The Triumph of Streevaashi! Women break the wall of caste at Sabarimala

Out of the dark, seemingly never-ending night, a streak of light! Two women of menstruating ages, Bindu and Kanakdurga, finally entered Sabarimala, breaking the concerted walls built against them by brahmanical-Hindutva male authorities on the right and left.

The past months have been times of terrible despair for all , with women who attempted the pilgrimage being turned back again and again, hounded and harassed by both the police and the brahmanical hindu patriarchs of the left and the right alike. Rehana Fatima was arrested for hurting ‘religious sentiments’ for the flimsiest reasons, thrown in jail, denied bail, defamed mercilessly online by both the CPM cyber warriors and the BJY thugs, her home attacked, her relatives humiliated, and subjected to discrimination at her workplace. Bindu Thankam Kalyani, Libi, Manju, and others underwent similar horrors; women of the organization Manithi now face an NIA investigation apparently. Trupthi Desai could not even come out of the Kochi airport.

These two brave women were perhaps more adamant that their sisters.  They refused to be cowed down by the mob frenzy; they refused the counsel of the police to return and refused rumours of being ill and hospitalized. Meanwhile, they were also under massive pressure from the right and also from parts of the left, to not disturb the “peace” at Sabarimala.

Clearly, they planned well. The build-up to the CPM-sponsored ‘women’s wall’ was the perfect cover, since the completely irresponsible mass media and the right wing were busy trying to  either celebrate it or find holes in it. The women trekked at the dead of night, accompanied by police in mufti, and entered the temple to worship.

For feminists with a sense of history, this moment is hard to describe. For me, it is akin to the success of the resistance of the Channar women to Nair supremacy in south Travancore in the 19th century. Despite horrendous violence by the Nairs against the lower-caste Channar women wearing the upper-cloth, a symbol of caste eminence, women doggedly wore it again and again when they went out. They were attacked repeatedly, brutalized, their homes violated, relatives injured — but they persisted, for almost four long decades. They refused to be satisfied by the demands of respectability which would have been fulfilled by merely wearing a blouse — they were determined to win for themselves the symbol of caste eminence.

The despair was such that even their friends, the missionaries, found them too stubborn. “Stree-vaashi“, said Rev. Mead, and he called it the root of “unnecessary provocation”.  Stree-vaashi is a concept we need to acknowledge in Indian feminism, the contribution of subaltern women’s challenge to the brahmanical caste order. It could be translated as ‘she-intent’ in English — the kind of inner empowerment that leads women to perform critical acts, rather than just be part of critical mass, and to perform them doggedly, ignoring all sorts of patriarchal violence and advice, until the power gives way.

I proudly claim it to be the legacy of Kerala’s social awakening that predates the consolidation of modern patriarchy since the late 19th century under the leadership of the newly-educated elite that formed the core of the emergent modern caste-communities. It is stree-vaashi that these patriarchs sought to contain, re-channel, and remould in the so-called ‘Renaissance’, with only unintended consequences denting the patriarchal fortress.

Indeed, such determined resistance was always controlled by male authorities, and we saw that happen all over again in the planning of and run-up to the ‘Women’s Wall’ organized by the CPM. Indeed, one despaired —  the way the women who attempted the pilgrimage were punished precisely by a government that has used women’s empowerment (in however watered-down a way) to project itself as ‘left’ was appalling. It seemed that the brahmanical-Nair elements in CPM were determined this time, not to remould streevaashi but to actually stamp it out of existence even as tame compliance to spectacle-building plans laid out by CPM and community-patriarchs was being heavily rewarded. Those of us who were ardently on the Kerala Chief Minister’s side were shocked and saddened but perhaps not surprised, given that the will to control stree-vaashi is a historical inheritance of all kinds of patriarchy in Kerala.

It is important not to play down the bravery of these women; the Hindutva thugs are already enraged beyond belief and the lives of these women are probably in danger. The fact that the police did accompany them does not reduce their heroism; that they persisted despite all odds is what matters. They could have well-waited for the effects of the Woman’s Wall as  show of strength to have sunk in, but they chose to use the moment well. The police did help them and the government has not yet abandoned them (the great relief is that the arch-Hindu bigots in the CPM, Kadakampally Surendran and Padma Kumar probably did not get to know) — but the support of the government is NOT a favour, it is a right, and it should have been delivered long back. And it is quite undeniable that this could have been done earlier.

I do not take seriously any account that delivers all the credit for this to the police and the Kerala government. No way — the situation at Sabarimala was hugely exaggerated mainly to placate the savarna elements in the CPM and the traditionalists among the avarna caste-community leadership. The Kerala police could well have dealt strongly with the trouble-makers at the temple premises, and their leaders — who, thanks to the laxity of the police and the silent sanction of savarna CPM patriarchs, appeared there again and again to lead the thugs. The police could have well done exactly what they did to the women who were suspected to be planning a pilgrimage — they could have called in local RSS elements and especially the parents of the young men and teenagers despatched there by the Sangh and educated them on the gravity of the crime and its legal consequences. Instead, they chose to terrorize and defame the women. The government could have admitted its difficulties in less misogynist ways, but instead chose to admit it indirectly, and through assembling on the roads the simulated critical mass of women under the command and supervision of the patriarchs.  In sum, the police , the CPM, and the government, could have acted in less misogynistic ways.

What is truly interesting is that once again, it seems that critical mass-making has anti-patriarchal effects that are unintended! The CPM’s Woman Wall drew away the attention of the terribly irresponsible mass media and the right wing, providing a small window of time for the two women to attempt entry. Indeed, the social, cultural, and political mainstream in Kerala is so used to the idea that only critical mass matters, that they do not even anticipate critical acts!

We have of course to brace for the reaction. Right now, the ‘purity rituals’ undertaken by the brahmin priest at Sabarimala only confirm the observation of the Supreme Court, that the denial of entry to women of menstruating ages to the temple is a form of pollution — that is, a manifestation of untouchability — and so it must be removed.

We will deal with that later. For now, we dance in joy.

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