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The 5.5 Million Women Protest in Kerala You Should Have Heard About

Vanitha Mathil - Womens Wall // Vincent Pulickal-EPS

By Becky George

On New Year’s Day,  our world experienced a beautiful display of women standing together in solidarity against gender inequity.  Reports state millions of people in Kerala, India stood together to create a literal 385 mile vanitha mathil or “women’s wall,” in contestation of  the Sabrimala Temple’s refusal to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on women from entering the temple. My family hails from Kerala and for as long as I can remember, I have known that I am a descendant of fiercely powerful women. Malayalee women have an undeniable strength in their being. Perhaps it was the courage of my aunt who left her home in Kerala to create a better life for her children while paving the way for her sisters and cousins. Or the determination of my mother who somehow convinced my father to leave his comfortable home to put down roots across the world in Texas. Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of my family to ensure I always had a connection back to their birthplace. Possibly, it was the bravery of my cousin that led her to leave an abusive marriage to create a better life for herself and her daughter.  These stories of the women in my life, among many others, are the reason I work towards building a better world for future generations. With the support of my family, I have spent my entire adulthood fighting for women’s rights and justice here in the United States. It is also because of my family that my story will always be connected to Kerala.

In September of 2018, India’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to confirm the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabrimala temple in Kerala was unconstitutional. “The golden-roofed temple, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth. Nestled atop a steep mountain amid a lush green tiger reserve, it’s the site of one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, with millions of Hindu devotees making the journey each year. Sabarimala had previously been off limits to women of menstrual age on religious grounds, with proponents of the ban arguing that since Ayappa is considered celibate, allowing “impure” women into the shrine would be disrespectful. Others have maintained that women cannot complete the 41 days of penances, a condition required to undertake the pilgrimage.”[1] Since the protest, three women have managed to access the temple, sparking outrage and violence from opponents of the Supreme Court ruling. Many are calling this time period the “Kerala Renaissance.”

Kerala, known for its beautiful lush green landscape, stunning backwaters, and delicious food—Anthony Bourdain once raved about it—is also known for fostering a long history of women’s rights’ movements, holding the highest literacy rate and lowest sex-selective abortion rate in India. Kerala was the first state in the country to open a school for transgender students, which provided a safe space for learning and decreased dropout rates. In short, Kerala’s history of women’s empowerment and gender equity in India was the foundational support to this event. The demonstration was a collaboration of 176 social and political organizations with the support of the Kerala government. One of the protest organizers aptly said, “Social change doesn’t happen in a day. It needs time. But with these small steps, we’ve made it easier for the next generation to embrace it.” [2] Perhaps this will be the catalyst for systemic change in India beyond patriarchal ideas on menstruation and a move towards higher levels of girls receiving education, lower rates of female infanticide, and true equality for women in the country.

Starting the new year with this story from my motherland gives me such hope for the year. I am inspired to continue to fight inequities based in the systems of oppression of the United States. Here at Mission Partners, we work towards creating more equitable communities and are inspired by this moment in India. As we map out the strategy for the year, we are determined to dismantle the systems in place that prevent liberation and equity.  We stand with the women of Kerala and hope you will as well.

[1] “Sabarimala temple history – Tag – Konitono.” https://www.konitono.com/tag/sabarimala-temple-history/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

[2] “Millions Of Women In India Fan Out For 385 Miles To Champion … – NPR.” 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/04/681988452/millions-of-women-in-india-join-hands-to-form-a-385-mile-wall-of-protest. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.