In spite of impressive statistics, misogyny is alive and kicking in the state

Does gender-equal Kerala have space only for good girls
Voices Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 17:02

The abuse that Vanaja Vasudev - a young writer from Alappuzha, who expressed her opinion recently on Kerala Excise Commissioner Rishiraj Singh’s bizarre “14 second staring” rule - copped, is testament to the fact that misogyny is alive and kicking in Kerala society.

Vanaja, who said that she enjoyed looking at men, was chastised by members of the self-appointed moral police for her “immoral” views. Ironically, these men chose to send her sexually explicit and vulgar messages to prove their point.

When noted writer Kamala Surayya (Madhavikutty), published her first book, an autobiography titled “Ende Kadha” (My Story) in 1973, it sent shockwaves in Kerala society for its explicit writing on a woman’s sexuality. That too, in first person. From that tumultuous, trailblazing literary launch, Das went on to win much recognition and praise across the country.

It was not as if nobody had ever written about sex or lust earlier – plenty of male writers had done so. The shock and disapproval came solely because it was a woman who dared to do it. And more than four decades later, it still remains a taboo for a woman in Kerala to say that she likes to look at men.

Shilpa Nair, a young journalist who grew up in Kerala, says, “Kerala is a state that boasts of gender equality but in terms of numbers only. We may not actually kill our girl children, even going to the extent of providing them a good education, but that’s just about it. That is where the “equality” ends.”

Shilpa declares that a day in the life of a Malayali woman is nothing less than a “struggle” unless you are a “nalla adakkavum chittayumulla kutty”, loosely translated as “a traditionally conventional girl” – the kind who conforms to societal norms.

She says, “This is not an easy title to earn. What’s in fact easier, is to earn the titles ‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’ etc. So what qualifies you for these classy epithets? It’s a cakewalk: The way you walk, talk, sit, sleep, laugh, dress or simply breathe! In short, anything falling short of the perception of an ideal woman and hurrah, you have earned these.”

TV anchor and actor, Ranjini Haridas, a favourite target of misogynists for her Westernized clothes, accent, “attitude”, and other things they deem unfit for a Malayali woman, has been repeatedly attacked not just by internet trolls but even others.

Outside Kerala, there is a perception that the state has achieved gender equality. Social indicators like sex ratio, female literacy rate, and population growth rate suggest that the women in Kerala have it good when compared to the rest of the country.

Further, the “Marumakkathayam” system of matrilineal inheritance which was prevalent among certain communities is wrongly projected to be an example of a “matriarchal” society.

On the one hand, Kerala has impressive statistics when it comes to factors that contribute to gender equality but on the other, violence against women continues unabated. A study conducted by Sakhi, a women’s organization, in 2013, revealed that as many as 98% of the respondents zeroed in on sexual harassment to be the main threat in public spaces. Robbery came a distant second at 51%.

In May this year, a singer, Jacintha Morris, became an internet sensation after her song “Is Suzanne a sinner?” went viral. And not for the best reasons.

Jacintha was trolled for the cringe-inducing lyrics, the outlandish costumes and the poor execution of the song. However, after she pulled down the video, hurt by comparisons to Pakistani singer Taher Shah, Jacintha revealed her reason for coming up with the song – she felt compelled to take on Kerala’s misogynistic society.

In the song, Suzanne (played by Jacintha), is a saucy, middle-aged woman who enjoys the attention that men give her. She is proud of her looks and doesn’t care for the snide remarks and judgmental comments of the people around her.

Though Jacintha was widely slammed for the song, there were a few who rallied behind her for her courage to show up Kerala society for what it was.

While the Suzannes of Kerala are condemned as “sinners” for asserting themselves, their abusers and violators roam around freely, dispensing unasked for “advice”. The good thing, though, is that the women are giving it back to them. It may not happen as easily or commonly as drinking tea but when it comes, the fry is sweeter than any neyyappam. 


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