Pinning hope on critical acts

J Devika | Updated on January 11, 2019 Published on January 11, 2019

Unrest zone: Much drama has unfolded near the temple since last September with many women of menstruating age attempting to enter the shrine   -  REUTERS/ SIVARAM V

By entering the Sabarimala shrine, two Kerala women have set the course for change

My editor’s suggestion is that I look back at the year gone by and examine it for hope. That’s fair enough a demand, since hope keeps us going. Yet given the annus horribilis that 2018 was, the drought of happiness makes it hard to extract hope from it. Last year, Kerala faced the worst environmental disaster in its recent history; it also faced the worst assault on the delicate fabric of its culture of interwoven-faith; it witnessed the intensification of patriarchy on both the right and left of the political spectrum, and the demotion of feminists to mere troublemakers.

More painful is the fact that this was also a year of missed opportunities. The devastation in the wake of the floods was almost magically countered by the emergence of an active, sensitive civil society that quickly took over rescue and relief, and it included all sections of people. The Hindutva assault on women’s rights brought forth an unprecedented unity of all left forces determined to resist the erosion of democracy. However, neither of these gifts was valued by the ruling, dominant left forces in the state — a reason why we were in the dregs of despair at year-end.

I am however trying to think of despair differently. I have always been suspicious of happiness; the hope happiness provides does not always seem false to me, but it has too often appeared more like a projection than something real. I feel, when we are happy, we tend to project that happiness into the future and mistake the view (or rather, the absence of the view) for hope. Maybe hope can be real only when we are stripped of the illusions that happiness induces — when we see the difficult terrain ahead with all its ups and downs, and the grim challenges. Happiness often casts a warm glow and covers up the rough edges, and that is probably why one often feels foolish when one is happy. Maybe it is good to have that experience once in a while, but it cannot be the basis of hope.

Hope, then, refers to the will to keep walking on the thorny, pathless terrain heedless of the fact that one may stumble, fall, get bruised and bleed, till one ascends to a place from where new possibilities become visible. Peter Roberts’s book Happiness, Hope and Despair (2016) elaborates this new way of conceiving hope. He describes the arduous journey as one essential to becoming human, and importantly, sets it against the easy, lazy, neoliberal reduction of despair as a pathology to be overcome, and its conception of happiness as a state of permanent enjoyment (which, ostensibly, is achieved by dulling our sense of the past, and vision of the future).

Viewed this way, one can indeed find hope in the many courageous acts by women during the Hindutva siege at Sabarimala to thwart the Supreme Court verdict that struck down the ‘tradition’ of denying entry to women of menstruating ages, and in the success of two brave women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, in finally entering the shrine. This drama has been unfolding since the end of last September, and many women tried to defy the violent Hindutva mobs near the shrine as well as the unsympathetic police and government agents, and attempted the pilgrimage again and again. These women have been hounded and insulted during and after their journeys; their homes have been attacked, relatives threatened, and they have been harassed and slandered; false cases have been slapped on them. The left government that claims a monopoly over progressiveness only added to their woes. The successful women now face similar challenges.

Politics is not physics, as Drude Dahlerup reminded us. Politics needs gritty hope, not smoothed-out visions of the future. Feminists now highlight such acts as vital to transformation of gender norms, against the argument of ‘critical mass’: Studies around the world show that ensuring that a certain number of women are present in decision-making bodies (ie the critical mass) is no guarantee that change will occur, but critical acts have long-standing effects. The CPI(M) male leadership, which has been deploying a perverted version of the critical mass — by a-massing women it perhaps hopes for a miraculous chain reaction that would trigger change — might well heed that scholarship.

To the feminist historian, the acts of the women attempting the pilgrimage are in the tradition of 19th-century dalit women’s resistance in south Kerala to Nair caste power. Through the defiant act of wearing the upper-cloth, a privileged denied to avarnas, these women ‘provoked’ Nair violence for decades, refusing to heed the reproach of foes and the entreaties of friends, until power gave way.



The women who attempted to enter Sabarimala and the two who succeeded were doing exactly that. As acts that reject utilitarian calculation, they are indeed critical acts. My hopes for the future are pinned on them.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on January 11, 2019
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