Pineapples and Oranges, Brahmins and Shudras: Periyar Feminists and Narratives of Gender and Regionality in South India

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Keywords: gender, feminism, development, Dravidian Social Movements

Pineapples and Oranges, the title of this paper, is the metaphor for caste difference that "Periyar feminists"(1) employed in a consciousness raising activity at the Periyar Polytechnic school for girls in Tamil Nadu, south India. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate the persistence of caste difference, and the shared experiences of women who followed Hindu practices. The activity was designed for the mostly lower, "Backward Caste"(2) teachers and staff who work at the school. Women were seated in a circle and arbitrarily designated in sequence as "pineapples, apples, bananas or oranges." These fruits correspond to Brahmins, Kshatryias, Vaiyshas and Shudras, the four Varna which hierarchically classify people within the Hindu caste system. The women were asked to stand up and move to distinguish whom they could marry and with whom they would normally socialize. In response, pineapples, representing Brahmins, congregated at one portion of the circle while oranges, representing Shudras, ended up opposite them. After many more questions, the women were encouraged to imagine a society where fruits mixed, by moving about the circle in free association.

During the winter of 2000, I lived in the Periyar Polytechnic and participated in the events organized by Periyar feminists, including the activity described above. I sought to answer the call by Kamala Visweswaran for feminist anthropology to consider the "shape feminism takes in other parts of the world," (Visweswaran, 1995: 615) including the relationship between feminism and women's participation in related social movements. While women's social and political agency is well documented by feminist anthropology, only more recently is some attention paid to the diverse responses of women as actors in social movements and their deployment of feminism specifically in these forms of activism.(3) This is an important direction for feminist anthropology to take, in order to apprehend women's participation in modernity, and because "feminism" itself is now an "inescapable term of reference" (Abu-Lughod, 1998: 3) in the gender politics of postcolonial societies. Specifically, women's activism unfolds in specific social contexts and it articulates with pre-existing or emergent ideologies and practices, including nationalist, environmental, labour, and fundamentalist mobilizations. These movements impact on the way women interpret feminist practices and the way social issues, gendered experiences and utopian visions are imagined.

In this paper I examine the way Periyar feminists in south India draw upon their attachment to a social movement in their interpretation of feminism. I explore the extent to which Periyar feminism provides a context for the emergence of critical practices that attend to inequalities of caste, gender and class and the extent to which it provides avenues for making changes in women's lives.

Periyar feminists are teachers and staff who formed POWER, a women's organization and NGO, during an exchange with educators in Newfoundland, Canada. However, the structure of the organization and the analysis of women's "empowerment" and "inequality" which informs their activities is framed by their membership in a regional social movement, the Dravidiar Kazhagam. This movement emerged during the height of resistance to British colonial rule in the early 20th century and forms the basis for Dravidian nationalism in Tamil Nadu. Periyar feminism resonates with this ideology and the particular vision of its founder, E.V. Ramsamy Naicker, who is fondly and reverently known to his followers, as Periyar, meaning the "Great Leader."(4) Hence, women's oppression is officially understood as an effect of Brahmin and Hindu dominance, and religious, caste and linguistic difference within India. At the same time, POWER is an organization that explicitly draws upon feminist practices. …