Ayyappa Is Genderfluid, and Trans Women Will Enter Sabarimala
Discussion of the SC judgment so far restricted to cisgenders
The Supreme Court judgement over Sabarimala has promulgated a narrative so deeply binary in the gender discourse that trans devotees of Lord Ayyappa have felt secluded from the whole context. But the recent entry of four transwomen aged below 50, wearing sarees and gaining entry to the shrine, has heralded gender inclusivity in the otherwise transphobic Ayyappan culture, which has never before allowed transwomen to enter in feminine attire.
Avantika, Renjumol, Ananya and Trupthi, the four transwomen who hail from Kochi and Kottayam, expressed their wish to visit Sabarimala “as they were ardent devotees and had the constitutional right after the historic Supreme Court verdict”. To their dismay they had to face harrasment and scornful remarks from Erumely police, who stopped them from heading to the temple on the pretext of a law and order situation, and openly wondered whether the SC judgement applied to them.
From being called “things” to repeatedly being questioned on their clothing, the group faced threats of being jailed, and verbal abuse triggered by the ultimate level of transphobia.
Nor are such discriminatory attitudes the first time that transpeople have been subjected to abuse by self-proclaimed ‘vanguards of tradition and law’.
In 2013 Sheethal Shyam, a renowned trans activist and emerging actor from the community who recently acted in the Malayalam film Aabhaasam went to Sabarimala for a cultural performance and faced disdainful behaviour at the hands of police.
“Yes, it is commonly seen that the police stop trans people for ‘verification purposes’ giving them the licence to misbehave. I am not a devotee of Ayyappa but was there in Sabarimala for a ritualistic dance performance with a group who were all performers. There we were seen as a public spectacle, and faced sexual harassment at the hands of policemen, who tried to touch me and my companions inappropriately in the garb of taking selfies with us. It is extremely humiliating to recount. I would never like to visit the site again,” said Shyam.
This along with several other incidents in the past around the entry of transgender persons underscores the pertinent transphobia faced by the community.
Viewing Sabarimala from a gender fluid lens Sheethal Shyam said, “Ayyappa was born in Satyugam and has a gender fluid character, where the union of Mohini (Vishnu) and Shiva leads to his birth. Mohini is perceived as a transwoman by our community. This foreshadows a more organic and inclusive relationship with her progeny, Ayyappa, so it is diabolical to restrict or harass trans devotees when their deity itself has gender fluid roots.”
The Supreme Court in its judgement has also reinforced the same.
The rich tapestry of folklore and textual material did not have any clauses for the exclusion of any section in Ayyappan culture. “In books like Bhagwatam and Shankaracharitam nothing is mentioned regarding the non-entry of women or transwomen on grounds of menstruation or any other vilifying reasons. Besides, transwomen do not mentruate and so can complete the 41-day penance required to qualify for temple entry,” said Shyam.
So, if the group of four transwomen had completed that period, were carrying the ritualistic irrumudikkettu (bag of offerings for the deity) and had nothing to do with the idea of menstruation - why must they be reprimanded for exercising their constitutional rights?
“In Sabarimala rituals are being bent to suit the convenience of the patriarchs,” said Vihaan Peethambar, a trans activist and board member of Queerala, an active LGBTIQA+ organisation based in Kerala.
He was amused by the irrational logic the police tried to give in order to restrict the entry of the four transwomen after the rumpus. Criticising the whole act of getting ‘permission’ from the Pandalam royal kingdom and the Tanthri family Peethambar said, “It is sheer ignorance and inherent transphobia displayed by Erumely Police. They are obligated by the state’s Transgender Policy to know how to respect and protect people of diverse gender identities. I am quite surprised why there was any need for a panel even to consider their entry. It is quite evident that people in Kerala need a basic refresher course on the difference between sex and gender - its nuances. They need to stop limiting every topic to the lives of cisgender people.”
Shruthi Sitara, winner of a trans beauty pageant in 2018, the second of its kind held in Kerala, showed her support to the four transwomen and their resolve in climbing to the shrine. A firm believer in the idea of egalitarian society, Sitara said, “Being an Ayyappan devotee and a feminist I want my community to feel empowered by the SC judgement. They must be aware of their rights safeguarded by the highest body of justice which they exercised.”
Sithara is currently posted as project assistant at the Ernakulam Trans Cell which comes under the Kerala government’s social justice department.
“In Kerala the government’s recognition of trans people has been very strong in the form of setting up a transgender justice board, beauty pageant, sports meet, reservation in universities and many more opportunities. But when it comes to societal acceptance there is still a long way to go, due to transphobia,” said Malayali historian and social critic J.Devika from Trivandrum.
“In the present context of Sabarimala, you see how the statements by the Hindutva right wing are very transphobic, against which the community had earlier taken out a protest. It is empowering and commendable that these four women should go to the shrine amid the lurking fear of lynching by hatemongers,” Devika added, saying this “sets a positive precedent for the cisgender women who desire to go to the shrine amid the humongous catastrophic conditions instigated by the right wing.”
In this battle for self-identification, even the use of the term ‘third gender’ vouches for a derogatory meaning to the trans community - leave alone their insensitive treatment by police and society.
“This term ‘third gender’ colloquially outcastes Trans people by positioning the alpha male as the default first gender, women as the second, and placing Trans below the binary genders in a cultivated social hierarchy. Further, the absence of any word in Malayalam to address the Trans community leaves Malayalam media using the English term ‘third gender’ to denote them which is contemptuous,” said the feminist critic Devika.
The largely transphobic society and culturally sanctioned norms of behaviour imposed by bigots have disavowed some of the most progressive Supreme Court rulings, like on Sabarimala in Kerala.
Reinstating vihaan, the state needs more educated masses than literate ones, to keep pace with the transforming society.