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What runs in the family

J Devika | Updated on January 27, 2018

Yes, no, maybe: In response to a question whether a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together, 81.8 per cent of married women did not agree, yet 76.9 per cent said that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten   -  H Vibhu

A recent survey has shown that, like a subterranean river, the assertion of agency by women is spreading slowly but surely in Kerala

The family in Kerala has been undergoing drastic transformation in recent years. The opening up of public life to women through reservation in the local self-governments and the setting up of federated three-tier women’s self-help groups under the Kudumbashree Mission seem to be having important effects on family life. A substantial number of women — the office-bearers of Kudumbashree, numbering around 15 lakh — whose social networks were largely confined to kin, immediate neighbours, and community are now enabled to build much wider ones in neighbourhoods across the locality. This has led to women gaining ground at home in many instances, but also backlash, especially a disapproval of women’s rising political ambition, and comparatively severe moral policing. Interestingly, however, we still have no real idea whether these changes have indeed expanded their personal choices and made them less subservient to the family’s upward mobility. In other words, we have now an altered and complex situation that does not fit into familiar binaries.

Researching the family with conventional methods is notoriously difficult. State interventions into domestic life have had a long past and have been frequent in the colonial period and after. Also, the shift in society’s alignment with market forces has decisively changed the form and content of family life. However the belief in the timelessness of family values and in preserving the unit from external scrutiny is deep-rooted. This applies even to a society which has seen the State restructuring the family in several crucial moments over the past two centuries. Conventional questionnaire-based surveys yield useful basic quantifiable information about the general socio-economic and health characteristics but become less and less productive as one probes for more intimate power structures. However, sometimes, the right mix of questions allow us to read between the lines of these power structures.

One such recent study gives some interesting indications about the Malayali family. This study, which focuses on the reproductive rights and choices among young women in Thiruvananthapuram district, by Jissa VT, a researcher at the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies at Thiruvananthapuram, has a revealing table of responses to a series of questions on violence at home. In response to a question whether a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together, 81.8 per cent of married women did not agree, yet 76.9 per cent said that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten. Giving us a sense of what those situations might be, 70 per cent of married women responded that it was alright for a man to beat his wife if she is unfaithful, but an overwhelming 93.6 per cent disagreed that a man can hit his wife if she refuses him sex.

This data is not wrong or incoherent; in fact it reveals the alarming lack of the wife’s sexual agency in conventional families. The average age of marriage in Kerala is still 23, and the age of female sterilisation is 27; knowledge about contraception among both women and men appears abysmally poor (a very large percentage thought abortions are illegal in India). Studies show that the early attainment of desired family size does not really translate into women’s gains in skill-building. The aforementioned study seems to confirm this. In another table about women’s perceptions of their educational achievements, 55.2 per cent of married women say that they were not able to attain the educational level they wished, and of this, 47 per cent cited the new responsibilities that came with marriage, pregnancy, and childcare as the main reasons for this disruption.

In other words, their entry into self-help group activities is often by default. And the picture that emerges is one of tension. Women lack sexual agency; their sense of the losses marriage imposes is high. And 70 per cent of married women revealed that they did not attain the education they aspired for but wished to continue. A strange situation indeed, in which women seem to have poor control over their bodies but aspire for education; in which they consider finding a lover punishable but denying the husband sex is not. No wonder it feels like we are on the brink of a social revolution, teetering there, actually. No wonder, feminism — as the assertion of agency by women — in Kerala seems to be spreading, slowly, silently, surely, like a subterranean river, and surfacing quite unexpectedly and forcefully in spaces ranging from development work to nunneries to cinema. No wonder, too, that the authorities are nervous and tense as never before.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on January 26, 2018

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