Those halcyon days of matrilineal Kerala are history, misogyny rules today
There is stunned disbelief at the recent horrific rape and murder of a law student in Kerala. Surely, not in a state that boasted a matrilineal society? What about those fantastic parameters, the top ranking in education, health? The north, stuck forever with its image as brutish badlands, can’t believe that Kerala can join its ranks in sexual violence of the worst kind.
Kerala is having an equally tough time believing that its reputation as a haven of progressive feminism is in tatters. In a Facebook post, actor Mammootty points out that every time some ghastly act of perversion was reported in national media, the response in Kerala was: That could never happen here. But it did actually, and not just once. The day after the superstar exhorted fellow Malayalis to be real heroes and “protect” their women yet another case came in from Varkala – the gang rape of a nursing student.
The fact is that everyday sexism of the most repressive kind has been rampant in Kerala for decades now, other kinds of progress notwithstanding. It is a dichotomy but it is real. A report based on National Crime Records Bureau data published in TOI the same day that Jisha’s murder made headlines revealed shocking figures for 2014 – in Kerala crimes against women are higher than the national average, plus rape grew by an unbelievable 436%, assaults 246%, sexual harassment 980%, and cases of cruelty by husband by 82% over the last decade.
Scholars and experts can’t square this with admirable advances in the big parameters – education, health, sex ratio. They are trying hard to juggle figures and ferret out possible theories to explain it.
But all you have to do is to step out on to the streets and ask the ordinary woman who lives, works and commutes in the state, negotiating its society and streets every day and none of them will be surprised by the violence. If anecdotal evidence were enough, these figures would not have been necessary to prove the worst kept secret of all times – that Kerala has been misogynistic for a long time now. Not all the literacy in the world, or good health, can fix that.
The problem is the small, common, quotidian acts of repression and violence that rarely get talked about because they have been assimilated over a long time. Like Delhi did for a long time, you ignore these at your own peril. Nirbhaya had to happen some day after decades of the much indulged male pastime of chhed khaani in Delhi. Jisha too had to happen some day.
First things first. Those halcyon days of matrilineal Kerala, if they existed in the idealised state we fondly imagine (along with those fantastic practices of Nair women who sent husbands packing by putting out their slippers and umbrella), are long past, never to come back again. It is history and over the last 50 years and more it is hard to come across a family where it is practised.
If you ask grandmothers, they will scratch their heads and say: Well, we did hear about that and my grandmother’s aunt did have three husbands … So everyone who thinks that Malayali women still enjoy unfettered freedoms inherited from that world perish the thought.
A sure sign of a truly liberal society is how safe its women are on the streets. Take a city like Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. Past sunset, waiting for a bus at the central depot is an act of peril, the menace in male eyes is unmistakable. What could you be doing here if you aren’t up to some disreputable tricks, it says. Lewd remarks, stalking, groping – working women in the city can tell you how difficult it is to reach home unmolested.
Families are full of stories of aunts harassed after movie shows, cousins running home from bus stops through dark alleys to avoid street-corner louts. There are umpteen reports of single women travellers in the state recalling the menace of the unrelenting stare.
From the street to cyber space was a short step. It is now common knowledge that vile, sexually abusive online trolling of women is a Kerala specialty. Most of this filth is directed at women in public life, especially those who don’t care what society thinks of how they dress, work or live – television presenter Ranjini Haridas, journalist Sandhya Menon, actor Rima Kallingal or Shweta Menon – few have escaped this misogynistic rage.
Very early in their lives, girlhood in fact, Malayali women are introduced to an expression by the patriarchs of the family, and the matriarchs too: adakkavum othukkavum. It defines the parameters of acceptable behaviour for women; loosely translated it means control and docility. It is a sought after combo in brides, to be encouraged in daughters and generally expected of all womanhood. Even the seductive heroines on screen had to do the come hither routine with a lot of adakkam and othukkam. It encourages you to acquiesce, accept, not rebel or question – an argumentative, spirited woman is the worst thing possible in polite society.
Jisha, a destitute young Dalit woman who was fighting her circumstance and trying to build a better life for herself, certainly did not fit this ideal. Which explains why neither her neighbourhood nor the authorities could be bothered with her death.http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/story-behind-the-rape-those-halcyon-days-of-matrilineal-kerala-are-history-misogyny-rules-today/