By Suresh Pattali
In the beginning, I wasn’t a big fan of the Vanitha Mathil, or Women’s Wall, conceptualised and marshalled by the Left Democratic government and some Hindu organisations in the Indian state of Kerala. The basic premise behind the formation of a human wall on New Year’s day was the consolidation of women’s voices for gender equality. And that’s where I had a problem with the wall.
Growing up in a village and a family full of females, I had not experienced gender imbalance in my life. The women around me — whether at home, the educational institutions I had attended, my work places in Kerala, Mumbai, Dubai and Singapore, or the political party and cultural organisations I had worked with — always found their voice and played a leading role in their respective fields. During the days of student activism, we, boys and girls, fought our battles standing shoulder to shoulder. There was no gender classification. It never occurred to us.
In my first job as a journalist, one of my bosses was a female, a Mumbaikar named Dirawi, a couple of years elder to me. More than half the newsroom folk in all the dailies I worked with in Mumbai were females who enjoyed equal, if not higher, status and commanded respect. My design editor in Singapore was a Chinese lady named Swee Peng who would handhold me through my initial days there. Such close acquaintance with female colleagues and bosses had given me the impression that gender is just an illusion. I am not trivialising women’s issues. Neither am I trying to say Kerala is devoid of gender bias. But I was fortunate not to have experienced it in my life.
Compared to north India, Kerala was an early bird in terms of renaissance. The state’s transition to the so-called enlightened society was facilitated by a socio-cultural movement that began towards the end of 19th century. Leading from the front, to name a few, were Narayana Guru, Chattampi Swamikal, Ayyankali, Dr Palpu, Kumaran Asan, Nitya Chaitanya Yati and Mannathu Padmanabha Pillai. In a society that has come of age, gender equality has never been an issue. Crime against women is. So, the sudden do-or-die campaign to stage a wall to protect the renaissance tradition of the state came as a surprise.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s explanation that the decision to form the wall was taken against the backdrop of the Supreme Court verdict on women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple made it clear that the wall is political and not societal. The show of women’s power and the staged entry of two women in the Sabarimala temple in the ungodly hours the very next day were deemed a surgical strike against the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which has orchestrated a violent campaign against the Supreme Court ruling.
“Are you not proud of the fact your women built a 620-km-long human wall stretching from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram,” asked one of my women colleagues. Yes, I am. I am proud that about five million women formed a wall of resistance against the right-wing’s utilisation of a women’s issue to propagate communal tensions for political benefit. It’s a message to militant Hindu organisations and the Indian National Congress that their divisive political manoeuvrings to manipulate women and tarnish the spirit of renaissance, will not work in Kerala.
Some intellectual detractors had opposed the campaign’s choice of terminology, arguing that a wall only divides people. They also said the huge amount used for such mass mobilisation could have been used to build houses for victims of the recent apocalyptic floods. But my initial opposition was against the patriarchal politics behind the campaign. The Indian Marxists are a male-dominated political set-up which considered addressing women’s issues as part of its class struggle but, in reality, desisted dissenting feminist voices. Their actions to deal with sexual harassment charges against party leaders have been disappointing and half-hearted.
People like me who were, once upon a time, committed foot soldiers of the party, know it better than anybody else. K R Gowri, the only living member of the first democratically elected communist regime in the world, is a victim of Marxian misogyny. The Communist Party of India-Marxist went to polls in 1987 with Gowri Amma as a mascot to pull in backward community votes but she was sidelined after the party won. Susheela Gopalan, wife of CPM icon AK Gopalan, is another example that patriarchal privileges have always called the shots within the party.
Kerala’s sex ratio is above 0.99, which means there are more women than men in the southern state. Tragically, women’s representation in the 140-member legislative assembly is a meagre 5.7 per cent, or eight members. When will the CPM, which professes to be a champion of women’s issues, ensure 50 per cent of seats for women in the house and the party’s Cental Committee and Politburo? The party needs to break its own misogynistic wall before building a wall of renaissance in public.
Women expect the wall to change the conversation around gender. “There are many, many forms of discrimination which are done in the name of tradition,” says CPM leader Subhashini Ali. “It is an issue important for women and democracy.” There are other issues that cry for equal attention in the state. If the Women’s Wall is truly a defining moment for feminist politics in Kerala, let there be many more walls of resistance unassociated with patriarchal politics. Scores of women are widowed in Kerala each year in political violence. Crimes against women have reached an alarming level. Sexual predators are on the prowl in the state’s major cities and towns with women unable to move around after sunset.
We live in a society where an umbrella association of film stars has openly thrown a wall of support around a super star allegedly involved in the abduction and molestation of a colleague. The society split in two, with one group wailing for their jailed tinsel world hero and the other standing with the victim. There was hardly any talk of a wall.
Let the sea of women who roared a pledge to uphold renaissance values, stand for equality for women, and resist attempts to make Kerala a lunatic asylum, first tear down the wall of lies and hypocrisy that politics and wealth have built around the society, and then build a truly humane wall, not a political one. I will be there.
Suresh is senior editor. He believes procrastination ruins lives