Kerala becomes 60 years old on 1st November. Over the past 60 years, this Indian state has witnessed phenomenal changes in politics, economy and ecology. Such changes may be true for other Indian states too. Individuals, groups, and communities everywhere in Indiaare indeed changing. But the trajectory of change for the women in Keralais different – both as ‘change makers’ as well as ‘change inheritors’.
Women in Kerala inherited a socio-political system in which they have enjoyed many privileges compared to the women elsewhere in India. The well documented social interventions by progressive Maharajas and Missionaries, socio-political movements led by Marxists and other formations, and reform movements of both backward and upper castes led tothe creation of a more progressive state in which ordinary women were comparatively free and were also looked up with dignity.
In many parts of India, girls are still being considered as burdens and are often not allowed to be even born into this world. Chances of a girl child to be born in Kerala are higher compared to the rest of the country where sex selective abortions are rampant. Women in Kerala are more literate and educated than the rest of India. The state has the country’s highest female literacy rate of 92% compared to Rajasthan’s 53%.
Women in Kerala marry late, indicating their better scope of ‘agency’ and ‘choice’. Their chances of survival as girls, mothers and elderly women are brighter compared to the rest of India. They report crimes against women to the police much more than those who do so in otherstates (leading to the state’s dubious distinction of having India’s third-highest ‘official rate’ of crimes against women in 2011).More women are employed in the organized sector within Kerala and their ‘earned income’ is higher compared to the rest of India.
Women has been significantly contributing to Kerala’s economy, ever since German missionaries and British planters deployed women labourers in the state. In early 20th century out of 81,000 coir making laborers of Alleppey, 61,000 were women. Women were also the backbone of agricultural and construction sectors too, though they are underpaid and work inderisory conditions. Kerala women also independently migrate to foreign countries and earn higher salaries. There are many families in Kerala where women work abroad while their husbands stay back in the state by taking care of their children.
This does not mean that women in Kerala are ‘empowered’andthey actively contribute to the social change in the state as ‘decision makers’. The numbers of women politicians and elected representatives in the stateare very insignificant. In the special context of Kerala where politics is driven by religious, caste, and family factors, the state has not seen many women coming up as independent politicians. Though there are exceptions, women mostly come to politics thanks to their being associated with some powerful male politicians as their family members or as their community/caste peers. Political parties are generally unwilling to offer tickets to women in elections for seats other than that of the mandatory reserved ones.
Freedom of social and spatial mobility is very difficult in the state. Women are not allowed to go alone out of their homes after 6/7 pm. In case any urban women dared to go out at night like their peers in bigger cities of India, they are considered as women of loose moral character. Interactions with boys/men are not permitted beyond a point. In case anyone dared to challenge such norms of mobility and interaction, they are strictly controlled through family and neighbours.
Marriage, family etc. are considered as the raison d’etre and defining aspects of a woman’s existence. The values, norms and myths around these two institutions enforced through religion and tradition are strong enough for the patriarchy to ensure absolute control over Kerala women. All dominant religions in the state are undivided on matters of controlling their women and are enforcing conformity through their shared value systems.
Women are always expected to be obedient. Suffering, caring etc. are attributes exclusively set aside for women. Women’s roles as‘dutiful and chaste wives’and‘loving and sacrificing mothers’are more appreciated in the state than their roles as ‘change makers in politics and public life’.The main onus of maintaining familiesis on women and this prevent them from meaningfully participating in any political activity.
Women saints projected in the state as role models are those who were obedient and unquestionably and silentlysuffered all their pains. Attempts of questioning and challenging are generally discouraged.There were of course great women in Kerala who challenged patriarchy and fought for equality in property rights and actively participated in trade union movements, social reform movements and in various agitations for political change. But at many critical junctures of Kerala’s modern history, patriarchy could rally a section of ‘conservative women’ behind them to sabotage change process. This was possible because the politics in Kerala is mostly scripted by patriarchal caste and religious leaders who always played a significant role in forming and articulating public opinion in the state.
However, with the arrival of social media, modern Kerala is changing very fast. Opinions beyond conservative groups are being articulated and debated widely and frequently. Kerala’s ‘restrictive emphasis on dignified conduct of women’ and over emphasis on certain values which limit women’s social and spatial mobility are being challenged. Innovative forms of agitations against freedom and moral policing are being conducted in the streets too (see ‘Preserve the Kiss of Love’ at the link: http://www.countercurrents.org/sebastian311014.htm )
For the women of Kerala, the 60th birthday of the state opens more avenues for change, growth and freedom. They will show the way for independence and change to ordinary women from other Indian states andfor women from other developing countries too.
(Kandathil Sebastian is a novelist and social development consultant based in Delhi)