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The Power of Women

The year 2019 started as a sunburst in India. Exactly on January 1, approximately 5.5 million women in the Indian state of Kerala lined up as a 620 km women’s wall. These women, through the power of humbleness and the will of change, made history. The Kerala’s wall of compassion is the most important mobilization of the need for fundamental reflection for women’s rights. The women took a vow to defend the renaissance traditions of their state and to work towards women’s empowerment in both the essence and the application of the concept. Mahatma Gandhi, the zenith of enlightening resistance, who always fought for women’s rights and their empowerment, would be proud of Indian women. According to Gandhi, “women must realize their full status and play their part as equals of men.”

Gandhi led the country’s freedom struggle with his truth and peaceful principles which guided a movement that would change history. For Gandhi, Ahimsa (non-violence) was the basis of the search for truth and women were the incarnation of Ahimsa. Gandhi said that Ahimsa means infinite love which again, means infinite capacity for suffering. “Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure?…Let her translate that love to the whole of humanity…And woman will occupy her proud position by the side of man…Woman can become the leader in Satyagraha…” Such was Gandhi’s belief in women’s power, and such is the core motivator of Indian women who 70 years later stood up for their rights and gifted the world with the largest women’s mobilization of nonviolence and truth.

The state of Kerala is approximately the size of Switzerland and has a population of about 35 million. Kerala has the majority of 54.7% Hindus, followed by 26.5% Muslims, 18.3% Christians while the other 0.5% adhering to other denominations. Kerala is Indian’s most literate state, with 94%. From elites to villagers, from the age of 13 to 55, from big cities to rural areas, Keralan women spread the word in small towns through word of mouth in the fight for their rights to stop gender segregation.

Kerala has been the flashpoint of protests ever since the Supreme Court lifted a religious ban on females of menstruating age, 10 to 50, from entering the holy site, Ayyappa temple, in September last year. The Court’s verdict allowed women to worship their deity Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala. According to the legend, Lord Ayyappa is a celibate god who is not to be confronted with young women. Before the Court’s decision, in order to enter the temple one needed to avoid all forms of “pollution” for 41 days, making access impossible for women of menstruating age as long as menstruation is seen as a symbolic way of polluting.

Since the Court’s verdict, over 50 women have entered the Sabarimala temple. However, the temple authorities and the far-right groups in the state disagreed with the Court’s decision. So when some women tried to enter the temple, the priests and some followers blocked them. The situation became a deadlock. Besides the pacifist character of these protests which culminated with the women’s wall, the right-wing parties in Kerala went on a rampage. Their members attacked the leaders on the left and threw bombs at government buildings. Over 700 people – mostly men on the far right – were arrested that day. The Indian Supreme Court took a clear position, a principled position: that menstruation should not be used as a penalty against women’s full participation in society.

It has now been a month since women marched for gender equality in the south of India. Women who belong to different castes, different religions share the same urge to equality of rights. Gender inequality is pervasive across India. The country ranks low in most measures of women’s empowerment, including formal labor-force participation, assets owned and nutrition. Violence against women is rampant.

What followed two months later after the verdict which permitted women to enter a temple was in November 2018, the Kerala High Court finally put an end to doubts on whether women could scale the peak Agasthyarkoodam (or Agastya Mala). The Court declared that no restrictions should be made based on gender. Following this announcement, nearly 5,000 people registered for a trek through the forests of the mountain, which has been marked as a UNESCO Heritage Site for its beauty and unique biodiversity.

The peak opened to visitors on January 13 and entry was restricted to a quota of 100 climbers a day. Dhanya Sanal was the first Indian woman to reach the summit of the 1,868 meter-high Agastya Mala in southern Kerala. Before the Court’s decision, the peak was reserved only for men. Forest officials who work at the peak said the Agastya Mala is too difficult for women to climb.

Despite Gandhi’s pride, gender disparities in India still persist. There is an urgent need for policy initiatives to address gender inequality as well as to empower women. Gandhi used to say that women are gifted with equal mental capacities and therefore need to enjoy equal rights. However, due to the force of custom, ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying superiority over women. No religious institution should be permitted to discriminate against women. Those rules that forbid women are man-made, not divine. The Indian constitution guarantees right to equality and right to freedom. However, it is up to women to protect their rights.

Modern Indian women are on the verge of untying the mooring ropes of past old traditions. Women are the moving force of gender equality. According to the United Nations, the economic impact of achieving gender equality in India is estimated to be $700 billion of added GDP by 2025. Indian women represent 48.5% of the population and only 27.4% of the workforce. In India, women are lagging behind men due to a patriarchal society and its customs. Indian women have shown the world the power of womankind, which stands for nonviolence, collaboration, maturity and tolerance, truth, and love. Let Kerala’s women encourage women elsewhere to stand up for their rights. “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”