A picture speaks a million words. And, in the tension fraught atmosphere of the Sabarimala protests, nothing describes the schism between those who want no change and Constitutionalists  more, than the photo of a news cameraperson, Shajila Ali Fathima, holding her camera bravely, while men around her are heckling, hectoring, abusing, and threatening her. There are tears flowing down her cheeks, but the camera stays steady, as she captured the story of men protesting against women paying their respect at the Sabarimala temple. A single picture telling the devastating story of men preventing women from exercising their rights as equals – in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of God.

In the last half-century, there has been nothing that has been so polarising between the genders as the Sabarimala rift. At the core of this divide is who gets to visit Ayyappa – the Lord of Sabarimala. A God who is the child of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini, Ayyappa is revered amongst many Hindus. A devout group visits the shrine every year, after observing vows of austerity, celibacy, and inner calm for between 41 and 48 days. The pilgrimage is non-denominational with past years seeing men of all religions participating. However, there been a bar against women of childbearing age – menstruating women – in honour of the God’s celibate status. And, it is this taboo that has been challenged, and is the focal point of protests around Sabarimala.

In the last half-century, there has been nothing that has been so polarising between the genders as the Sabarimala rift.

However, like most taboos in the world, these too have less to do with God’s will or wishes, and more to do with the patriarchy that wants to control access, in the name of tradition.  And, that has been the core of the battle between those women between the ages of 10 and 50 who wish to enter the temple to offer prayers, and the predominantly male crowd of ‘devotees’ wanting to stop them.

Ever since the Supreme Court judgement, in September upholding the constitutional right of all women to visit the shrine saying:

“We have no hesitation in saying that such an exclusionary practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to freely practice Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship.”

There have been protests, some of them violent against women choosing to exercise their rights. In the name of devotion, tradition, and upholding of Hindu rights, self-proclaimed defenders of the faith have taken to physically preventing the entry of women into the temple, depriving them of the constitutional right to offer prayers.

In the name of devotion, tradition, and upholding of Hindu rights, self-proclaimed defenders of the faith have taken to physically preventing the entry of women into the temple, depriving them of the constitutional right to offer prayers.

At the forefront of the protests are a small group of men who believe in upholding patriarchal values, in the name of traditions. And, the protest reportedly also has the backing of the state BJP which is trying to make inroads in  Kerala, on the back of Hindu disenchantment with the State trampling on, what is seen as, Hindu rights. Batting for the rights of women entering Sabarimala, is the Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan – a communist and an atheist, who is sworn to uphold constitutional rights. And, this battle between traditional and the constitutional rights is what we are witnessing.

The targets have not just been women who wish to enter the temple, but the media that covers this event. The media has acted as a chronicler of the troubles – highlighting the women who want to offer their prayers; and the protesters who want to prevent them from doing that. And, as documenters of the ugliness exhibited by the protestors, they have become targets for the mobs.

The media has acted as a chronicler of the troubles – highlighting the women who want to offer their prayers; and the protesters who want to prevent them from doing that.

It is in this context of anger, frustration, and bitterness of the traditionalists that we must see the verbal assault on Shajila Ali Fathima. While covering the BJP protests in Thiruvananthapuram, she became the object of targeted bullying. And, this is where she proved her mettle by absorbing the abuse and staying her ground to complete her work. We can at least celebrate the fact that the protestors made no distinction between women and men, when they attacked the media. If only they extended that to people who want to prayers.

We can at least celebrate the fact that the protestors made no distinction between women and men, when they attacked the media. If only they extended that to people who want to prayers.

Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender, and society;  and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences. She is a writer, filmmaker, and consults on digital strategy. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Get the best of SheThePeople delivered to your inbox - subscribe to Our Power Breakfast Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter , Instagram , Facebook and on YouTube, and stay in the know of women who are standing up, speaking out, and leading change.