On New Year’s Day, an estimated 30 lakh women stood shoulder to shoulder along national highways to form a “women’s wall” that ran the length of Kerala. Vanitha Mathil, which stretched for nearly 620 km from Kasaragod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, symbolised the participants’ resolve to uphold the values of Kerala’s renaissance, ensure gender justice, and counter “moves to turn the state into a lunatic asylum”.

The event, billed the largest congregation ever of women in Kerala, was organised by the state government with the support of several political, religious and social groups. It was essentially a counterdemonstration against the Sangh Parivar’s agitation preventing women of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala shrine in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Though a “pledge” taken by the participants did not mention the Sabarimala row, it was clearly the animating theme.

“Women must be allowed to pray in all temples. Nobody can deny them their rights anymore,” said Soudamini, 56, a farm labourer from Cherai village who stood in the wall in Ernakulam. “This women’s wall is a warning to all regressive forces in Kerala.”

Sajitha MV, 32, a teacher from Karivellur in Kannur said she was out to register her protest against those who deny women their rights. “The wall gives me a platform to express my support for gender justice,” she added. “It is a historic programme and I am happy to be a part of it.”

The wall comprised women from all walks of life – social activists, filmstars, theatre personalities, writers, sportspersons, nuns, farmers – and was bookended by Health Minister KK Shylaja in Kasaragod and the senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat in Thiruvananthapuram. Men expressed solidarity by forming a parallel wall on the other side of the highway. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, along with top leaders of the ruling Left Democratic Front and of other groups backing the event addressed public meetings at different places.

Subhashini Ali, a senior leader of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), addresses a public meeting in Kochi. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

In Kochi, women braved oppressive heat and humidity to line up for the wall, formed at around 4 pm. At some places, there were so many participants they had to stand in two or three rows.

The participants took a pledge “to protect the values of social reformation movement, to support the idea of gender equality as conceived by the Constitution and to oppose any efforts to turn Kerala into “a lunatic asylum”.

“Kerala was once called a lunatic asylum,” it read. “Today it’s known as God’s own country thanks to the social reformation movements. Orthodoxy had always stood against our surge towards a progressive society. But we had thwarted their plans.”

The pledge went on to hail the Vijayan government for organising the wall. “The lives of men and women become creative with mutual respect and collaboration,” it stated. “Equality for women is part of the social reformation. That is why people who loved this place supported this idea. We hail the government for supporting this movement.”

Participants in the women's wall take the pledge in Kozhikode. Picture courtesy Kerala government

Big boost to the Left Front

The massive turnout of women will boost the ruling Left Democratic Front as it battles the Sangh Parivar and the Congress over the matter of women’s entry to Sabarimala.

The Supreme Court ruled in September last year that the Sabarimala temple cannot discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into the sanctum sanctorum. “The country has not accepted women as partners in seeking divinity,” the court observed. “Subversion of women on biological factors cannot be given legitimacy. Certain dogmas have resulted in incongruity between doctrine and practice.”

The ruling is yet to be implemented, however. The Sangh Parivar and Hindu groups aligned with it claim that the presence of menstruating-age women would defile the temple and have launched an often violent agitation to prevent them from entering. At least 17 women have tried to enter the temple so far, but none has succeeded. The Hindutva conglomerate draws its support in Kerala mainly from the upper caste Nair community.

On Tuesday, suspected Sangh Parivar workers tried to break up the women’s wall at Chettukundu, around 20 km south of Kasargod, leading to clashes with supporters of the Left Front. The police had to fire 40 teargas grenades and resort to lathicharge to disperse the agitators, Kasargod police chief Abdul Kareem said. He added that three police officers were injured when the agitation threw stones at them.

A man and a women were similarly injured in front of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s office in Vidyanagar, Kasargod. Suspected Sangh workers also assaulted reporters of Manorama News and 24 TV channels in the same district, the police said.

Women line up in the wall in Kochi. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Plan to weaken democratic forces’

The idea of forming a women’s wall came from a meeting of the representatives of 178 Hindu organisations, including the backward Hindu Ezhava community and a faction of the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha, a Dalit group, in December. The meeting was called by the chief minister to chalk out plans to counter the Sangh’s agitation against the Sabarimala verdict.

The proposal promptly came in for criticism. The Congress called it a “communal wall” that would polarise the Malayali society. Ramesh Chennithala, leader of the Opposition, alleged that it was a part of Vijayan’s “game plan to weaken democratic forces and strengthen the hands of the Sangh Parivar”. “Why did the chief minister invite only Hindu religious leaders for the meeting?” he demanded. “Why did he ignore Muslim and Christian leaders? Were they not part of Kerala’s renaissance? He is resorting to caste-based identity politics. The central leadership of his party should clarify its position on the issue.”

The Congress as well as the Sangh Parivar have since organised their own women’s programmes in protest. The United Democratic Front, led by the Congress, held Vanitha Sangamam, or women’s gatherings, in all 14 districts and in front of the secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram on December 29.

Three days earlier, thousands of women and men mobilised by the Sangh had lit Ayyappa Jyothi, or Ayyappa’s lamps, vowing to save “Sabarimala’s traditions and rituals.” Ayyappa is Sabarimala’s presiding deity.

The chief minister rejected these allegations on Tuesday. “This campaign highlighted issues of gender equality and the values of the reformation movement,” he said. “The criticism of the women’s wall is due to ignorance about the history of the social reformation movement.”