Respect And Respectability

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Respect and respectibility
‘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…

Kerala, India. ‘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 whatsoever 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. Her autobiography My Story prompted local critics to call her ‘immoral’ and ‘a nymphomaniac’.

I read it before going to interview her and find it humorous and refreshing. I am greeted by a woman who looks you straight in the eye, talks more or less non-stop and has an enormous power to entertain. She has just received a phone call from a stranger who asks if he can love her. She told him he couldn’t and put the phone down. ‘I’m pushing 60 and it happens all the time,’ she says, without a hint of coquetry.

Why does it happen? ‘I don’t know. Because I am a woman and I have written about sex?’

The irony is that much of her writing about sex is about how disappointing she found it. She describes making love with her husband as ‘a marital chore’ she endured every night from the age of 15.

Her extra-marital affairs came a bit closer to fulfilling her quest for sexual love. But from her autobiography you sense that the reality of sex never matched the erotic sensuality she was able to pursue in her poetry and her daily experience of living.

Finally she took the plunge, became celibate and concentrated on her writing. ‘After that my husband and I got on like a house on fire. We became the best of friends. I encouraged him to take another lover: someone unlike me, someone who was good in bed.’

Was it the sex that threw Kerala – or the candour? Or the combination of both coming from a woman? When she came back to the state – having become famous in Calcutta – she was greeted by death threats and a dead dog laid at her door. ‘They compared me unfavourably with my mother, a famous poet who had written 43 books of poems about motherhood and devotion to her husband.’

Kamala Das chose not to write in her mother tongue, Malayalam, but in English. ‘When you are writing poetry you should not have too many inhibitions and this society has very powerful inhibitions. I often feel like I am an Egyptian mummy, tightly wrapped.’

'Outrageous' poet Kamala Das: photo Vanessa Baird Our interview breaks off because she is due to go and receive a literary award. Is she becoming a part of the establishment? She shrugs. Why don’t I come and see?

We arrive at the hall near Trivandrum’s famous Padmananhaswamy temple. A series of men get on stage and talk, in Malayalam, about her work. Young women students look on eagerly. Suddenly they all disappear. It’s getting dark, they must go home. The men remain, looking stern.

A short man is speaking agitatedly, his voice rising to a crescendo. Finally Kamala informs me: ‘This man is saying I am immoral, a corrupter of youth and that my poetry is unintelligible’. But if it’s unintel… never mind.

She makes a short speech to the sea of inscrutable faces, thanking them for the award. On the way out she asks ‘Why do they do this to me?’ But she knows full well the answer. There are so many ways to punish a woman who steps out of line.

Which is greater in Kerala? The price women pay for being ‘respectable’ or the price for not being so? I know from experience that if you so much as meet the eyes of a man in public it is seen as an invitation to sexual harassment; and once the system of men and women sitting apart on buses is broken down by over-crowding it’s open season for groping. The caution and respectability of Kerala’s women is clearly a strategy for avoiding abuse. But it is in itself a kind of abuse – abuse by suffocation rather than violation.

I remember a boat arriving at the hotel at Quilon where I was staying and watching a middle-aged man and a woman in her teens climbing out. They sat down and he ordered a beer.

At the next table some men in a group were drinking. The young woman returned their stares with a casual indifference, jangling a set of keys in her hand. She smiled knowingly as she eavesdropped on their conversation. Her style seemed quite natural and familiar to me.

As she followed the man to his room I found myself torn by conflicting thoughts and feelings. The man was using her body.

But the aura of autonomy about her, of freedom from ‘respectability’, was undeniable. She was a prostitute but, unlike the ‘respectable’ Nair women of the past, she was getting paid for it.


A tale of two Naxalites
A cup of tea with the revolutionaries who were a thorn in the side
of both landowners and the Communist Party.

photo by VANESSA BAIRD Mandakini and Ajitha are mother and daughter. They also share a political past – as members of the notorious Maoist Naxalite movement. But Ajitha is the better known: she was the 19-year-old who took part in a guerilla attack on a police station in the Wynad region, during which a police officer was killed.

That was back in 1969. Now Ajitha and her mother live a quiet family life in a suburb of Calicut. To get to their house you pass lazy grazing cows, little streams, coconut trees and brightly painted houses.

Ajitha’s politics have changed. She is now deeply involved in the feminist movement and has started a radical group called Bodhana – which means ‘awareness’. She greets me warmly, serves tea and starts talking about her life:

‘I grew up with revolutionary ideas. My father was leader of the Naxalites here in Kerala. When I was 19 I dropped out of college to devote myself to political activism.

‘The aim of attacking the police station was to start the armed struggle in the Wynad area. We were impatient for a revolution. I was not in a leading position but because I was the only woman in that group the newspapers concentrated on me. We were all caught a few days later and our whole dream was shattered.

‘The next seven-and-a-half years I spent in jail. I cannot say I was treated well – there was a lot of mental torture. I was not allowed to receive letters from my mother and father, who were also in jail. But I used to read a lot. That kept me going.

‘My political beliefs did not change then but I found I could not agree with what many Naxalites were doing. Individual killings and personal vendettas were being pursued. Naxalites ended up not trusting each other.

‘The main political change for me came in the 1980s when I came into contact with feminist ideas – and that is what I have been involved with since.

photo by VANESSA BAIRD ‘I think the situation of women in Kerala is really very bad. Men think they have the right to molest and rape. The family atmosphere is very oppressive. Women in Kerala are generally very meek and do not protest – I believe they are actually more repressed than elsewhere in India.

‘At a more global level I see feminism and the environmental movement as the only forces that could challenge the New World Order.’

Mandakini is sitting on the verandah. What does she think of the changes she has seen in her lifetime?

‘When I first arrived here in the 1950s it was very exciting. There was so much activism. Today I find Kerala very claustrophobic, especially when I see all the temples. You can’t blame ordinary people for turning to religion, for looking there for a glimmer of hope. There’s not much for them – there is so much unemployment and the cost of living is so high.

‘I have withdrawn from political activism myself – partly for health, partly for family reasons. But I like to keep in touch with what is going on in the world. When I see them pulling down the statues of Marx and Lenin I feel strange. But we need to move on, for socialism to take other forms. It’s a period of churning up. New visions, new ideologies must come up.

‘For Ajitha the way forward is through feminism. Maybe this is the way. In our Naxalite days there was never the perception of women as a mass that could be mobilized. In fact she and I were the only women in the movement here…’

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