Are women as a whole the real victims in the ongoing saga of Sabarimala or is there an ethos which is being attacked?
Rajat Mitra is a clinical psychologist who has worked with Islamic militants and radicalised youth on one hand and survivors of mass violence and genocide on the other. He has worked on how societies transfer trauma across generations and was given the Ashoka fellowship for working on criminal justice reforms in India. He is also the author of "The Infidel Next Door", the story of a Hindu pujari who visits the land of his forefathers in Kashmir.
My daughter was writing an article on ‘discrimination and exclusion’ for her school project. She showed me a photograph of a black young girl escorted by several burly white police officers while going inside a school in the USA. The year was 1954. We discussed how in the USA, schools were segregated and white children wouldn’t accept black children as equal from a young age that would spread later to all other areas of life.
“Do you know, even swimming pools were segregated which is why blacks could never become great swimmers like they could become great athletes?” I asked her.
She looked shocked and full of disgust. It happens every time when the topic is from America. She can’t understand how America, the land of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King treated people so shamefully.
“Why couldn’t she go in just like that in the school?” she asked in all naivety.
I explained, “Some Social injustices are rigidly entrenched in society and one needs to create a mass movement in order to bring about a change in the institutions to bring changes in the lives of ordinary people. All genuine movements are begun and led by survivors who give it its moral voice.” We discussed mass movements from history including apartheid in South Africa, race relations in USA and nearer home the 'Nirbhaya’ movement in 2012.
We took a final look at the picture. The girl, her face ashen while about to enter the school, her tiny frame and hands almost looking to grab an adult’s hand. “She represents the face of a true survivor,” she remarked.
It was a long conversation and we needed a breather, so I switched on the TV. On one news channel, there was a video of a woman smiling, laughing and putting on her helmet as she prepared to enter Sabarimala temple.
“Her face is so unlike that of the girl we just saw,” my daughter remarked. “Looks as if she is going to participate in some adventure sport and have fun. Does she represent a movement too?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “Otherwise, her face would have looked very different,” I answered.
“She doesn’t have any characteristic of a survivor who leads movements the way we just discussed,” she added. “Then who is she? What is she doing there?” she asked. “Does she have any faith in Lord Ayyappa or in any god of Hinduism?”
“No,” I answered.
“In fact, her whole demeanor seems to be so insulting. She seems to be mocking at someone.” She volunteered.
I explained to her. “She is about to desecrate a tradition, a ritual followed by millions of Hindus since antiquity and feels she is going to be in the pages of history for doing so. She will be called a brave lady who defied a tradition and perhaps soon be in the feminist hall of fame.”
“Does she know the meaning of the ritual and did it have any personal meaning for her if she was a survivor?”
I again had to answer no to her.
“Why is she there when she is not the one affected?”
An innocent and childlike question. The woman’s face smiling and jocular as if about to step on Everest raises a hundred questions about whose movement is it really, and what does it stand for and symbolize?
As Eric Hoffer famously said, “A mass movement attracts and holds a following because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” The real movement I believe has started now when Hindus are coming out in millions to preserve and protect their sacred traditions and fighting against what they see as an injustice.
Every movement in the world has had its unique face as a symbol of injustice by the perpetrators. The race movement in the USA had Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges Hall. Vietnam war had its face as Napalm girl. Nearer home in 2012, we had Nirbhaya as the face of the movement against sexual violence and the rights of women. Who is the face of the Sabarimala movement?
I believe the answer is the nameless, faceless woman of Kerala who supports her husband to do the rituals and penance for forty-one days and who is out on the streets now.
In every true movement, there is a perpetrator, a victim and sometimes a rescuer who are bound to each other in a complex relationship. It is the victim who suffers and becomes the voice of the movement and the perpetrator who tries to suppress it.
Who is the real victim in Sabarimala then? Is it the giggling women of another faith who are trying to march in as if it were a picnic spot and be part of their two minutes of fame or is the unknown devotee who, alone and barehanded, is facing violence by her own police?
For those who may not know, Sabarimala is one of the few temples where women between 10 and 50 years of age are barred from entering due to its own individual set of rules and nature of the deity who is considered a living entity.
Historically the devotee of Sabarimala is facing a phase what psychologists call as ‘separation’. The Hindu of the past was forced to separate from his religion through forced conversions as by invaders, through his temples destroyed as by Aurungzeb, through his rituals banned and paying jizya (tax) amongst others. Some of the injustices still perpetuated on him are by the state retaining direct power over his sacred spaces, the body that governs the temples under government control and unjust laws and judgments against him.
“In Sabarimala then what does the woman who is allegedly said to try and throw a used tampon at the god of others in the name of gender justice represent?” My daughter asked who had by now read the whole issue. She now wanted to discuss discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, and ethnicity.
“Much of the large parts of the world still suffer from it,” I explained as she wrote her article. I shared about the discrimination I had faced as a dark-skinned man while traveling in Europe.
“How did you realize you suffered discrimination?” she asked.
“Because in each one of them I felt someone had tried to make me feel a lesser human being. It was a feeling that I felt in my guts every time.”
The feeling of a deep sense of victimization arises in human beings each time who are discriminated. Rosa Parks felt humiliated when she said, “Why do you do this to us?” Martin Luther King’s voice shook with rage in his ‘I have a dream’ speech when he had said he hoped that a day would come when the sons of masters and slaves would eat dinner at the same table.
The voice of victimization comes from the survivors’ experiences and not from any esoteric fancy quarter. If a book is written on Sabarimala movement one day, who would be identified as a victim by the author? The smiling faces of Kavitha Jakkal and Rehana Fatima or the unknown women being dragged on and beaten by policemen?
“Looks like there isn’t any victim in Sabarimala issue in the first place like what happens in true movements?” my daughter said. “Then what do the millions of Hindus marching to protest represent? Is that now becoming the 'true' movement?” she asked.
“Yes, it has become a movement but only after people realized that their sacred tradition, their sacred space is being desecrated. And the irony is that those very women who the lordship and activists thought are the persecuted ones, their police are now beating them and arresting them.”
I told her another story. In 1992 I was in Appenzell, Switzerland and it had been in world news. Women of Appenzell who did not have the right to vote were finally given the right to do so by the Swiss Supreme Court.
A ceremony had been in existence for seven hundred years where on a particular day, the men of the province would enter a circle and make major decisions about Appenzell town. No woman had been inside that circle for seven hundred years and for the first time, a woman was going to enter that circle.
It was a historic event that changed Switzerland forever. The women had fought stating that this practice was discriminatory. Power is always the issue in identifying discrimination and needs to be understood through its historical origins. Swiss women from all walks of life welcomed it as they saw power changing hands and all major decisions regarding their lives, their bodies, once controlled by men would no longer be so.
Examples abound all over the world where women have to struggle and are struggling to reclaim their rights from the domination of men. The right could be over their bodies, their right to vote and their right to pray. The discrimination is related to power which men control.
“So, is victimization someone taking away your power to be, to think? Is it true for Kerala women?”
“Kerala is a matriarchal society. The power lies with women in most matters unlike the rest of the country.”
“Then is Sabarimala an exception?” she asked.
I had once asked a colleague from Kerala after learning that he had taken a vow to go Sabarimala. “Those forty-one days,” he had told me, “are extremely difficult to pass through. Our wives, our families direct activities including what time men get up to what time they go to sleep and what they do in between. The hardships of these healing rituals are difficult to imagine and have no comparison to anything else. It is believed by many Keralite Hindus that a man needs to go through the cleansing and healing rituals at least once in his lifetime. It is better when he does so in his prime.” he had shared.
“As a society Kerala is matriarchal and many men see these rituals as part of their identity and where their roots come from. I believe these rituals could be the reason men here became gentle and stayed that way. There are lesser heinous crimes. Will you be able to do such a ritual in north India?” he had asked.
“The core theme of Sabarimala is abstinence for men so that they learn that it is the inner life and its discipline that leads him to be compassionate and learns to respect women. Doesn’t abuse begin when men think themselves as controlling and don’t learn submission? Sabarimala teaches the men just that,” my friend had added.
“After forty-one days men are sent on a rigorous march up the stairs which is nerve wrecking. The women who direct the men, mould them, feel a deep bonding with them. Many men find in the support of women a lifelong joy and togetherness,” my colleague had told me.
“What makes the men of Kerala and some others submit and go through this rigorous ritual year after year?”
“Some of the world’s major religions are deeply misogynistic where women are considered as inferior. These religions say God himself is a male, albeit a punishing and vengeful one. It is always raw male anger that makes and dictates rules and there is no place for understanding women’s needs. Praying to female as a Goddess, worshipping of the female is unknown and considered heretic. The monotheistic religions rarely have any rigorous rituals that tell men to go through rituals supported by women and never explain procreation, fertility, and creation are the feminine processes.”
“Then why is this movement against Sabarimala?” I had asked my colleague recently after a long time to ask if he’s safe.
“Because,” he lowered his voice, “Sabarimala is the soul of Kerala. It stands for what makes Kerala what it is, a matriarchal society with women-centric views and rights of women like nowhere else. But unfortunately, some say it is a pagan ritual and as long as it exists Hinduism as a religion will remain a dominant religion.” He sighed. “If Sabarimala is stopped, Hinduism portrayed as a regressive religion then the very soul of Hinduism will suffer. I think you know that Sabarimala has been attacked before for this very reason.”
For those trying to enter the pages of history by either entering it, escorted by hundreds of policemen or those who are passing judgments, will surely do so but for another reason. They will do so for having destroyed the very soul of their own people who wanted nothing more than to live in peace in a place once not so long ago called the ‘God’s Own Country’.