Some years ago, I made a dramatic statement to my then editor that had I lived in Kerala, I would have committed suicide thanks to its stifling conservatism when it comes to women. The editor berated me saying that I would have been singing a different tune had I been from Bihar, at that time considered the nadir of civilisation as we know it. On a recent visit, I recalled this conversation, thinking immodestly how right I had been. Kerala, India’s showpiece state with such magnificent development indicators, its highly literate populace, its preternatural scenic beauty is still no happy place for its women.
Up to a point, there is some progressive thinking about women. They have access to a good education, they are encouraged to work though women constitute just a fifth of the workforce. Many are forced into domesticity as their husbands are in the Gulf, the crippling labour problems denying them of jobs at home. But, this is about as much as the progressive bit goes.
Once educated, you can look after your children and stay at home or you can work but expect no say in who you will marry. Unsuitable marriages between educated women and men in menial Gulf jobs have led to a huge incidence of wife-battering and psychological problems among women. The high levels of alcoholism, among other factors like a medieval mindset among men, have led to the state’s women getting a raw deal. Normal interaction between the sexes is still frowned upon. For all his intellectual pretensions and equating himself as the avial version of Marquez or Llosa, the Malayali man remains a as feudal and conservative as his much maligned counterpart in say Haryana.
The state has the third highest rate of crimes against women. The rape and murder of a law student in Kerala hardly stirred the conscience of the state’s enlightened people with only a few classmates speaking up for the dead girl. Education has not brought about respect for women though many people I know still think that Kerala is some sort of matriarchal paradise. On the contrary, women are rarely seen on the roads after dusk in most towns for fear of being branded as `loose’ or being attacked by the drunken layabouts who monopolise public spaces.
While dowry deaths are not as common as in northern states, the cruelty to women owing to the dowry demands is growing exponentially. Such is the demand for a suitable boy for even the most high achievers among women that there are apparently rate cards among brokers. One such person told me that if I had a daughter I could book a potential IAS officer for a much lower rate and hope that the man passes the exams in which case, said the broker gleefully, I would have got a really good deal. If he did not pass, then tough luck, my daughter would be stuck with a lemon but I could take heart from the fact that I have got off relatively cheap and also found her a husband, though not quite the right one. What a fate from the daughter I do not have.
This schizophrenic existence for women – educated and aspirational on the hand and repressed and oppressed on the other – is reflected in the abundance of serials which are devoured by the faithful each evening. In the first place, there seems to be some unspoken rule that all the female actors must be dressed up to the nines, smothered in jewels and always faint of voice. They are either scheming which involves some extraordinarily bad acting or eternally sacrificing in which case they hang about the house in a lugubrious fashion, their eyes reflecting both pain and modesty. They will resist all villainous attempts to gain their affections, they will retreat at family functions, they will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with a wan smile.
In all this, the ultimate goal of every woman is to secure a thali (mangalsutra). Most men, much to my surprise, also have this goal, that of affixing a thali on the neck of the woman of his fancy though the object of his affections may not wish to be given this honour. The Ektaa Kapoorisation of our culture is complete I thought, when I spotted the very name of the grande dame of soaps at the end of many of these serials. Where is the reflection either in soaps or in real life of the educated Malayali woman, once the matriarchs of all they surveyed? Progress has not treated them as kindly as it should have in a development model which is to my mind seriously flawed.