Vanitha Mathil – The Wall for Gender Equality : Rebecca Rose Varghese
Rebecca is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. She is associated with the Students’ Federation of India.
On January 1, 2019, almost 5 million women gathered on Kerala’s National Highway 47 to form a 620-km long wall, extending from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. The Vanitha Mathil, or the Women’s Wall, was formed as a symbolic gesture to express support for gender equality, and was an initiative undertaken under the leadership of the Left government of Kerala. While the first woman standing at one end of this long human chain in Kasaragod was the Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Ms. K.K. Shailaja, on the other end in Thiruvananthapuram stood CPI (M) Politburo member Brinda Karat.
Women from different backgrounds, many wearing the traditional Kerala attire, ‘Kasavu mundu, or sarees and kurtis of different hues but dominated by colour red, started gathering around NH 47 from 3:15 p.m., forming the wall by 3:45 p.m. At precisely 4 p.m., a pledge in support of gender equality was read out and was repeated by the participants in the chain. After this ceremony those women who had taken part were invited to the public meeting which took place thereafter.
What was fascinating to witness was the long chain of men who had formed a wall on their own opposite the wall made by the women. Partners and other relatives of the women participants, holding the little children of these women, and expressing their support for this moment, was a heart warming sight to watch. One could imagine how in an atmosphere as this, gender equality would merely not remain a dream but become a reality with both the genders supporting each other’s cause.
Though the view of women who participated in this wall regarding the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple varied — while some completely supported the ruling by the Supreme Court, some were reluctant to go against traditional norms — their solidarity in the case of gender equality must be noted as a period of change in Kerala.
In a desperate attempt to destroy this historic moment, some Sangh Parivar activists attacked the wall in Kasaragod but failed to break the spirit of these women. Contrary to the claims of the Congress and BJP leaders who had spoken against the Supreme Court ruling and used it as an opportunity to spark communal violence among the people in order to gain support of the common man in the name of tradition and religion, the women’s wall with an overwhelming number of 5 million women from different religions, caste and traditions participating in the Vanitha Mathil was a grand success and a historic moment that has now entered the Guiness Book of World Records.
The women’s wall was a symbolic gesture that portrayed the strength of women in fighting against gender discrimination. From the time when Nangeli, a Dalit woman, cut off her breast after refusing to pay the Breast tax which was imposed on women of the Dalit and Bahujan castes in Kerala who covered their bosoms, to the time when several protests sprouted in the state against the ban of Dalit people from entering the famous temples such as the Guruayoor temple and the Vaikom temple; Kerala has had a rich history in resisting and actively fighting against gender and caste based discrimination in the name of tradition and culture.
The idea of the women’s wall birthed with the attack of communal powers on the right of women to enter the Sabarimala temple which was given to them by the verdict of the Supreme Court of India. The entry of women from the age of 10 to 50 was banned in the name of tradition which was based on the concept of pollution of menstruation. It was against this violation of human rights that the Supreme Court had allowed the entry of women of all ages to this religious site on September 28, 2018. With women who tried to enter the temple being physically attacked by communal hooligans, the Left Front government found it necessary to take action against these hooligans. Further, the government decided to organize a movement to show the strength of women against patriarchal and Brahmanical practices. It was this attempt that had culminated in the women’s wall being formed on January 1, 2019 that has now been termed an historical moment in the history of Kerala and a red letter day in the history of women’s emancipation.
Early in the morning on January 2, two women below the age of 50, entered the Sabarimala Shrine and offered worship almost as a sequel to the Vanitha Mathil, creating another historical moment in this period of women’s resurgence in the state.
The Vanitha Mathil, a Left government initiative which had the support of millions of people in Kerala, is part of the continuing struggle against gender and caste discriminations that still continue in our country. Swami Vivekananda who had visited Kerala had dubbed the state an asylum as casteist forces held sway here, and untouchability, and caste and gender discrimination were the order of the day in this part of the world even in the beginning of the last century. It was the fight against these dark forced led by Ayyankali, a Dalit leader, and Sri Narayana Guru, an Ezhava scholar, a hundred years ago, that had given the Bahujan the right of worship and entry into most of the major temples in Kerala. The women’s wall was yet another attempt at cleansing the state of discrimination and making Kerala really God’s Own Country that it rightfully deserves.