Ever since the Supreme Court (SC) delivered its verdict nullifying the age old tradition of women between the age of 10 and 50 not entering Sabarimala temple, the state of Kerala witnessed a spate of protests. Unfortunately, women were seen in the forefront of the agitation against the verdict of the SC. In fact, women are being used by the vested interests to further their nests. It seems that the educated women of Kerala are not aware of the hidden agenda of the crooked political and religious leaders for disempowering women. That is why they are protesting against a judgment that has reaffirmed the rights of women, guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
As a consultant and a trainer in social work I have travelled to different parts of India and interacted with women’s groups both in rural and urban areas. I have given training to the leaders of Self Help Groups of women. What I have learned from the interactions with the ordinary women is that many illiterate women are more empowered than the so called educated women of Kerala. When I travel in Kerala by bus I often notice that after 6.00 p.m. it is very difficult to see women travelling alone in a bus. But I could see in other states women travelling alone in the evening time and even in night.
I remember many true stories of bold actions taken by women to fight against social evils and corruption. Twenty five years ago, I was giving consultancy to a group of social workers involved in empowering women in a village called Billenkheda in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Those days the strategy of forming Self Help Groups (SHGs) for organizing women was not prevalent. Instead of SHGs, mahila mandals were formed for organizing rural and urban women. The members of the mahila mandal of Billenkheda were given training by social workers and social activists like Daya Bai. One of the issues the mahila mandal took up for action was liquor consumption by men and beating women and children by the inebriated men.
They planned various strategies to put an end to this evil practice. The first strategy was educating the women of the village about the evil consequences of liquor consumption by men and how it adversely affected the wellbeing of the family, especially of the children. This strategy was very helpful in getting the cooperation of all women of the village. The second strategy was stopping illegal sale of liquor in the village. They implemented this strategy by giving applications to the concerned officers at the district and block levels. They also informed the police the names of the persons involved in this illegal activity. The women of the mahila mandal also directly met the persons involved in the illegal sale of liquor and challenged them. Because of the police action and the alertness of women of the mahila mandal illegal sale of liquor was stopped. As a result the number of persons consuming liquor was reduced drastically.
Still some men went to a village, about five kilometres away from Billenkheda, for drinking liquor. One day a man came home after drinking liquor, and started beating his wife. Hearing her screaming and shouting, women from the neighbourhood assembled. They informed the leaders of the mahila mandal about the incident. The leaders with the consent of the wife of the culprit caught hold of him and put him in a bullock cart. They bound him in the cart using ropes so that he could not create problem on the way to the police station at Chegoan Maakan village. The Station Officer of police station congratulated the women and the man was kept in the police station for a day. Only after extracting a promise from him not to consume liquor and not to indulge in beating his wife, he was released from the police station. With this incident the whole village became liquor free. It continued a liquor free village for many years due to the efforts and vigilance of the women. Most of the women of the mahila mandal were illiterate. They had only learned how to put their signature. But they were really empowered. They questioned the diversion of funds meant for development by the Gram Panchayat President. They also put an end to the corrupt practices by the owner of the ration shop under the Public Distribution System. Majority of women of the mahila mandal were dalits, but they had the courage to act when they were organized and made aware of their rights.
I do not have the experience of working with SHGs of women in Kerala, but I have read about the role of women’s organizations in the economic empowerment of women. An excellent example is Kudumbasree. “ Kudumbashree, a community organization of SHGs of women in Kerala, has been recognized as an effective strategy for the empowerment of women in rural as well as urban areas: bringing women together from all spheres of life to fight for their rights or for empowerment. The overall empowerment of women is closely linked to economic empowerment. Women through these SHGs work on a range of issues such as health, nutrition, agriculture, etc. besides income generation activities and seeking micro credit,” says Wikipedia.
However, it seems that high level of education and economic empowerment has not been translated into social and political empowerment of women in Kerala. According to Election Commission’s statistics, Kerala has only 5% women among the MLAs whereas Bihar, being the poorest state with lowest literacy rate in India, has 14% women among its MLAs. As per 2011 Census, Kerala has the highest female literacy rate among the Indian states (93.91%).
Participation of large number of educated women in the protest against the SC verdict appears to be the sign of lack of empowerment of Kerala women. The fascist and obscurantist forces in the society are trying to impose the prescriptions of Manusmriti on Kerala women. Many prescriptions of Manusmriti are blatantly discriminatory and opposed to human rights. Hirday N. Patwari in a write up under the title, “ The Status of Women as Depicted by Manu in the Manusmriti” has quoted 40 derogatory comments on women from Manusmriti. Most of these statements are based on prejudice and superstitions. Treating women during their menstruation as impure has no scientific basis. Olden days when sanitary pads were not available menstruation could have caused hygienic problems. Some ritual practices might have originated from this limitation. But there is no justification for continuing such superstitious and totally unscientific practices when science and technology has developed easy methods to deal with the problems arising from menstruation.
The reactionary and fundamentalist forces want to keep women under their control and religion is being used for this purpose. The educated women of Kerala have failed to read the hidden agenda of these forces and have become the victims of their manipulation.
The mobilization of people, including women against the SC verdict, is being done mainly by the organizations that have allegiance to the Sangh Parivar. They were responsible for the violence on October 17 and 18 in the state. The BJP so far has failed to have a foothold on the political landscape of Kerala. The party is adopting a strategy of fishing in the troubled waters. It appears that the BJP is trying to create an Ayodhya type situation in Kerala to polarize the Hindu votes. Thus the Sangh Parivar has twin objective of implementing its orthodox and obscurantist ideas on women and expanding its political influence. The educated women of Kerala have been used by the Sangh Parivar outfits in their political and religious game.
The Sangh Parivar’s hypocrisy is once again exposed in the Sabarimala issue. The BJP has formally declared that it respects the order of the SC. The Home Ministry has reminded the Kerala government of its responsibility to implement the SC order. At the same time BJP workers are indulging in violence while protesting against the SC verdict. “Equality and independence should be the twin mantras in our treatment of women” wrote Ram Madhav, the BJP National Executive Secretary, in an article, “ Me#Too a better India” published in The Indian Express on October 18. Is it not doubletalk on the part of Ram Madhav? Is he not aware of the violence perpetrated by his party men in Kerala to stall the implementation of SC verdict that provides equality to women in the matters of religion? Eight women were prevented from entering the shrine because of the threat of violence by the protestors that included the BJP workers.
Women reporters were attacked, their vehicles vandalised and stones were thrown at them on October 17, when the temple reopened. A day later two reporters of The New York Times were forced to turn back from the 5-km trek to the temple.
The Congress party is indulging in a dangerous political game with regard to Sabarimala verdict of SC. Its open support to the protesters will erode its credibility as a party committed to the constitution of India and the rule of law. Its support to the agitators will only benefit the BJP and it does not realize that it is cutting the branch on which it sits.
Mira Nanda in her book, “The God Market” has delineated that along with economic globalization there has been a surge in devotion and religious practices among the Hindus of India. It seems that the growth of religious fundamentalism is found not only among the Hindus but also among the Muslims and Christians of Kerala. The mushrooming ‘religious shops’ are in fact instilling religious fundamentalism in the faithful of their respective religions. One of the reasons for the educated women coming under the unscientific and superstitious practices is the influence of religious fundamentalism. The growing religious fundamentalism is a reason for the increasing discriminations and crimes against women in the Indian society.
Religion appears to be the main culprit of preventing women of Kerala from becoming socially and politically empowered, even though they are educated in comparison with the women of other states. The solution to religion based discrimination and violence is promotion of spirituality and the values enshrined in the preamble of the Indian Constitution.
(Published on 29th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 44)