Such a sorry state

Veena Venugopal | Updated on December 08, 2017

Tug of war tokenism. When will women in Kerala exercise their power and fight for what’s right Photo: G Ramakrishna   -  THE HINDU

Veena Venugopal

If women in Kerala believe the day the state turns dry will be the first of a violence-free domestic life, they are likely to be very disappointed

Of all the distressing aspects about the ban on consuming liquor in Kerala, the most disheartening is the fact that it is seen as some kind of victory for the state’s women. A member of the Kerala Women’s Commission seems to have aired a standard anecdote to all who would listen about a woman who complained about her husband who beat her (and their two children) when he was drunk. She also added that the husband was kind and gentle while sober. “How often does he drink?” she was asked. “Seven days a week,” came the reply. It’s a remarkable anecdote, one that is tailor-made to demonstrate how drink — and only drink — drives domestic violence. It’s also a story that is laden with naiveté.

If women in Kerala believe the day the state turns dry will be the first of a violence-free domestic life, they are likely to be very disappointed. For the most part, domestic violence is cultural, and just because it isn’t preceded by a quarter of rum does not mean it will disappear entirely. More than anything though, what I am disappointed by is this benign acceptance of their lot in life that women in the state have demonstrated all along. To be honest, I’ve been waiting for a few years now for a story that shows women in Kerala, shall we say, kick some ass. Resmi Nair, Kiss Day organiser, is so far the lone sign of promise.

On paper, women in no other state have so much going for them. The state boasts 100 per cent literacy, an enviable sex ratio of 1084 and has a long history of women going outside their homes and working. Despite higher levels of education and the empowerment that come from financial independence, there hasn’t been a memorable event in the last two decades here of a woman standing up for what is right and not feeling embarrassed to create a row about it. Forget activists, even in public life, Kerala women are woefully absent. There is one woman in the state’s cabinet. There are seven women in the Assembly. In comparison, in 1957, when women in other parts of the country were barely visible in politics, the Kerala Assembly had six women.

It’s perhaps unkind but not entirely incorrect to say that women in Kerala are often too busy keeping one another in check to worry about fighting for what’s right. This neighbourly censorship of who’s wearing what and talking to whom is a full-time occupation. (It is also the only place I know where there is a great deal of curiosity about others’ personal hygiene. Random people, even relative strangers think nothing of asking you if you have had a bath. This question, conveniently reduced to one word in Malayalam, is a favoured manner of introduction in my parents’ village, near Palakkad).

The background score of my own childhood in Kochi was my mother’s anxiety about what people would say about one thing or another. Remarkably, it stopped being a concern the minute they moved out of the state, even though I was then a teenager prone to, let’s call it, experimentation. But most girls I knew,(and in this, I was a happy exception), were raised with one eye on the calendar and another on the bank locker. A horoscope was drawn up and a suitable groom sought as soon as they turned 21, and the mandatory minimum of 101 sovereigns of gold was accumulated.

In a post-liberalisation sartorial leap, salwar kameezes replaced the skirt and blouse. (While in an equally awkward development, the nightdress became legitimate outdoor apparel.) Other than that, very little has changed in Kerala between the ’80s and now. This is particularly magnified now because women from the state are doing supremely well while living in other parts of the country and the world. They are heads of multi-billion dollar IT companies, CXOs of FMCG companies, pilots, doctors, nurses, writers, sporting icons, activists and entrepreneurs

But in Kerala, the enduring Malayali fantasy is still a girl dressed in a traditional white sari, damp hair loosely tied, eyes firmly on the ground. For the state’s men, the twirlers of lush moustaches, who have been raised on the appeal of an unquestionable machismo, this woman is a convenient fantasy. She is the one who knows that she should demand nothing, never raise her voice or complain about things because she is raised to focus only on shielding the ugliness of her household away from the neighbours’ ever-prying eyes. All insults about women in Kerala are entirely of a sexual nature. The good Kerala woman is supposed to live her life in anticipated avoidance of this. All of which brings me to one word — why?

Why can’t women in Kerala break out of this? Why can’t they take some risks, grab the cause of their own selves and demand more freedom? Why can’t they take their education and experience and mould the culture to one that doesn’t assume violence against them is purely a function of how much alcohol their men have drunk? And why can’t they help each other in breaking these stereotypes? Why can’t they marry later? And be worthy brides without carrying the weight of two kilos of gold on themselves? Why can’t they have each other’s backs instead of peeping from behind the window, sniggering about their neighbour’s muffled brawl?

This is 2014, it doesn’t take a lot to not behave like its 1982. In fact, if you ask me, the most effective thing women in Kerala can do is head to the bar themselves. Make it a gender neutral, democratic location where everyone unwinds after a hard day’s work. That in itself would keep most men out.

(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of The Mother-in-Law. Follow her on Twitter >@veenavenugopal)

Published on November 14, 2014

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