Patriarchy cooked by pre-modern women

J Devika | Updated on January 13, 2018
Stirring controversy Erstwhile cookery show host Lekshmi Nair, seen with Malayalamactor Suresh Gopi at an
Onam event, earned a less-than-savoury reputation as the principal of Kerala Law Academy

Stirring controversy: Erstwhile cookery show host Lekshmi Nair, seen with Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi at an Onam event, earned a less-than-savoury reputation as the principal of Kerala Law Academy. Photo: C Ratheesh Kumar   -  The Hindu

J Devika

J Devika   -  BusinessLine

The institutional contexts for both matrilineal and modern-feminine power have disappeared from Kerala

Once again, a woman is in the eye of a storm in Kerala’s public discourse. Lekshmi Nair, the principal of Kerala Law Academy — an institution of long-standing proximity to the ruling CPM, and founded by a heavyweight hanger-on, Narayanan Nair — is perhaps one of the most reviled women in Kerala at the moment. Her name hardly figures in the scholarship on law from Kerala; in fact, she was previously a glamorous cookery show host on TV.

Even that fame seems eroded now, in the wake of horrifying accounts (allegations of atrocities on students from scheduled castes) her egregious rule, which can only be described as the worst-possible manifestation of masculinism. Women acting as the primary agents of patriarchy is not news at all in Kerala — historically, the modern, educated Malayali woman as imagined to be guardian and supervisor of modern patriarchal arrangements and binary gender. But in Nair’s case, her exercise of power seems not just masculine but disgustingly feudal; in other words, not just unfeminine but even pre-modern.

Much has been made on social media about Nair’s caste status, and how women with the ‘Nair’ caste-name have figured in many recent controversies over violation of the law. One reason why it attracts so much comment is the fact that such a name-tag is a prominent marker of honour, even exuding a whiff of aristocratic origins, and the irony is easily flagged. Matriliny is long-gone, dead and buried, and, if anything, Nair appears to be far more her father’s dutiful daughter than a feisty matriarch. Yet it perhaps needs to be said that the power Nair women wielded under matrilineal arrangements was neither anti-patriarchal nor free from the upper-caste privilege — very much the contrary, one could say.

And as colonial interests shaped the institution of matriliny (actually, its variants in Malayali society), the power of the senior man became decisive. In most Nair joint households, power was divided between the senior woman and the senior man, and it is important to note that this separation did not conform to the Victorian domestic/public divide. Seniority in the kinship order, not age or gender, was the major axis of power. The actual division of powers varied. Anthropologists who have studied Nair matriliny often note that it was very hard to make generalisations about it; practices seemed to change from family to family.

However, under colonial rule and its shaping of matriliny through law and other discourses, women began to be identified with the domestic, and men with the public, and the former was subjected to the latter. It is unclear when they originated, but practices that signified deference towards the man who occupied the place of the senior, the karanavar, were woven into the everyday lives of matrilineal women. Even the seniormost woman would speak to him only from behind a door; women (and junior men) were expected to not laugh or speak aloud in his presence, or look directly at him; they were to use the language of extreme subservience.

The difference, however, is that these gestures and behaviour did not require a subjectivity, a sense of the self, to endorse it — thus while the good matrilineal woman was expected to adhere to adakkam (self-control) and othukkam (modesty) as understood in pre-modern Sudra terms, it did not really matter whether the woman really believed in these. This left a gap for defiance and subversion, but again, the limits of which were strictly delineated. Crossing the caste boundary, for example, could even be fatal to the woman.

Thus it is clear that Lekshmi Nair’s exercise of power has really nothing to do with matriliny; it has also nothing to do with the power that the first-generation feminists in Kerala claimed as ‘truly feminine’, the power of gentle persuasion and emotions.

The institutional contexts for both matrilineal and modern-feminine power have disappeared from Kerala, and the transformation of higher education into a lawless, near-criminal, greed-driven profit-making sector has ensured that the latter has no relevance at all. Rather, what it demands is the ruthless suppression of all resistance and systematic gagging of all protest, which requires nothing less than an obsession with power that borders on psychosis.

But such tyrants are psychologically weak; they hang on till the bitter end, and simply cannot bring themselves to avert an impending disaster. Nair has been rescued from that position by the CPM, and a key sacrifice made by their student organisation is of female students’ mobility.

Back we are, then, to square one: the delegated power of the diligent Nair daughter is intact, while the democratic rights of women in general have been trampled upon. So much for those who see the ghost of matriliny in all this — they are simply missing the point.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on February 24, 2017

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