Magazine article New Internationalist

Respect and Respectability: Our Women Are the Most Respected and Most Liberated in India, and That Is Probably the Most Repeated Phrase in Kerala, but Not Everyone Agrees

Magazine article New Internationalist

Respect and Respectability: Our Women Are the Most Respected and Most Liberated in India, and That Is Probably the Most Repeated Phrase in Kerala, but Not Everyone Agrees

Article excerpt

BULLSHIT,' says Nata Duvvury, quietly. She is responding to the theory which holds that Kerala's women are more sexually liberated than others in India and that this is thanks to the customs of the Nair caste. This traditionally dominant caste was matrilineal -- which means property was inherited through the female as opposed to the male line. And it was quite common -- and respectable -- for Nair women to have a succession of lovers, providing they came from an equal or the highest, Namboodiri, caste.

Many researchers have interpreted this as sexual autonomy. But, no, insists Nata -- feminist and co - director of the Institute of Imaging Technology in Trivandrum. 'Their brothers decided who they should sleep with. They had no real choice in the matter. It was prostitution -- except they were not paid for it.'

Even matrilineage was not as good for women as it's cracked up to be. Women might nominally own the land but the major decisions were still made by men. So it became easy for men to turn family land assets into cash which they then controlled.

But the fact remains that on paper the women of Kerala are much better off than their sisters in the rest of India. Female literacy is at 87 per cent -- compared with the 29 per cent in India as a whole. Kerala women have on average two children as opposed to four. They are far more likely to go into higher education. And they hold 30 per cent of government jobs. The women's wing of the communist movement is to be thanked for much of this.

Women were also at the forefront of the mass literacy campaign of the 1970s. 'It was virtually run by girls and young women who wanted to do something apart from getting a BA and getting married,' says Nata. This sounds fine. But it does not really fit with what I see and hear in Kerala today. Why, for example, are restaurants and coffee houses segregated? Why are there so few women out on the streets of Trivandrum after dusk? -- far fewer than in Bangalore, the capital of the neighbouring, comparatively backward, state of Karnataka. Why are there no women what - soever on a large communist student march held in downtown Trivandrum at seven in the evening? And why, oh why, when I ask a 25 - year - old woman with two degrees what she thinks about the dowry system does she giggle nervously, turn to her husband and ask him what he thinks she should answer?

Is this equality? Is this liberation? What is going on?

Female equality" in Kerala means women should be able to get jobs and contribute to the household income,' Nata explains. 'That's as far as it goes. It does not involve questioning roles or the whole nature of the male - female relationship. Key feminist issues like housework, domestic violence, women's bodies and the meanings of masculinity and femininity, are not being discussed in Kerala today except among a very small minority of women.

People here are also very proud that we do not have dowry deaths; "it's not like in the barbaric North" they say. But we do have dowry deaths -- the difference is that they usually take the form of suicide. There is a very high incidence of young girls killing themselves because the dowry system is so oppressive and they do not want to be a burden on their parents.' The newspapers recently carried a story about three sisters hanging themselves for this reason.

Dowries in Kerala are phenomenal and, with the influence of remittances from Keralites working in the Gulf states, growing. What is so surprising to an outsider is that women in Kerala do not protest against it in any organized way. 'Even the most educated women go along with it,' says Nata. 'You have young women working just to raise money for their dowries... You have communist women going along with the system because they are afraid of upsetting their parents.'

Finally Nata says the word that has been lurking in the back of my mind. 'Women in Kerala are so proper.'

Proper is not the word that springs to mind in relation to Kamala Das, a poet and short - story writer who has caused outrage in Kerala. …

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