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The Sabarimala controversy is just a spillover of a society not in sync with real empowerment

The strong foundations laid by a matrilineal society got a further push from progressive social movements and sound health and education policies , all of which benefited women. Yet, little of this has actually translated into real power for women or genuine gender empowerment today.

columns Updated: Oct 27, 2018 17:40 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
An elderly woman on her way to Sabarimala Temple as police personnel stand on guard(PTI)

The question that I get asked by many people is how such a large number of women in Kerala, with its impressive education credentials, are so opposed to a court verdict in their favour. Hundreds of Malayali women are fighting to prevent any woman in her reproductive years from entering the temple in Sabarimala dedicated to the eternally celibate Lord Ayyappa. The deity, it is said, will not countenance the entry of women in their fertile years as this would break his penance. Somehow education is seen as a natural corollary of enlightenment and progressive thought. It is not. And certainly not in Kerala.

Kerala has had a history of women’s empowerment. In my own Nair community, the inheritance of property by daughters gave women a more exalted status in the household than in other parts of India. At its zenith, the matrilineal system allowed women to choose their partners irrespective of their married status and the offspring from such relationships were recognised and not discriminated against.

The strong foundations laid by a matrilineal society got a further push from progressive social movements and sound health and education policies , all of which benefited women.

Yet, little of this has actually translated into real power for women or genuine gender empowerment today. The dowry system is all pervasive and violence against women shockingly high. The remarks made on social media against women wanting to enter Sabarimala are regressive and vile. The kind of content of television soaps and popular films are all too often critical of emancipated and independent women.

The Sabarimala debate has now moved within Kerala from the right of women to enter the shrine to the kind of women who are coming forward to take on the protestors. True, the state government made a mess of the whole situation with its ineptitude and lack of preparedness. But the fury against women demanding their rights, whomsoever they be, especially from women, suggests that the much vaunted Kerala model is not all it is made out to be.

Women are indeed encouraged to work. They go to other countries. Yet when they come back, it is invariably to an arranged marriage for which a hefty dowry is paid. Many work to save for their dowry, the demand for which rises with the occupation of the groom. This practice cuts across all communities and classes.

While people are quick to point out the vulgarities of Bollywood, some of the worst misogynistic dialogue is seen in Malayalam movies and that too in movies starring reigning superstars. In soaps, women who are independent or who have an opinion are derided as too forward. Women are often portrayed as being constantly at war with each other and responsible for the downfall of many good men. Despite education and economic empowerment, social empowerment has not really taken root. The woman’s domain is still the home. She is still meant to be passive, still out of the realm of real power. Which explains why Kerala politics has very few women. The CPI(M), with all its claim to being a forward looking party, has never given women their due. The enormously talented communist leader, KR Gowri, was overlooked for chief ministership and the job given to a run-of-the-mill party theoretician at a time when the Left had national aspirations.

The Sabarimala controversy and the rage against women daring to violate long held traditions is just a spillover of a society which has never really moved socially in sync with its enviable development parameters. Men like Rahul Easwar, grandson of the head priest of Sabarimala, who speak so eloquently about the sanctity of Sabarimala, would think twice if they were not sure of the support of a large section of women. And these women are mostly educated and employed. But social conditions are such that they are not willing to question these long held patriarchal beliefs. Women who go against the grain, and I have a few in my own family, are seen as a bit of an aberration. They are looked upon as eccentrics or as disruptive elements. This is the tragedy of the Kerala model. It has produced a vast cohort of men and women, many of them bright and creative, but the majority of them unwilling to question customs and beliefs or traditionally ordained societal roles.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Oct 27, 2018 17:40 IST