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How Kerala Behaves With Women

By Sreedevi Jacob

23 June, 2004
The Quest Features & Footage

The Malayala Manorama, the largest circulated daily in the country, recently did what no other newspaper has done in recent times: it ran a series of articles from anuary 30 to February 3, exposing the difficulties and trauma that women in the most literate state in India were experiencing in public, thanks to its men. Theseries was unique in its packaging, had tremendous impact, and got an unprecedented official response. Titled `(How) Kerala behaves with women’, the newspaper in its introduction to the series said it was decided to run these articles ``against the backdrop of the increasing incidents of atrocities against women in Kerala as well as the spiralling women empowerment initiatives in the light of Panchayat Raj.’’ The Chief Minister AK Antony had recently told the Assembly that since he came to power - in less than three years - 326 women had committed suicide, 20 sex rackets were busted and 185 women were kidnapped. The series sought to find out how safe women were to travel alone, spend some time in a public place, go for a movie, etc, and the results were alarming.

Six women reporters of the paper - K R Meera, M Vineetha Gopi, Rani George, Subha Joseph, Neetha Mary James and Gayathri Muralidharan - travelled across the state, through the cities and districtcapitals, from January 14 to January 20, unescorted, to get a first hand experience of the safety and security that God’s Own Country was offering them. And they were mostly greeted with obscene comments, suspicious glances and physical advances.

Here are some of their experiences which came under collective bylines: On January 14, as soon as she boarded the general compartment of the Chennai ail at 3.30 pm from Kollam (about 70 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram), the reporter became the centre of attention. She was the only woman in the compartment and hands began reaching out to her from all directions. While she held on to a seat to balance herself, the passenger seated there decided to push himself back and rest his head on her hands. Those passing by made it a point to finger her, en route. Sensing danger, hurriedly she moved towards the door.

But ordeal was not over. A man was sitting near the door, extending his legs casually across it, in such a manner that she had to cross over them to reach the door. On her request, he moved one leg and as soon as she moved forward, he kept the other leg intact, restraining her between his legs. The reporter requested several times and tried to push the leg with her bag, but bore no result. She was almost in tears when she could finally move out.

The experiences of another reporter who boarded the Kannur-Kanhangad (the orthern end of Kerala) bus at 12 a.m the next day was no different. A middle-aged man chose to position himself against the seat where she was sitting and each time the driver applied brakes he would lean on her. Finally she created a wall between them with her bag! If the passenger was so undisciplined, the driver was evenworse. He had positioned the mirror to focus on schoolgirls and was making faces at them!

The reports revealed that if a woman was found alone on a beach or in a bus stand, more often than not she was taken for a sex worker. One of the reporters who went to the Kozhikode beach on an evening soon found a man sitting next to her, as if they came along together. The more the woman moved away from him, the closer he came to her. When she got up to leave she was confronted with teenaged boys whistling tunes. In Kochi, the commercial capital of the state, the investigative journalist had to run away from Marine Drive, the green patch facing backwaters.

Exhibitionists presented themselves from all strata of society here, and added to this were policemen who had little concern for women preferring to come alone. When the reporter was walking towards her hotel from the Thiruvananthapuram ailway station, autodrivers chose to follow her in their vehicles uttering obscene invitations. They also continued to wait outside the hotel she checked into!

The only places the reporters felt safe were the state transport bus stands at Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram. While they were greeted with enquiring eyes from the public, the law enforcers were quick to react. Says a report: ``As soon asI reached the KSRTC bus stand at Ernakulam, the police approached me and asked where I wanted to go. On saying that I had to go to Kottayam, they showed me a bus headed for Madurai via Kottayam, and advised that I had better take it because the buses which were to follow would be crowded.’’ At the state capital also, when the reporter was waiting alone in the bus stand, disturbed by unhealthy gazes and urious observers, the police approached and guided her to the ladies waiting room.

The autorickshaw drivers in Palakkad, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Kottayam were the remaining good souls. When the reporter reached the Alappuzha railway station by train at 7.45 PM, she requested an auto driver to take her to a safe place for stay. He consulted with the other drivers in the stand and took her to a paying guest home. The driver assured her of all security and was even ready to leave his name and address!

The Malayala Manorama also supported its reports with surveys. In a survey it held among 1200 women who travel frequently, 72 per cent of the women said theywere not safe while travelling. Sixty per cent said they had to put up with unruly behaviour from men. Sixty one per cent of the women had to travel frequently after nightfall too, and were found to be at a higher risk. Even those driving vehicles complained of men chasing them and curtailing their path. It was found that women going to movies were often pinched and kicked by men. Villages were found comparatively safer than cities and district capitals.

The reports triggered unprecedented reactions from the public. The edit page wasflooded with letters supporting the reports and many public figures chose to narrate their experiences. Prof J Chandra, Mayor, Thiruvananthapuram, described her sordid experiences while travelling and wondered about the cultural growth/development of the state. Dr Elizabeth of Thrani Counselling Centre also had a horrifying experience to narrate.

In the Letter to Editor column, G Meera from Thrissur, narrated how she was searched’ by a male passenger while travelling by a bus. When she protested, he abused her. Her husband who was sitting at the back of the bus interfered. While a section of the women passengers supported her, a sizeable section was unhappy that they were late to office because of this tussle in the bus. Some men felt her husband should not have interfered in the matter as he was an educated man. And the conductor pleaded with them not to report to the police as it would delay his trip. Madhuri Warrier, a retired employee, complained about the male incursion into ladies compartments on trains.

Veteran journalist Leela Menon reacted describing the ordeal two Israeli tourists here subjected to on their visit to Kochi. A fellow passenger tried to molest the woman on the train and on going around Kochi, many pinched her, while many others purposely brushed past her. Men of God’s Own Country have a devil’s mind, she said in the article. Ajitha, noted women’s activist, said she had to face similar difficulties many a time in her social life. Noted poetess Sugathakumari, who was former chairperson of state women’s commission, said the number of policewomen has to be increased and a helpline should be established for women’s safety.

State minister for culture G Karthikeyan and state transport minister R Balakrishna Pillai appreciated the media move. While Karthikeyan described the findings as undeniable, terming the scenario as cultural decadence, Balakrishna Pillai, said the state chief minister and the home ministry have to look into the situation. The survey was raised in the legislative assembly also, where the members - both men and women - supported the findings. The reactions are still pouring in. The government of Kerala, on its part, acted with alacrity. Chief minister A K Antony revealed that he wrote a letter to the state Director General of Police PK Hormis Tharakan asking him to take stringent action against perpetrators of crimes against women. On February 9 (the reports ended on February 3), the chief minister flagged off a special motor cycle squad called Kerala Rangers to nab eve-teasers. Each of the 75 bikes in the squad will have a wireless, first aid, siren, mike and weapons to tackle the criminal. State minister for Industries PK Kunhalikkutty announced that the social welfare department was ready to lead actions for the safety of women.

Surprisingly, the lone voice of dissent came from none other than R Sreelekha, DIG, vigilance. While every other person narrated her personal experience of trauma, Sreelekha felt that women could help themselves a great deal by gathering courage and ignoring male psychological aberrations. She argued this problem was not limited to Kerala and worse things happen in foreign countries. Eve-teasing was negligible compared to other crimes happening in the state, she felt. If the woman cannot react to an offender, she should go to the nearest policeman/woman, she said. Her remarks irked many.

The impact of the reports came as a morale booster to the media in Kerala. In fact, the state in its recent past hasn’t reacted so vehemently to issues other than politics. And the reporters who ran the series are expectedly, satisfied. ``Our aim was to find out how safe Kerala is for women. We had carefully planned out each hase of the investigation. We had a dress code and we carried heavy bags to give an impression that we were serious travellers with definite destinations. Many a time, our male colleagues helped us by following us on our beats,’’ revealed KR Meera, who led the investigation team. A commendable effort indeed in an era where journalism toes the line of marketing strategies and advertisement revenues, rather than focussing on real problems of real people.

(Copy Right: The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi)