Millions Form a 300-Mile Human Chain to Protest Sexism in India

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NEW DELHI — For a few moments on New Year’s Day, millions of women stood shoulder to shoulder along highways in southern India, creating a human wall 300 miles long intended to stand fast against sexism and oppression.

“We are taking the pledge that we will uphold renaissance values,” they chanted. “We will stand for equality for women! We will fight for secularism!”

Though Indians often demonstrate through so-called human chains, the “women’s wall” in the state of Kerala on Tuesday was extraordinary for what prompted it.

For months, women in India have led a revolt. In the fall, the country’s nascent #MeToo movement suddenly jolted forward. Dozens of urban women posted graphic stories on social media of sexual assault and harassment by public figures in journalism, entertainment, the arts and the highest levels of government. Their protests were unusually successful, and many of the accused men resigned.

More barriers fell in the hours after the women joined hands. Soon after the wall disbanded, shaky video surfaced of two women in long black robes stepping through the golden doors of the Sabarimala Temple, a centuries-old Hindu shrine in Kerala that draws millions of pilgrims every year.

When India’s Supreme Court struck down a rule barring women of childbearing age from the temple, ruling the exclusion unconstitutional, thousands of protesters blocked the entrance of the temple.

Several dozen women had tried to enter the temple, but none made it inside. Angry mobs of men, many of them linked to far-right Hindu nationalist groups, shouted in their faces or threw rocks at them.

Habeeb Ullah, a police officer stationed near the Sabarimala Temple, said the two Hindu women, whose names were given only as Bindu and Kanakadurga, who peacefully entered around 3:45 a.m. Wednesday were “real heroines.”

Access to the temple was but one concern for the many women forming Tuesday’s wall. They preferred to see the gathering as a broad opportunity to highlight gender equality in a country recently named the world’s most dangerous for women.

The Communist Party of India, which governs the state and sponsored the gathering, said Kerala would never again become a “lunatic asylum.”

Addressing a crowd on Tuesday, Subhashini Ali, a member of the party, pushed the rhetoric further, calling out “evil forces” that were trying to manage women’s choices by creating “a floodlike crisis in the name of casteism, tradition and culture.”

“We can speak for ourselves,” she said onstage in the city of Kochi. “We want our rights, our equality and we have to move forward.”

The backgrounds of those forming the wall were mixed. Women came in saris, burqas, nuns’ habits and jeans. Men joined. Participants raised their arms with clenched fists, chattering about raising quotas for women in government posts and improving access for Dalits, low-caste Indians once known as untouchables.

In some areas, crowds swelled so much that participants had to form rows several people deep.

By the afternoon, as many as five million people were believed to be involved, creating a line that stretched north along the coast from the state’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Over 1,000 miles away, smaller groups in the capital, New Delhi, gathered in solidarity.

“It was not just a wall,” said Sajitha Manaakat Veettil, 32, a teacher who participated from Kerala, “it was a great wall.”

Though Kerala’s development measures are better than most Indian states, attributable to higher levels of education and literacy, many participants were realistic about the challenges women face across the country.

When news broke that women had made it inside the Sabarimala Temple, for instance, a Hindu priest shut down the complex for “purification rituals,” which typically occur when blood is spilled or children accidentally urinate.

Protests, fanned by political leaders, broke out around Kerala. According to local news reports, the police moved relatives of one of the woman who entered the temple into a safe house.

Members of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., which is center-right but has ties to Hindu nationalist groups, called news of the women’s entry a “black day.” Other parties also protested, demanding the resignation of top officials in Kerala.

B. Gopalakrishnan, a spokesman for the B.J.P. in Kerala, said some of the women joining the wall had been forced to attend. His cousin’s employer, he said, had told her that if she did not participate in the protest she would lose work opportunities.

Some people were bribed to attend, he said.

“This is not a woman’s wall, it is a compulsion wall,” he said.

Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, a lawyer based in New Delhi who was involved in challenging the temple’s entry restrictions, dismissed those assertions, saying the wall was an “indicator of the strong will of ladies who believe the ban is a superstition.”

The last 24 hours offered a peek at a more inclusive year, Ms. Sethi said.

“This is a harbinger of further good things,” she said. “It’s great. It’s great. It’s great.”

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