Talk

Kerala’s Angry Young Woman

J Devika | Updated on January 15, 2018

Unique distinction More women, than men, stay in school and college in Kerala, so they are often more individuated than their male counterparts Photo: S Mahinsha

J Devika   -  BUSINESS LINE

Educated and undervalued at the same time, excluded from opportunities for income and mobility, she is straining at the leash of a patrifocal society

Living in that segment of Indian society in which young women claim rather too often that they do not experience patriarchy, I am always simultaneously saddened by and thankful for moments in which such illusion stands dispelled. In Kerala, the conditions that permit such an illusion are rapidly fading, and the rest of India will soon follow. Indeed, conditions are such that if the 1970s and ’80s witnessed the rise of the Angry Young Man, our time holds in its wake the Angry Young Woman. Whether popular culture will celebrate her or not is another matter.

A host of social forces and trends have contributed to this, and many of them will soon be visible in other parts of India too. Kerala is a post-demographic transition society — families are small, boys and girls are equally educated. But girls alone are subjected to crippling domestic ideologies. This is a society in which women’s individuality is to be realised only within the confines of the patrifocal family built around conjugal marriage. Worse, given that marriage is contingent on dowry — which has grown enormously now — a girl signals the possibility of an outflow of wealth from her family to her husband’s. The result is that despite the post-demographic small family scenario, which could be potentially better for the girl compared to other scenarios, she has to be, at best, either petrified into an instrument that facilitates conspicuous consumption (the ostentatious marriage) that generates prestige and honour for her family, or, at worst, suffer ‘structural worthlessness’ (her contributions are undervalued; she is regarded as a source of economic loss).

Historical conditions, however, have ensured that women in Kerala can seek education and employment provided they stay confined to prevalent patriarchal norms and family commitments. In other words, women are often allowed to work to pay the price that society demands for the limited, unequal, and highly-gendered membership that it offers them. If the elimination of daughters ceases to be central to Indian patriarchy, this is the form it will probably take.

However, there is much evidence that more young women, than men, stay in school and college in Kerala. No wonder, then, that young women here are often more individuated than their male counterparts. There is also evidence that this education, thought to be important for women’s chances of marriage, is often of no use when they enter the job market. There are even signs that women may be retreating from seeking work. What emerges when the more intense individuation of young women in Kerala meets their structural worthlessness/ instrumental status, and their exclusion from opportunities for income and mobility? This, I’d think, is the very matrix in which the Angry Young Woman is being born.

Many Malayali middle-class families look remarkably liberal; on the underside, they display viciously patriarchal bias and shockingly illiberal values. The daughter always gets it harder; in one case, I have seen a daughter prevented from joining the man she loved for 25 whole years just because he was her cousin — and the family gave way only when she was on her deathbed. The same family, however, would happily permit complete violations of ‘propriety’ in marriage and sexual relations, when the son chose to commit them. Even in such families with impeccable progressive credentials, a daughter is often ‘useful’ only if she marries, and marries in such a way that the family’s preferred form of social and cultural capital is enhanced through hypergamy in one way or another. But we have seen in Kerala recently many other families, poor or lower middle-class, which have forced under-age daughters secretly into prostitution. Can this be the manifestation of the daughter’s ‘structural worthlessness’ in a family that has no resources to turn her into an earning worker through education or save for dowry?

But then the woman in the above story did not yield an inch for 25 whole years; nor did she let her family use her as an instrument to secure cultural capital for long. In other words, individuation enables resistance, and this probably accounts for much of the family conflict reported these days as, for example, rising divorce rates in Kerala among the middle-class. Even the trafficked children have not been passive; they have used their limited literacy and knowledge to complain and even arouse the public.

The lessons seem clear: unlike elsewhere, patriarchy in Kerala did not eliminate daughters fortunately (and the cry of some that sex ratios are turning unfavourable for women in Kerala still needs better evidence); it let daughters live but insisted that they pay for the favour, directly or indirectly, with every minute of their living lives. But that was perhaps its folly too — for to live means to resist, and resistance ends only in death, as all sorts of patriarchs are increasingly finding out these days.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on November 18, 2016

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