An afternoon gathering at the Manaveeyam Veedi in Thiruvananthapuram is nothing unusual. People gather to celebrate, people gather to protest all the time.
On Tuesday afternoon, a new group got introduced at the Manaveeyam Veedi, a gathering mostly of women. Samam, they called it, a word that meant equality.
“It is a progressive forum for gender equality,” Dr Meera Velayudhan says. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict on decriminalising homosexuality and adultery, the idea seemed inevitable. But the most recent context - the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages into the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, which has for years been banned to women between 10 and 50 years of age - spurred its creation. Samam got introduced with a hilarious play by women's theatre group Nireeksha.
There are men, women, and members of the LGBTQI community in Samam. “It is a response to the protests happening [against women’s entry at Sabarimala], to upper caste elites and feudal elements,” says Dr Meera Velayudhan. “We are a forum, not an organisation and want to facilitate dialogues.”
The first of these dialogues happened on Tuesday. “It is not the Tantri that decides who should come to the temple, but the Mantri,” scholar-activist Sunny M Kappikad says at the gathering. The Tantris have decided that other old rituals which had been performed by members of the lower caste be taken away from them. “Ayyappa is not interested that they do this, the Tantri would tell you. Every right of the lower caste has been taken away by the Tantris. Tantris should do yagam not samaram (protest).”
The modern Kerala was formed because some leaders dared to break the tradition, leaders like Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and others, he says. But now, a neo-Brahmanical movement has been formed against the Constitution. “If we step back now, Kerala will go back 150 years,” he adds.
Dr Anisha, a faculty on gender studies, who had come to take part in the gathering, tells TNM, “Kerala has been a state with socio cultural indicators that could compete with developed nations. But there are now voices – women’s voices – coming against the progress that we made through so many years. These are not uneducated women. There are scientists and medical professionals among them. The patriarchal attitude that has been sleeping within them has woken up with his verdict [on Sabarimala]. They talk about menstruating women being impure. But that is not the voice of the general public. We want our voices to be heard, that’s why Samam got formed.”
Young researcher Chithira Vijayakumar believes that nobody should go to Sabarimala because it is a fragile ecological zone. But as long as the discrimination exists, everyone, regardless of gender, should go, she says. “What has made me come here today is the sheer violence that had been evident in the responses of people, to the verdict. The way the civil society responded with threats of gang rape and murder. So everyone should go no matter who is lying there and whose chest we have to step on.”
Ajay, an NGO worker, says that he has come not because he believes in the so-called progressiveness of Kerala. “I am here as a Dalit, an Ambedkarite, who believes in democratic principles of society.”
On Wednesday, when the people calling themselves devotees began attacking women including journalists who have come to report at Sabarimala, Samam made a note of contempt on Facebook. They are taking part in a candlelight procession put together in the capital by the Network of Women in Media and Sthree Koottayma on Wednesday evening.