Without much ado about anything, it’s pertinent to say the vociferous demand that all women be allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple is nothing but succumbing to the retrogressive values of the Brahminical Hinduism, which has been instrumental in subjugating women using scriptural teachings. As the social media is abuzz with historical and mythological reasons why women should or shouldn’t visit Sabarimala, an ideological approach would be more feasible in the matter, which has snowballed into an ego issue for many Malayalee women including the sceptical intellectuals. While a majority of the male specialists on theology and temple issues argue that women shouldn’t be allowed in Sabarimala, the others counter it’s nothing but male chauvinism that still keeps women away from this reputed shrine.
The catch is there itself. The Pro-Sabarimala entry team as well as their opponents objectify the woman’s body as a point of contention. It’s true that feminists all over the world have been trying to regain the agency of their own body by underlining its autonomous nature, irrespective of the relationship with all that’s emotionally, sentimentally and even ideologically connected to it. Hence, the movement of a woman in public and private domains commands autonomy, challenging the ideological authorities -- visible and invisible -- exercised by the male.
The reclamation of the right over one’s own body and regaining one’s own language by defying traditional authorities and ideologies have helped women assert their presence in public as well as private domains. Seen against this backdrop, it’s ironical the Kerala women are still contesting their right to enter a temple which has ‘traditionally’ been against menstruating women. The question that comes up at this juncture: why does the entry into this temple become an ego issue for women? Why don’t they see the fundamental(ist) truth that a temple entry is a covert subjugation of the female body (and thereby the intellectual and emotional agency) by the brahminical system?
One can see why feminist activists in Kerala contest this issue: They want to reiterate the fact that the socio-religious spaces in the state are (and should be) free for easy access irrespective of gender or caste. This point of view sounds almost perfect and logical. However, the underlying ideological thrust of tying the women in the age-old religious yoke shouldn’t go unnoticed. While women in Kerala see it as part of occupying the socio-cultural and religious spaces and dismantling the existing structure of discrimination in religious worship, inadvertently they also push themselves under the weight of the strictures of the brahminical religion which has co-opted the Buddhist tradition of Sastha worship in Sabarimala.
It’s not gender polarisation but gender sensitisation that we need in Kerala. Even today, both our public and private domains aren’t sensitive to gender issues. For example, using public spaces at any part of the day or night is one of the foremost issues. More than occupying a religious space for the sake of it, the women folk in Kerala must claim public domains and demand the right for the free occupation and movement in such spaces. We also need to ask this question: how many women sit along with the men in their families while having dinner? It’s commonly seen even in the most educated families that men, including boys, eat first. After food, it has almost become a norm that it’s the women’s job to clean the kitchen. The age old belief is that women should do these things because men bring money to put food on the table. But today women too work, but still they continue the practice of cooking food after office hours. Is Sabarimala more important than gaining parity at home?
The Sabarimala issue has almost trapped many of the thinking women in Kerala. Quoting Virginia Woolf from her 1924 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ has become a cliché these days. However, I cannot help saying it. Do our women have their own rooms? Forget rooms, do they have a corner in their own homes? Women get up in the morning and get into the kitchen till it’s time for them to go to work. If they are home makers, they keep toiling till night. Their right over television is limited to the serials and certain other afternoon programs. Otherwise they remain outcasts in their own homes. Seen in this context, shouldn’t our demand for occupying spaces start at home? Women need their spaces exactly the way men have their spaces both in public and private domains. Kerala recently has become an ODF state, means Open Defecation Free state. That means all our women use private toilets now. Unlike our sisters in the North and the other parts of India, Kerala women are safe and sound at least in this front. If we could achieve that, then definitely we could continue with occupying all those social spaces which are still inaccessible or partially accessible to our women.
Does my suggestion point at segregating women from their right to religion or religious practices? Here I am being slightly Utopian and Platonic. The Black Rights movement gained its momentum with a woman asking not for vote but for a seat in the public conveyance system a century before. Religion could wait; there are so many other areas for women to occupy in Kerala. Irrespective of ideologies, men still resist women from occupying social spaces at par with him. As I mentioned above, the resistance is visible in domestic spheres itself. Like the social occupation movements in Kerala since the late 19th century that progressed with the temple entry movement between 1924 and 1936, all such revolutions were meant to occupy ‘spaces.’ Though there had been female participation in those uprisings, those were mainly for men! We have come a long way, but our women are still lagging behind. Unless and until they occupy the domestic and other social spaces, occupying religious spaces would remain a farce. We’ve India’s biggest women’s festival in Attukal Ponkala in Kerala. Many feminists see it as an indirect injunction of the right-wing ideology using the women’s ‘right to do mass worship’ and also as a way for their indirect subjugation to male wishes (spaces demarcated, controlled, helped and directed by men. It is pertinent to ask how many women trustees are there in the Attukal temple.) Yet, it’s ironical that they too have fallen for the Sabarimala Entry issue. Let’s keep egos aside and work toward occupying our own homes first.