On Friday, Rahana Fathima, also known as Suryagayathri, and J Kavitha almost became the first women of menstruating age to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court last month allowed women of all ages to pray at the hill shrine. Escorted by an 80-strong police team in full riot gear, the women, fitted in helmets and flak jackets, began the 5-km trek from the banks of Pampa river at 7 am and reached near the temple two hours later. But they could not enter the sanctum sanctorum as a group of around 300 people, including children, blocked the sacred 18-stepped path to the shrine.
Two other women had tried to enter the temple on October 17, but they were forced back by protestors long before they could get anywhere near the sacred steps. While Madhavi, a pilgrim from Kakkinada, had to turn back just 10 minutes into the trek, Suhasini Raj, a journalist with The New York Times, returned after trekking some 30 minutes.
On September 28, the apex court ruled that the temple cannot discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into what is a public place of worship. The temple opened for the first time after the ruling on October 17 but amid an agitation organised by various Hindu groups, no woman has been able to enter it so far. Rahana, as she prefers to be called, and Kavitha, a journalist, came the closest to making history.
It was still a successful endeavour, Rahana, 32, insisted. “It was my long cherished dream to visit Sabarimala and I am happy to fulfil it,” she said.
She claimed to have observed the mandatory regimen of austerity for Sabarimala pilgrims. “I wore black attire and sacred garland, followed the pilgrim’s diet,” she said. “But fanatics prevented me from offering prayers. Their actions should be questioned.”
Rahana said she suspected her Muslim name was the reason the chief priest declared the closure of the temple on Friday. “The same priest had told the media two days ago he would not shut the temple if women entered,” she said. “As far as I know, people from all religions and castes can enter Sabarimala. The priest was perturbed by my Muslim name.”
Rahana is no stranger to controversy. In March, she kicked up a social media storm by posting pictures with watermelons covering her breasts in protest against a professor for saying women who did not cover their chests enough showed off their breasts like watermelons in a shop. In 2016, she participated in the Kiss of Love campaign against moral policing in Kerala. The same year, she took part in Pulikali, a folk dance which is a preserve of male artistes.
On Saturday, Rahan spoke with Scroll.in about her activism and her attempt to enter the Sabarimala temple. Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you go to Sabarimala?
I wanted to pray at the shrine. I have been dreaming to visit Sabarimala for a long time. I felt very happy when the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to offer prayers there. I have been waiting for an opportunity to visit the shrine since then. But when I read reports about women being blocked by protestors after the temple opened on October 17, I decided to go as early as possible. I had been observing the austerity vow, Vrutham, since October 1 in preparation for the trip.
I never meant to give the protestors a chance to create trouble. That is why I followed the religious rituals in whatever possible way before undertaking the trip.
How did you make arrangements for the trip?
I contacted Pathanamthitta’s collector PB Nooh and Inspector General of Police Manoj Abraham on October 17 and sought protection to enter Sabarimala. The collector said the government would provide security if I reached Pampa, the entry point to the shrine. On October 18, my partner and I bought puja material for Irumudikkettu (the traditional prayer kit offered to the presiding deity Ayyappa). We set out from Kochi on October 18.
Did you face any problems reaching Pampa?
We reached Pampa police station at 12.30 am on Friday. We went by car to Nialakkal and then by bus to Pampa. There, police officials told us to wait as they had to inform their superiors. At 6 am, the police asked us to reach the entry point. The trek started at 7 am. People tried to stop us on our way to Nilakkal, but we sped past them.
But the protestors managed to foil your attempt to enter the temple?
We were shocked to see a “children shield” on our way to the shrine. More than 100 children were lying on the road. It was cruelty to the children. The police said they would help us to reach the shrine but we couldn’t walk over the innocent children.
The chief priest played a role in this by fanning communal flames. He announced he would close the temple for purification rituals if we entered the temple’s precincts. I think he was perturbed by my Muslim name. The same priest had told the media a few days ago he would not close the temple if women entered. So, what was the reason for changing his stand in just two days? It was obviously because of my Muslim name. As far as I know, people from all religions and castes can pray at Sabarimala. People with vested interests are trying to change the uniqueness of the temple. I am going to file a police complaint against the priest.
You still think your endeavour was successful?
Of course, it was. I fulfilled my wish to visit Sabarimala. I took the trek seriously. I wore black attire and bead garlands and carried Irumudikkettu on my head up the hill. But I could not climb the 18 sacred steps, offer prayers in the sanctum sanctorum and receive prasad from the priest. But I don’t have regrets not receiving prasad from a misogynist priest.
Were you satisfied with the police protection?
The police took us up with extreme care. They were on high alert throughout the trek.
Do you regret your decision to go to Sabarimala?
No, I don’t have any regrets. I believe I took the right decision.
Did you expect the protests?
Yes. But I was confident of support from the police and the civil administration, and they did not let us down. We were aware of the presence of goons en route who had threatened Madhavi and Suhasini Raj. My biggest worry was about the return trip. I thought someone would attack us.
But I came back home late on Friday, only to see my house in Kochi vandalised by Hindutva activists. The arduous barefoot trek had given me blisters on my feet and my partner Manoj Sreedhar, who accompanied me to Sabarimala, and I had to toil late into the night to put things in order.
Have your thought about the political implications of your trip?
I never thought the protestors would give it a communal colour because of my Muslim name. I realised things were going out of control when we were about to reach the sacred steps and I heard someone shouting my house had been ransacked.
Some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have alleged that you carried sanitary pads in Irumudikkettu?
I handed over my Irumudikkettu to the police as I could not offer it to Lord Ayyappa. They checked it before accepting it. We spent over Rs 2000 to fill the bags.
How do you react to the allegation that your attempt to enter the temple was a drama enacted at the behest of the BJP’s state general secretary K Surendran?
I don’t know Surendran personally. Two years ago, Surendran wrote a Facebook post supporting women’s entry into Sabarimala. (He deleted the post after the protests started this month). Someone tagged me on his post. Since it was a post supporting women’s entry I accepted it. I don’t have any connection with the said BJP leader. It is a cooked up story to tarnish my reputation.
How did you come to be also called Suryagayatri?
My official name is AS Fathima. I prefer to be known as Rahana, a name I adopted many years ago. I used to discuss Hinduism with a close friend, a devout Hindu. I read a lot of books on Hinudism, and decided to adopt the name Suryagayathri.
When do you think women can finally enter Sabarimala’s sanctum sanctorum?
I think it will happen soon. I am waiting for that day.