NEW YORK – Rain ravaged Kerala is now awash in tears. Devastation from natural disaster seems a thing of the past in the beautiful, verdant southern state in India, popularly known as ‘God’s Own Country’.
Even as alerts for more floods were sent out this week, intense focus is instead squarely on a Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple, situated amongst 18 hills, located at the densely forested Periyar Tiger Reserve, and famous for being one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimated 17-20 million devotees visiting every year.
That 4-1 verdict favored all women devotees of Lord Ayyappa – the Hindu God of growth – to be allowed to pray at the hilltop shrine in Sabarimala. The verdict, which should be welcomed, has instead engulfed the state in turmoil. There have been dozens of demonstrations and remonstrations, and more to come, with major political parties trying to make inroads into voter bases.
Some devotees say it’s a violation of their sacred traditions and belief, would taint the shrine itself. The state government was quick to do the wise thing, complied with the court verdict.
India’s highest court’s verdict overturned a 1991 ruling which had barred women of menstruating age, or all females between the ages 10-50, from entering and praying at the shrine.
Before the 1991 verdict, women of all ages had the same privileges as men, were allowed to pray at the temple devoted to a God who is also revered as the female avatar of Vishnu.
Devotees thronged on stipulated days of the year after an arduous fast of 41 days, which entails among other rigors, abstaining from eating meat, consuming alcohol, and indulging in sexual acts. In 1940, even the Maharani of Tranvancore had visited the temple.
The truth of the matter is that more than anything else, the Sabarimala issue has tarnished not only Kerala, which boasts of 100% literacy rate, but India’s image.
The ongoing, frivolous agitation around an issue which should be heralded as a positive move to uphold and uplift women’s rights, is ridiculous. It shows the uphill battle India faces to bring gender equality in society, even as the country veers ironically between the distinction of having one of the strongest GDP growth globally, and being one of the poorest countries on Earth.
India is often viewed in the West as a socially archaic society, where male domination has a stranglehold on women’s rights and their freedom of expression.
The surge, or at least the more frequent reporting nowadays of atrocities on women, incessant stories of barbaric rapes and killings of women from all parts of India, in the past few years, is more than troublesome. Today, families all over India worry when sending a girl outside the house; fret till she gets back home.
In the age of #MeToo movement, the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala was an important signal to treat women with more respect in India, give them wider powers, increase their profile in society, so that subsequent generations of males see females as peers, not puerile.
In some ways, the demonstrations in Kerala hits out against the very dignity of women all over India. What it translates to, is that the good work done by a hit Bollywood film like ‘Pad Man’, which spread the story of the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist from Tamil Nadu who introduced low-cost sanitary pads, and tried to normalize menstruation, is nonsense.
What the Kerala protests suggest is that when it comes to issues tantamount to male affront, women are better off cooking at home, than going out to pray in a temple.
In a country where iconic female figures, be it historic or contemporary, are few and far between, and is one of the reasons atrocities mount against women, the protests in Kerala also send a clear message to millions of hapless girls and women all over India: if you are menstruating, you are dirty, ugly, 1/6th of the time in a month.
In time, the demonstrations in Kerala will likely cool off, but the unfair message on the menstruation front will remain, result in cruel jokes in school and campus grounds.
The credibility of females comes up for scrutiny too, or will, when those brave enough to pray at Sabarimala, make the trek to the shrine. It’s anybody’s guess as to what indignations these women would suffer, by some stubborn males, as they try to worship Lord Ayyappa, despite the court’s verdict.
At stake is also the larger issue of credibility, not just of the Supreme Court, but also of women’s rights in India, which needs reinforcement, not be vulnerable to hypocritical stances by religious fanatics or political parties.
It’s an issue which resounds in the US too, as demonstrations rise in crescendo, and volatility, on the eve of the confirmation vote of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.
If the decision is in favor of Kavanaugh – with the sway Republicans have, it will be a devastating blow to the #MeToo movement, and credibility of women. It would send a clear message to women not just in the US, but globally, that a woman lied under oath.
It would send a message that speaking of victimization can have adverse, cruel repercussions. It’s hard to believe, but the credibility of a woman, Christine Blasey Ford, who underwent alleged sexual assault, is now at the mercy of a vote in the Senate that could label her as a consummate liar, political conniver.
The vote will destroy either the life of Kavanaugh or Ford. One of them was surely lying.
Look at it this way – massive demonstrations in the two largest democracies in the world, happening concurrently, in India and the US, could likely culminate and achieve the same goal: loss of credibility of women, denigrate women’s rights.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh WorldwideMedia. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)