Meet Rehana Fathima, who paid (and is still paying) a heavy price for daring to air her views in Kerala

In an affidavit, the government accused activist Rehana Fathima of continuing to disrupt communal harmony. Her supporters say it's a lie!

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 04, 2023 | 4:02 PM Updated Jan 04, 2023 | 4:05 PM

A 2016 photo of Rehana Fathima taking part in 'Puli Kali', a recreational folk tiger dance performed by men during the Onam festival in Thrissur. (Supplied)

“A few things that several people have asked or many others wanted to ask me in 2022.

Why are you not active on social media?
Women voicing their views and responding (to issues) irritate the society…”

Rehana Fathima Pyarijaan Sulaiman thus began her last Facebook post of the year on 31 December 2022.

Once active on social media and in public spaces, airing her views on gender equality, and women’s rights, and often criticising government policies, she has gone almost silent.

Fathima’s silence speaks volumes against the backdrop of Kerala’s CPI(M)-led LDF government submitting an affidavit before the Supreme Court on 18 December. The government opposed relaxing her bail conditions.

Justifying the demand, the government that claims to represent progressive ideals, said she continues to hurt religious sentiments, and promotes enmity between religions.

But her Facebook page with 5,000 friends and 1,60,764 followers carries no such posts as claimed by the Pinarayi Vijayan government.

Instead, she has been on a sabbatical from social media activism for more than four years ago.

The apex court is yet to decide on the affidavit submitted by the state.

A court order and Sabarimala

When South First contacted Fathima for her response to the controversy in which she is embroiled, she said she did not want to further complex the situation by speaking out.

Her former partner and friend Manoj K Sreedhar said there is a tendency in Kerala society to victimise and isolate women who make critical observations on contemporary social issues.

And in the case of Fathima, he said the price she had to pay for social interventions was heavy.

Sreedhar recalled that the Supreme Court last year stayed a Kerala High Court order enforcing a blanket ban on Fathima using any media to express her concerns.


Rehana Fathima surrounded by a posse of policemen, trekking to Sabarimala in 2018. Pro-Hindutva activists stopped her one kilometre away from the temple, and forced her back. (Supplied)

The only condition ratified by the bench of Justice Rohinton F Nariman was that Fathima should not use the media to hurt religious sentiments.

“Despite the relaxation given by the apex court, she decided not to be much active on social media. Except for occasionally sharing pictures or apolitical personal opinions, she never used Facebook,” Sreedhar pointed out.

“But the government is objecting to her request for relaxing the bail conditions, saying that she continues to hurt communal harmony through social media messages. It is a lie that should be exposed,” he added.

Several cases have been pending in different courts in Kerala against Fathima for committing “deliberate and malicious acts” to hurt religious feelings in December 2018 and November 2020.

Police have slapped the cases on Fathima after finding some of her Facebook posts objectionable.

Fathima was one among the few women who attempted — albeit in vain — to trek to Sabarimala, the hilly abode of the celibate deity Lord Ayyappa.

On 28 September, 2018, the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to visit the Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple. Previously, women of menstrual age — defined as those aged between 10 and 50 — were not allowed to visit the temple.

After the court order, a few women attempted to visit the temple despite stiff opposition from right-wing Hindutva forces. Fathima, then aged 31, was one among them.

She posted some critical comments against the court and the government on Facebook, after BJP-RSS workers forced her to return mid-way on 19 October 2018.

“The Sabarimala journey was in the backdrop of the Supreme Court order,” Sreedhar said.

“The charge sheet in the 2018 Sabarimala case has not been submitted,” Fathima continued in her last Facebook post of 2022.

The 2020 ‘body art’

Two years after her aborted bid to visit Sabarimala, Fathima courted another controversy in 2020. She allowed her children, a boy and a girl, to paint on her partially-nude body.

She also posted a video of the children at work on social media. She termed it body art.

Following complaints by BJP-RSS activists, the police invoked Section 67 (electronically transmitting sexually explicit content) of the IT Act and Section 75 (punishment for cruelty to children) of the Juvenile Justice Act against Fathima.


Rehana Fathima (right) with Bindu Ammini (centre), one of the first two women who visited Sabarimala, and activist Amala Anie John. (Supplied)

When she responded to criticisms on social media, the police held it as an attempt to disrupt communal harmony.

A POCSO case also was slapped on her. The case is now in the trial stage.

“People with no grasp about body art are levelling the allegations,” Sreedhar said.

After police registered cases against Fathima, her employer, BSNL, terminated her services. She now rears pets to earn a living.

She is also facing trial in another case in which “communal harmony was disrupted” after she posted pictures of her attending a beef festival and cooking cow meat to protest BJP-RSS-backed cow vigilantes.

The bail conditions

While granting Fathima bail on 14 December, 2018, the Kerala High Court said: “She shall not directly or indirectly, or through any other person, through print, visual, or other electronic media make, share, forward, disseminate or propagate any comment which may affect or has the propensity to affect the religious feelings or sentiments of any community or group of society”.


Rehana Fathima was ousted from Islam, the religion she was born into, for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments. (Supplied)

On 23 November, 2021, the high court made the conditions more stringent by adding that “till the trial is over, the accused shall not directly, indirectly or through any other person publish, transmit, share, upload or disseminate or publish any material or any of her comments through any visual and electronic media open to the public”.

Many legal experts found the conditions arbitrary and against the spirit of natural justice.

Then she went on appeal to the Supreme Court, and the court relaxed the bail norms, and the state government objected.

“It seems the government has raised a false charge against Fathima in the apex court. After all, it’s a so-called Communist government that boasts of its policies against the hate politics of Hindutva rights,” women’s rights activist and scholar J Devika opined.

“The government is now just repeating whatever the right-wing Hindutva is talking about her,” she added.

Fathima’s supporters said the LDF government supported her when she attempted the trip to Sabarimala along with a Hyderabad-based journalist, Kavitha Jakkal.

A large contingent of police and district authorities escorted them up to a kilometre from the temple, where they ran into opposition that threatened violence.

Sensing a possible electoral backlash, the government later distanced itself from her.

The Jama’at too turned against Fathima and expelled her from Islam. The charge was that she had antagonized its Hindu counterparts.

“The state government has submitted to the Supreme Court that her actions have hurt religious sentiments. It’s false and against the tenets of natural justice,” Kukku Devaki, a Kochi-based senior lawyer and activist said.

`”Fathima challenged the patriarchal stereotypes. Sadly, a government that boasts of its idealism and progressive moorings, echoes the allegations of the regressive elements,” PM Laly, actress and activist, said.

Fathima and Kiss of Love

Fathima was first noticed during the “Kiss of Love” event, a nonviolent protest by apolitical youth against moral policing, on 2 February 2014.

She challenged the social mores by getting women to stage the “tiger dance or puli kali“, till then performed exclusively by men during the Onam festival in Thrissur in 2016.


Rehana Fathima advocates openness while discussing the human body, and says that there is nothing to hide about the body. (Supplied)

In the body art case, Fathima argued that she is an activist fighting against body discrimination.

Her affidavits called for openness while discussing the human body, and there is nothing to hide within and outside the family.

She also advocated sex education for children so that they will mature to view the body as it is, rather than seeing it as a sex object.

Fathima also opposed considering society’s morality and public outcry as a reason for prosecution.

To attract an offence under Section 13(C) of the POCSO Act, the cause should be “indecent or the obscene representation of the child”.

The terms “indecency” and “obscenity” are not defined under the POCSO Act or the Indian Penal Code.

She contended that the morality of the Brahmanical society or a society that wants a return to the pre-Constitutional Brahmin-dominated era could not be the touchstone for deciding acts of indecency or obscenity.


Devotees thronging Sabarimala. (Supplied)

Fathima said that a mother’s nudity could not be an indecent representation of the child. She also contended that it will not attract the penal provision under Section 14.

She added that only perverts would have sexual desires by seeing body art.

Fathima’s message accompanying the uploaded, edited video made it clear that she wanted to normalise the feminine body for her children and prevent distorted ideas of sexualisation from pervading their minds.