It's 5 o'clock in the morning and still dark outside. Seven women board a van in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram. A few of them are teachers, a couple are lawyers and one is a sales manager. Two women talk excitedly in Malayalam, while most of them look out of the window, silently contemplating. The youngest is 30 years old, the oldest 56, but a common thread binds them together — they are on their way to make history.
These women were brought together by 38-year-old Divya Divakaran, a high school teacher in Kerala. Three years ago, she came across a government notification saying that women and young children were not allowed to make the trek to the peak of Agasthyarkoodam, a nearly 1,900-meter-high mountain in Kerala. Something did not feel right.
"I immediately shared this on Facebook and alerted the media," Divya said, adding, "All women must have the chance to enter any place."
So near and yet so far
Divya and her supporters, including M Sulfath, who runs a women's organization called "Pennoruma," had begun challenging official bans since 2016, when they approached the forest ministry, responsible for issuing permits for entering the area. After a year of negotiations, officials allowed the women entry to the mountain. However, things did not work out as expected and a high court order ruled that the women would be allowed to go only up to the base camp, six kilometers away from the peak.
"We came here with all our bags, just like this, two years ago," said Sachithra Soman, a sales manager. She grew up near the mountain, and it had been a childhood dream of hers to scale it. "But the day before we started the journey, we were turned away."
The women faced opposition from the Kani tribe, native to Agasthyarkoodam. The Kani believe that the mountain is the final resting place of Agasthya, a Hindu sage who was believed to be celibate. As legend goes, a woman reaching close to the peak of the mountain would bring doom to the world. All the leaves and flowers would wither.
"Even our own women never enter this space," Mohanan Triveni, a member of the tribe and the state president of the Tribal General Assembly told DW. "I support equality between men and women, but each temple, each community, has its own practices and traditions, and its own way of offering prayers," he added.
In November 2018, the Kerala High Court finally put an end to doubts on whether women could scale the peak, saying no restrictions would be made based on gender. Following the announcement, nearly 4,300 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 100 climbers a day, the state forest department said.
Bound by tradition
Shiny Rajkumar, another woman who's preparing to climb the peak, said it was a dream come true. She had heard the legend that reaching the peak of Agasthyarkoodam could grant a person a second life, but it was obvious that climbing the mountain would be difficult.
"Some of my friends told me not to go because it is such a risky trek — there is a point where your knees will touch your nose as you try to climb," she said, laughing. "But I love adventure and I want other women to feel empowered by my example." Shyni's 16-year-old son, Lenin Joshua, was clearly proud of his mother. "People in our state of Kerala always get tied up with customs," he said, adding, "My mother has heard a lot of negative comments, even about her biking — but she stood up against them."
Kerala has been the flashpoint of protests since late last year, when women tried to enter the Sabarimala temple, after a Supreme Court order lifted a religious ban on females of menstruating age from entering the holy site's premises. Massive protests followed, with thousands of women coming together to build a human wall and others marching to protest their entry into the shrine, which houses the celibate god, Ayappa.
Like other women, Shiny could not help getting caught in the debate, but she was ready to compromise. "My parents, my husband, have been very supportive of me and my biking, my activism," she explained. "I did talk about Sabarimala too; but on this [Sabarimala], we reached a mutual understanding."