How power politics exploits noxious myths to stifle Tamil women

The Dravidian movement is steeped in patriarchal culture, whereas its founder Periyar has spoken stridently of the need for women’s liberation
How power politics exploits noxious myths to stifle Tamil women
How power politics exploits noxious myths to stifle Tamil women
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The recent murder of Chennai techie Swathi has thrown up a whole host of questions about the Tamil social milieu, and the factors that drive callow young men to such acts of desperation and cruelty.

As elsewhere in most of the developing world, repressed sex finds its expression in the most bizarre forms. Interaction between the sexes is still largely frowned upon, even while films and TV channels relentlessly bombard homes with images of seductive women. That is a deadly cocktail, claiming victims like Ramkumar every once in a while.

Looking at the story from the other side of the divide, why are women so relentlessly objectified in a state under the spell of an avowedly progressive Dravidian movement for nearly five decades now?

The movement founded by Periyar EV Ramasamy was radical in many senses of the term – it wanted to decimate the Brahminical hierarchy, root, branch and tree, expressed solidarity with the outcastes (Dalit castes) and spoke up for the liberation of women. It might not have had any economic vision worth mentioning, but it was an unprecedented attempt at social engineering.

Predictably, the large non-Brahmin castes flocked to hear EVR revile the Brahmins no end, but there were not many takers for his aggressive atheism or women’s liberation programme, not to speak of the plight of the Dalits. All they apparently wanted was to topple the Brahmins from the top of the heap and snatch the reins of power from them.

At least that was how it worked out in practice, as CN Annadurai broke off to float a political party with the express purpose of contesting elections, while his mentor EVR was more insistent on far-reaching social reforms to wipe Brahminism off the face of the state.

The new party, the DMK, paid lip service to the ideals that animated the Dravidian movement, all right. But they were keener to gain acceptability on every front and hence had little use for putting an end either to patriarchy or to the degradation of Dalits, found very convenient by all the non-Brahmin castes.

And to claim they were more rooted in Tamil soil than the then ruling Congress, Annadurai and his followers dredged up all kinds of myths and legends from ancient Tamil classics, and sought to turn them into icons, never mind what the subtext of the story was.

They would praise Tamil kings on platform after platform and wax eloquent on their conquests, carefully avoiding the miseries they all heaped on their subjects. Of all their icons, Kannagi, a Tamil epic heroine, has proved most enduring and is relevant to the issue we are discussing now.    

Kannagi of “Silappathikaram” remains faithful to her philandering husband, accepts him unquestioningly when he comes back broke, burns down an entire city when the king has him executed on the unfounded charge of stealing the queen’s anklet, and finally, she ascends to heaven. Thus, she becomes a byword for chastity.

Now there is, inevitably, a statue of Kannagi on the marina, and Jayalalithaa, on her way to the state Secretariat, has to pass by the statue. In her earlier stint, someone tells her the fiery-looking Kannagi, with the anklet in her hand, all poised to confront the king and bring destruction, could cast an evil spell on her, and she promptly stage-manages  an accident that brings down the statue and carts it to the museum.

DMK leader Karunanidhi feigns outrage, calls it an attack on Tamil culture and raises hell. When this writer poured scorn on his antics, saying it was inappropriate to make out a hopelessly submissive woman into a Tamil symbol, DMK organs retaliated by saying I had received money from Poes Garden. Eventually the statue is, of course, restored to its place of pride.

But that is incidental. The point is, it makes it look as if the Dravidian movement is steeped in patriarchal culture, whereas its founder Periyar has spoken stridently of the need for women’s liberation, questioning the need for even a mangal sutra in a meeting of minds. More importantly, he has denounced  Kannagi herself no end. Those who can read Tamil can look this up here.

But these arguments were conveniently brushed aside by his disciples as the rants of a crusader who had little grip on the stark realities of Tamil society. Literature, discourses, films, all seek to force a chastity belt on Tamil women, as it were.

Actress Khushbu found herself caught in a storm a few years ago when she suggested safe sex, with Tamil nationalists hounding her. When Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, still to foray into politics then, condemned the campaign as being anti-women, the father quickly distanced himself from her remarks, stressing that pre-marital sex was abhorrent to the Tamils. 

Khusbhu apologising on Jaya TV

It might also be interesting to be told that women in non-Brahmin households are more sequestered and discriminated against than their Brahmin counterparts. A highly accomplished woman non-Brahmin techie observed, “I used to be surprised that my Brahmin classmates were so froward (repeat froward), cheeky, partying while I would run away in fright… my brother would have killed me if he had seen me in the company of boys or anywhere near a pub… not that I was excited about partying, but that I should have to be scared of my family for anything and everything whereas the Brahmins were not, it was galling… at home my mom would scream full blast if I was late waking up, but my brothers remained unconstrained by any such regulations, no curfew, no alarm for them… the standard refrain would be, ‘remember you are going to another person’s household, after marriage, that is, and you better learn to behave from now on…’ “

A male non-Brahmin lawyer and a vociferous votary of Karunanidhi reasoned, “It’s OK to educate them… even then there are limits… if educated too much, we have to look for bridegrooms with matching qualifications and the marriage costs will go up... may be our daughters will earn enough to make up, so we can leave it aside… but freedom of movement, a no, no… there are limits… so much at stake, the prestige of the family, community… if the Brahmins don’t care, it’s their problem, we can’t afford to…”

“What about Periyar’s own teachings then?”

“Oh don’t bring in Periyar for everything… we will take him only where it suits us…”

But what many may not know is that even when Periyar was alive, in the Dravidar Kazhagam circles, that was the mother party, women had to follow the dictates of their men. EVR knew full well that his cadres were not being true to his ideals, but wouldn’t press the case too much, for fear of losing what little actual following he had.

Also to be noted, being polygamous is almost a status symbol among Dravidian leaders!

There was actor-director Bhagyaraj’s hit film “Andha Ezhu Naatkal” (Those Seven Days), in which the heroine is forcibly married to someone against her will. The gentlemanly husband offers to give her over to the lover, but the latter, in the climax, would shame her by reminding her of the meaning of all the mantras chanted during her wedding, tell her she was lawfully her husband’s and that traditions should be respected and walk away, uttering “Old is gold,”  to thunderous claps from the audience.

Those who rebel are either killed or dragged back, more so in these days of increasing caste-consciousness.

Not that Brahmin girls are all a liberated lot, no way. Manu still hovers over them in a big way, but they enjoy just a little more leverage. That is an ironical commentary on a state that woke up to modernism much before others.

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