The opposition to the Sabarimala order is reflective of a wider gender inequality in Malayali society
Kerala’s reputation as a society that has evolved to an exceptional degree may have taken a bit of a beating. The reputation itself has been built on the strides made in the sphere of development, by now internationally recognised to be human development as reflected in the health and education status of a people.
The Kerala paradox
When it was first noticed over four decades ago, Kerala’s perceived uniqueness had stemmed from the realisation that it was among India’s poorest States. To have achieved fairly high human development despite relative poverty was considered noteworthy. What was not apparent in the usual indicators, however, was something even more unique, the ending of social hierarchy. The caste system, which was at the centre of Kerala’s social arrangements, disintegrated virtually overnight. This was fuelled by the enactment of a land reform programme that ended feudalism. With feudalism went the equivalence between caste dominance and economic power. If evidence ever was needed for the Marxian view that it was the economic base of a society that undergirded its ‘superstructure’ this was it. What is significant is that the transition had been smooth, without recrimination for loss or retribution for injustice. Social distance in terms of caste distinctions just died. Given the experience of the ending of a feudalism that had persisted for centuries in Kerala, the reception to the Supreme Court’s verdict on the practice of excluding women of menstruating age from the shrine at Sabarimala is disappointing. It is not as if the ruling has been received with sullen acceptance alone. It has been followed by vigilantes actually preventing the very few women who have attempted to enter the shrine since from doing so. Reports of heckling and intimidation that have led to disheartened women returning without darshan is likely to have left many a Malayali patriot ashamed. To understand the reaction to one of the last bastions of male privilege being thrown open to women, we may turn to the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault had observed that while Marxism, a powerful tool for social analysis, emphasises the relations of production, it ignores the relations of power. Power for Foucault is ubiquitous and ramifies into every dimension of human association. Patriarchy or the idea of rule by men would be one of the sources of power. Heteronormativity and the claim of the racial superiority of certain ethnic groups have also served as sources of power. Power for Foucault can draw its force from sources that are entirely unrelated to economic class. Thus in Kerala, for instance, patriarchy is entrenched across all classes and social groups. It did not vanish with the land reforms, even if its architects had wanted it to happen. From the recent events at Sabarimala we can see that some sections do not want it to lose its stranglehold even today. The opposition to women’s entry at Sabarimala is at times met with an appeal to history, that the temples of Kerala have witnessed far greater transformation in the past, having been thrown open to all sections of Hindus over 75 years ago. While this history is correctly recounted, the issue of women’s entry into temples is not a matter of accepting the inevitability of change, it is a matter of recognising what living in a democracy implies for its members. Even as democracy guarantees rights to the individual, it requires him to acknowledge the rights of others. It is easily overlooked that it is democracy that grants the freedom to practise a religion. The Church was discouraged in the former Soviet Union, China frowns upon the faith of the Uighurs, and the Saudi Arabian state is not exactly tolerant of religious plurality. It is hoped that the Sabarimala shrine, a site of popular worship with a long history and of great beauty, will henceforth be open to women of all ages. But for Kerala ending exclusion at this one site can only be the beginning of the much longer journey to gender equality in its society. The present situation bears comparison with what Nirad Chaudhuri had said of the British Empire, that it “extended subjecthood but denied citizenship”. In the case of Kerala’s women, its society may have extended education but withheld empowerment. So long as women are not represented in the upper echelons of decision-making it will be difficult to break this mould.