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A sinking ship

J Devika | Updated on January 09, 2018

Not all there: The Women’s Commission is working in a way that formally rebuts the charge of inaction but perpetuates Islamophobia-driven inertia. Photo: Sakkir Hussain

The idea of equality is like a dead albatross around the neck of the Kerala Women’s Commission, which claims it has done everything possible to protect Hadiya’s rights

Of all the institutions and individuals stripped bare of pretensions in the wake of the Hadiya case, the Kerala Women’s Commission (KWC), and its present chairperson, the CPM leader MC Josephine, are the most tragic. The case is well-known by now — of the travails of a young Hindu woman who converted voluntarily to Islam and chose her life-partner of that faith, in the face of parental opposition. Over the past few years, Hadiya’s rights have been repeatedly violated. The Kerala High Court annulled her marriage; she had to be dragged physically by the police to her father’s home in Vaikom, Kerala, and kept under the strict control of her father. The Supreme Court (SC) fixed the date to hear her for November 27, giving the man a whole month more to pressure her psychologically, despite videos of her begging to be rescued from her ‘violent’ father.

In this terrible tale of the destruction of women’s rights in Kerala, the ghost that looms piteously over us is that of the dream of women’s equal worth as human beings. Indeed, when I see Josephine twist and turn in her effort to keep up the appearance that the KWC has done everything possible to protect Hadiya’s rights, Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ rises up in my mind’s eye.

The KWC is a ship many of us have tried to get upon in since the 1990s, one that powerfully weathered the rocky seas of the State’s misogynist politicians. Many a time has it wandered into icy waters; each time to be guided back to safety by the albatross of the dream of women’s equality, fostered and nourished by feminists in the civil society and the women’s wings of Left-leaning political parties. In 2002, when the then-government made an outrageous bid to dissolve the KWC, it was the combined pressure of the Kerala Sthree Vedi, composed of critical feminist voices from the civil society, the Peoples’ Science Movement, and the Left women’s organisations that protested and had it restored. What bound them was the common dream of women’s equality, dead now. Like the foolish sailors in Coleridge’s poem who think that it was good that the bird was dead now, the shortsighted ‘intellectuals’ and activists of the Left, gloat. Yet, it looms over the desolate field troubling those who abandoned it.

I imagine a similar fate befalling Josephine. I see her wander all over Kerala, trying to explain, expiate, extricate. But her tale will not unbraid fully. The ghost of our dream of women’s equality will hang around her neck like a dead albatross.

When we tried to meet her, anxious, desperate, begging her to visit Hadiya, she was not in office. “Madam is busy with party meetings,” said her assistant. Here we were, bearing a memorandum urging her to intervene; there was she, who ought to have found the time to hear us directly, busy with party work. In the statements she has made about the Hadiya case, Josephine does not reach out to other women concerned about gender justice in the State; they often ring with Islamophobia and contemptuous judgement about the choices of other women. Her actions reveal subservience to the courts and police, and wariness to exercise the KWC’s powers democratically. In other words, under Josephine’s leadership, the Commission acts mechanically. It, however, refuses democratic dialogue with the aggrieved. For example, the director has submitted a report to the SC in pursuance of its mandate to inspect any place where a woman may be confined and report to the government. While ignoring civil society and others who raised the issue, it is working in a way that formally rebuts the charge of inaction but perpetuates Islamophobia-driven inertia. To turn the KWC into an automaton is to kill it as a vehicle of democratic hope and action.

And thus we all now have a tale to repeat endlessly, a curse earned from our sins against the dream that once nourished us all. In time, who knows, we may all realise that we are indeed stuck in what seems like a painted ship in a painted ocean, crying aloud about the surfeit of “women’s empowerment” blather routinely emitted by the leaders of the CPM women’s organisation — ‘Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink’.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on November 17, 2017

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