Divya had a hill to climb. She had been waiting to scale Agasthyakoodam, or Agasthya Hill, ever since Kerala’s forest minister had assured the public that 51 women would be permitted to trek the height of 6,129 feet, after 16 years of no woman being allowed into the forests covering the peak.

Spread over 350,036 hectares in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Agasthyakoodam is the second highest peak in Kerala and home to many rare medicinal plants. The Kani tribespeople, who live in the forest, believed that Agasthyakoodam was the abode of celibate sage Agasthya Muni and so, women should never be allowed on the peak. Fearing protests from the tribe, the Kerala forest department had acquiesced to their demand, barring women from the annual government-organised trekking expedition to the peak. The trek was short but challenging: in two days, 26 kilometres had to be covered through the dense forest.

The day after the forest minister’s announcement in mid-January, Divya had gone out and bought new trekking gear, a backpack and T-shirts for the journey.

Divya is the vice-president of WINGS or Women Integration ‘N’ Growth through Sports – a group which conducts sporting activities for women. While WINGS members routinely took part in outdoor trekking, Divya was determined to trek to Agasthyakoodam – it was said to be the most beautiful hill station in Kerala and had received worldwide attention in 2016, when Unesco included it in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Two days before she was set to travel from her hometown in Malappuram to Bonacaud, the entry point to the Agasthyakoodam reserve, by bus, forest department officials made another announcement. The first mixed group of men and women to enter the Agasthyakoodam would only be allowed entry up to a certain point – to Athirumala, which was still eight kilometres away from the peak – as the High Court had banned the entry of women into the biodiversity park.

“We felt cheated,” Divya said. “Why are they keeping women away from Agasthyakoodam even now? Is trekking a men-only activity in Kerala?”

Finally, more than 4,000 people participated in the trek between January 14 and February 25. At the summit, women were conspicuous in their absence.

Agasthya Hill.

Mundane and holy barriers

When women’s outfits first took issue with the ban, Thiruvanchur Radhakrishnan, who was forest minister in 2015, assured them that he would “look into the matter”.

“Nothing happened during his entire term,” said M Sulfath, one of the activists who had raised the matter with Kerala’s forest department. “The forest department still stipulated that children below 14 and adult women not be allowed to participate in the trek.”

After a fresh election in 2016, the new Forest Minister K Raju also assured the group that he would end discrimination against women in trekking.

“He made a U-turn soon after, when he told the media that women were barred from the trek because the forest department could not ensure their safety,” Sulfath added.

On January 13, women’s outfits launched another round of protests outside the Secretariat, the seat of the administration, in Thiruvananthapuram.

The minister called us for a meeting in which he promised that 50 women would be allowed to travel to to Agasthyakoodam on February 24, a day after the end of the current trekking season,” Sulfath said.

The trek was supposed to begin from Bonacaud, the entry point to the biosphere reserve. Trekkers would travel 18 kilometres in five hours to reach Athirumala on the first day. “They would travel just eight kilometres on the second day, but it would take three-and-a-half-hour through the difficult terrain,” YM Shaji Kumar, Wildlife Warden, Thiruvananthapuram, said. “We offer accommodation at Athirumala for two nights.”

At the heart of the issue, was the fact that the trek to Agasthyakoodam is considered a pilgrimage by some sections of Kerala’s population.

“The Kani tribespeople have all the right to perform their rituals and women are not going to disturb their practices,” Sulfath said.

Divya added, “The trek is an opportunity to learn about the rich flora and fauna at Agasthyakoodam. I don’t understand why the forest department is describing it as a pilgrimage.”

Bindu Meher, an HR Manager with an Informational Technology firm at Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, was a rare woman who had visited Agasthyakoodam, before the ban, 23 years ago.

I was just a young woman at that time but the memories still remain fresh in my mind,” said the 46-year-old, who had made the trek despite the fact that she had difficulty breathing. “I was part of a small group of bird watching enthusiasts. Being a person who loves nature, I enjoyed the climb very much.”

“The most important thing is that we should protect the Biosphere Reserve at any cost and use it more for research over tourism,” she added.