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In The Shadow Of Violence

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

08 March, 2005
The Hindu

"Kerala may be the most literate state in the country but it's going to the dogs. And let me tell you the women of Kerala are equally to blame. All they want is gold ornaments, a posh house, good food and rich boys for their daughters. Let us not have any pretence about it."

The statement, in a roomful of South Asian feminist women writers last year, was greeted with a shocked silence. No one knew how to respond.

And it was only Sugata Kumari's stature as Kerala's most admired, respected woman activist and writer, that prevented her from being verbally mauled.

Sugata Kumari also bemoaned the lack of interest in issues like the ruining of rivers by the sand mining mafia and an unbelievable water shortage in the land of rivers, tanks and ponds.

But literacy does not mean education in the deepest sense of the word. It puzzles me that with such a vibrant media — there is no doubt that the Malayalam newspapers have far more intelligent reading material than the country's highest circulation English ones — there is such a lackadaisical approach to burning issues.

Is this because of the consumerist culture that has taken over Kerala since the Gulf boom and attained obscene levels now? Why else would educated women allow themselves to be paraded before prospective grooms wearing ostentatious silks and adorned with heavy jewellery, which would be considered hideously vulgar in more discriminating circles?

Why would a supposedly politically aware society allow itself to be caught in the self-destructive web of dowry? Or countenance the ongoing humiliation of their women, their daughters and sisters at the hands of insensitive, loutish men? Even after innumerable tragic suicides and public outcry, life after dowry goes on unabated.

I use Kerala figuratively, because it is the most literate, politically aware State. Obviously, the situation is far worse in most other States. I focus on Kerala, because the statistics of rape, pornography scandals, sexual abuse and sexual harassment make it a terrible place for women to live in.

And I continue to try to make sense of this seemingly incomprehensible conundrum.

Why do women of Kerala who are literate, who produce the most number of doctors and engineers in the country, put up with this outrageous set up? Yet they do and nothing changes.

Many young Malayali women said that they felt much safer in Gujarat or Mumbai and hated coming to Kerala because a simple stroll down the street would mean putting up with lewd, obnoxious remarks from roadside Romeos.

Yet for every woman who hates it, there are those who have internalised the message from all regional and Hindi mainstream films. A boy meets a girl by chasing her. She may pretend she doesn't like it, but ultimately she will succumb.

Older adivasi women in Gudalur Valley have articulated this, complaining that the behaviour of young girls is changing because of the silly, inane films they watch ; in this case Tamil and Malayalam.

Can't women's groups campaign to end "eve teasing"? It's a term I loathe because it trivialises the stronger and more appropriate "sexual harassment". The change will be difficult but not impossible.

We need to hold discussions in high schools and colleges, in forums where films are screened and discussed, where good films are juxtaposed with stupid ones and students taught to be discriminating. We need to have women police arrest men who harass women.

We need to have local newspapers and TV channels highlight abuse, to be watchdogs so that the men who perpetrate sexual crimes do not do so with impunity.

We need to change the way our films portray women. Surely we are entering a stage where our audiences are becoming more discriminating?

Women's groups should lobby with actors and directors known for above average work. We need to form an intelligent filmmakers' society to question the stupid portrayal of women, which results in domestic violence, abuse, rape and sexual harassment. Intelligent interpretations of the Draupadi and Sita stories should be part of discussion groups starting among schoolchildren.

If we begin to articulate these ideas, publicly and regularly in educational and social forums, at least the rhetoric changes. That's an incremental change, no doubt.

But if we create an environment where domestic violence, female foeticide, sexual harassment and dowry are viewed by society as shameful, openly condemnable, something no mother would countenance with equanimity in her sons, society would begin to change.

At least, we would have made a beginning towards becoming the civilised society we claim to have once been.











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