The Walls That Deprive Women of a Voice
The Sandaiyur temple dispute, but where are the women?
Sandaiyur is a small village of 65,000 people in Madurai district and its population includes two Dalit communities, the Paraiyar and the Arunthathiyar. They live in adjacent but separate parts of the village divided by government land in between.
A commonly visited temple lies on one side. In 2012, the Paraiyar built a fence around the temple claiming it fell in their area. This was removed by the administration when the Arunthathiyar protested. In 2014, they built a brick wall around the temple that also reportedly divides the Arunthathiyar community.
This action was justified by a document showing support from both communities for the wall and agreeing to the Paraiyar claim on the temple. The rationale for the wall was that people were desecrating the temple by wearing slippers and burying their dead in the environs of the temple.
There are competing scripts now on this wall which remains despite a writ petition in 2017 to knock it down. The wall is described as a hostile act by one community against another, illustrating hierarchies and power politics between Dalit communities. The wall is just a functional arrangement to preserve the sanctity of a community shrine. The wall was built by mutual consent. That consent was obtained coercively and therefore does not count.
A fact-finding team held that, “main contestation is for possession of control over space which had been in common usage over three generations.” Local activists are accused of playing politics and not speaking up for one side, either because of their own loyalties or because they do not want to play up internal fissures at the cost of a common Dalit front.
Female voices are quite absent in the few English reports on the Sandaiyur wall. Many videos online feature women but they are so short, the women barely speak a sentence or two. The reports mention visits by two fact-finding teams, one of which has a couple of women members. Conflicting narratives and modes of resolution seem to be firmly in the hands of men. We do not know how women and children are affected and we do not know how they view the dispute.
Women bring alternative standpoints to a situation, seeing what an all-male team might miss, asking different questions and putting other women at ease to speak about their own situations. What would we have learned had there been more reports that featured women interviewees, or if feminist organisations had done the fact-finding?
What would we have learned if the experts interviewed had been women? Perhaps women would have spoken about previous patterns of land use and the local history of inter-caste relationships. Perhaps we would know more about common spaces in the village, removed from the battle ground, where women still interact. Perhaps we would have learned about the first acts of harassment and humiliation that women and girls experienced along the dividing line.
All conflicts have gendered consequences. Men are at the forefront of armed hostilities and more likely to be hurt or killed. In a conflict like this, where access to common ground is impaired, women are likely to have to walk further for water, firewood or to sites of work, whether farming or the forest or the market. Schooling and play are interrupted, but especially for girls, as physical insecurity prompts parents to limit their time outside the home.
As the two conflict parties stack up mutual accusations, incidents of gender-based violence (molestation, humiliation, ‘honour’ killing) become potent weapons that make it ever harder to soften their stance. ‘Honour’ killings or caste-based killings that follow inter-caste romances are gender-based, seeking to punish the couple or at least hurt or kill the man and his family. In other words, a different kind of wall is enforced.
But gendered roles and expectations also open up opportunities. Where men speak out in adversarial terms, it is harder for them to simply cross lines and talk. However, women played a significant part in the Mohalla Committees that kept communal peace in Mumbai.
Peacemakers in Kenya narrate how the women of one village were able to invite themselves over “as women” to another village with which there was a conflict, and simply open dialogue that way. Around the world, women organise as “mothers” to gain access to the public sphere, especially to fight for male relatives who are victims of enforced disappearances. In other words, patriarchy’s dismissal of women actually enables them to take action that is seen as harmless but is effective.
The inclusion of women in fact-finding and mediation exercises is important for other reasons. Violence against women, children, the elderly and inform is both an early warning sign of conflict as well as an enduring legacy thereof. Rising levels of interpersonal violence, in private and public spheres, are a reliable indicator that could prompt preventive interventions. While men dominate the public sphere conversation, women are able to gain access to homes and gatherings of women and children to hear their insights and experiences.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and other ‘women, peace and security’ resolutions mandate the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peace processes. The Indian government has not adopted a National Action Plan on 1325 on the grounds that there are no conflicts in India, just disturbed areas. Furthermore, people believe “conflict” must involve armies or at least armed groups, so advocacy around 1325 seems like a lost cause.
And then, you hear about the wall in Sandaiyur and the challenge of finding a common story in the context of deeply entrenched structural conflict. Suddenly, the mandate to listen to women, to invite them to contribute to conflict analysis and to setting the terms of resolution, seems relevant.
When stratification and hierarchy are so deeply entrenched, it is naïve to pretend we live in a conflict-free zone. Women, battling through barriers and violence, know this truth intimately but also know through experience that even 50-foot walls can be worn down.