mean, why did we forget the reams and reams of social research we have produced which clearly show how powerless, how utterly cornered, the average ‘respectable’ woman living in savarna culture-dominated circles is. In Kerala, women get sterilized by around 27, after delivering twice. Once the husband’s genetic pool is reproduced the wife’s body can be shifted from procreative labour into domestic labour. Research shows that few women in the lower middle class and the poorer sections of Malayali society return to studies or skill acquisition after this age; therefore Kudumbashree becomes the default option. Few of these women have stable incomes; few of them are beyond the reach of family, caste, and community authorities. The research on depression and suicidal tendencies among Malayali women of the 15-50 age group is alarming indeed. So how did we expect them to come to Sabarimala? How come we expected them to even have their own understanding of bhakti, when bhakti is completely, totally, alien and inimical to the ways in which these women are integrated into the circuits of global capitalist production as producers of labour power to be sold in global markets?

I have been talking with some friends, young women believers who wanted to go, simply because of their intense curiosity about the effect of the pilgrimage … but I instantly realized why we are not seeing a surge of young women wanting to go. In fact, how dumb it is to expect it.  Clearly, not one of these women can risk it, I can see. First of all, they are all young — or middle-aged, and, importantly, with young children/teenagers who are used to their care all day and night. They are dependent on in-laws or parents for substitute care, and most of these senior people are wedded to the savarna complexes that even members of the middle castes hold on to. Secondly, they are mostly unemployed. They have no money to go. Thirdly, those above 40 are caring for senior members of the family. They do not want to upset them; some are worried that if they go, the local Karayogam or its equivalent will not cooperate in the death rituals of these seniors! And finally, for many, agreeing with the utterly violent, misogynistic vomit spewed by their relatives is really, really the only option to get noticed. And of course, the only ones who can go, therefore, are the ‘activists’ who have been thrown out of the category ‘women’ by both the Hindutvavaadis and the Kerala government!

Jocelyn Chua, in her book on suicide in Kerala, says that women ‘accumulate death’ – through random threats, fantasizing etc. and that this is a way they may present themselves as moral subjects and draw attention to themselves. I say, in the silence or the raucous braying of many women who support the nauseating Hindutva violence, we see them ‘accumulating self-erasure’, as yet another way of presenting themselves as moral subjects and gaining some attention, and offering care to other members etc. Both strategies arise from the sheer powerlessness of the ‘respectable woman’. I am so glad I am not one.

I welcome the invocation of history and ‘tradition from below’ in the debate on the ownership of the shrine — many important voices both from the Mala Araya tribes as well as elsewhere have pointed out that this was earlier a tribal shrine in which the tribal people had very clear control that was later usurped by the Pandalam kshtariya/samanta family and the brahmin tantris of the Tazhamon family. However, I am apprehensive about using this as a standard to assess practices of worship, and the Mala Araya spokesmen seem as determined to deny women entry as are the Hindutvavaadis. This is really a depressing scene, for any woman who knows of the history of the debate around ‘tradition’ in India in the nineteenth century and after. Once again, it appears, ‘women’ are turned into passive counters with which groups of men play the game of fixing ‘tradition’ and determining ‘modernity’ — this time, the Hindutva masculine and the Mala Araya masculine. I would, therefore, insist that while history may well be invoked in determining ownership, it should by no means be used as a foundation for authorising practices of worship. There is a reason why Narayana Guru refused to endorse celebratory histories of the Ezhava past, why he did not project the casteless society and its practices that he endorsed into the past.

And also interesting is the complexity of the left version of Kerala’s moral majority. It ranges from the Minister Kadakampally Surendran’s crude Hindutva-laced ire towards ‘activists’ to the sophisticated, neoliberal self, represented by the Facebook activist Resmi Nair. The first is of course familiar, but the second is to watch out for. In my reckoning it is more damaging than the anti-feminism of women on the right or left who blindly follow their leaders. Resmi Nair represents a highly mobile subject of neoliberalism who can appear to be everywhere at the same time. Her performance on Facebook calls for close analysis: she draws on the discourse of market-centred liberation centred upon consumable images of female bodies, and on radical left democratic politics simultaneously; she performs the subversion of social restrictions on women but also appears very proximate to the state and the moral majority, endorsing their idea of the ‘dissolute woman’. I have encountered such mobile subjects among women in my fieldwork of women engaging with public welfare in Kerala seeking to simultaneously inhabit state identities but resist confinement in them. But when such a strategy is adopted by privileged women, it seems to me that it reinforces the privilege and further strengthens the moral majority. Resmi Nair, for all her bikini photos, may not upset savarna power even a jot, even if she created some storms in teacups. There are many who would regard such mobility as aesthetic and the aesthetic as ultimately political, but I do not buy that anymore. In a context in which such mobility is valuable to the capitalist market, the long-term subversiveness of such strategies is indeed questionable.

Indeed, the task for feminist researchers now I think, is to focus our critical attention on the moral majority, from Kadakampally Surendran to Resmi Nair. And for own sanity, adopt an attitude of nirbaadhyata, since we do know well that we are in for a long haul.

3 thoughts on “Now What? After the Betrayal of Women at Sabarimala”

  1. I wish we could have a way of looking at ourselves that is not coloured by lenses- left or right or whatever! they insidiously (or not so insidiously) show up a reliance on western thought. There can be a way of looking our reality with honesty and compassion. I am not seeing this in any writing so far.


    1. Well I do not believe in such binaries as ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ thought. I do not think that relying on whatever is implied as ‘eastern thought’ brings honesty and compassion, and what I see is that the largest bunch of evil and crooked people in this country are usually evoking ‘eastern thought’ all the time. I am writing so that people like you may be more honest to women and more compassionate as well.


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