Kerala's high HDI indicators don't necessarily translate into a healthy attitude towards women.

Why the sea of humanity that greeted Sunny Leone in Kochi isnt a sign of growing girl power
Voices Opinion Sunday, August 27, 2017 - 19:12

By Miriam Chandy Menacherry

“It’s Sunny in Kochi”

“Sunny Leone for PM”

“Sunny Leone gets lost in a sea of love”

These were just some of the headlines that followed Sunny Leone’s recent appearance in Kerala.

Sunny Leone willingly drowned herself in the sea of humanity or, to be specific, man-ity – as it was a visible male fan club who greeted her in Kochi, Kerala. Sunny and her entourage tweeted images of their jaws dropping because of the thousands throbbing down the streets and spilling over barricades.

Twitter was quick to respond with contrasting images of smaller crowds when reigning Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan had a shoot in Kerala, or the scant showing for the political heavyweight Amit Shah, President of the ruling party at a recent rally.

Kerala has embraced a host of international icons from writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez to revolutionary Che Guevera to footballers like Maradona and Pele, all of whom are part of popular iconography and celebrated for their skill, passion and philosophy. So when a mobile retail brand taps into popular perception and breaks the mould to invite a woman, it is pertinent to note that they make a choice that proves that the objectification of a woman is a mainstream pastime.

Many of us Malayalis who were not part of this march of throbbing testosterone also found our jaws unhinged by some conflicting questions.

Was this a celebration of Kerala’s liberal values or a spectacle in hypocrisy?

This could be construed as a crowning moment for a successful woman and her bold choices. But, in reality, it was a male bonding club into which any other woman would be scared to venture because she could be ogled at and molested in the melee. The truth is that it is not safe for a woman to travel unaccompanied by public transport in Kerala without being leered at and groped.

The crowds were not a new phenomenon, either. Homegrown adult movie actors like Shakeela, Reshma and Maria once ruled the screens and drew such frenzied crowds for their film releases.

Kerala has the biggest porn industry in India. The state also has one of the highest crime rates against women in the country. It could be that more crimes are reported in the state as Kerala also has the highest literacy rate for women, one of the healthiest sex ratios and lowest maternal mortality rates.  

In fact, it is all the dichotomies that Kerala stands for that make it interesting to study where women in our country stand today.

Unlike Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, girls are not being killed in the womb here. Kerala mothers are better equipped than other mothers in India to give birth to healthy baby girls – who go to school much like their brothers. Many of these girls get great grades in school and college but then how do so many of them eventually lose their voice and the plot?

Studies of countries and the relationship with the Human Development Index (HDI) reveal that Norway – which stands at No. 1 – records the same rate of crimes against women as Brazil, which is way down at 79. Similarly Sweden ranked at No. 12 in the HDI is termed the ‘rape capital of the west’. The conclusion of these studies is that crimes against women, unlike other crimes, are not necessarily linked to social indices like poverty, health and education. Rather, it’s the attitude towards women that matters.

There is a macho attitude of men and submissiveness amongst women prevalent in Kerala, its claims to matrilineal traditions notwithstanding.

A girl is given respect for the title she holds as a `mother’, `sister’ or `daughter’. Her academic record is often just a marital qualification to bring down dowry demands rather than to ensure a career. A bride is decked up in gold to display the earning power of her father.  

There may be loud discussions on literature and politics around the dining table but you will rarely see a woman share an opinion here. A low-cut saree blouse or wearing makeup is frowned on as an overt display of sexuality by the same men folk who worship porn stars. Parents and the education system reinforce gender stereotypes that prescribing how a girl should dress and behave so that it sustains the status quo of a raucous boys’ club and never challenges it.

In the recent past ministers, church priests, temple purohits and orphanage trustees have all been caught as sex offenders. Many of these cases involved minor girls.

One only needs to turn to the glamour industry to analyse the perception of women and the strict codes imposed on them in show business. There is the case of the most successful TV anchor Ranjani Haridas who has been verbally abused and called a “slut” and a “whore” on social media because of her accented Malayalam, loud laugh, sleeveless clothes and “free-wheeling” ways – which included hugging her guests irrespective of gender. A single woman, who lived life on her own terms, automatically qualifies as an object of hate to a large section of the population!

Then there is Manju Warrier – an actor who was at the peak of her career when she got married to film star Dileep, and immediately quit the industry. Dileep went on to publicly proclaim that he would not approve of his wife working after marriage. Fourteen years later when the marriage fell apart it was the woman who took a lashing on her fan page with people calling her a bad mother, wishing her ill luck on her comeback film and condemning her for leaving her husband.

More recently the Manju Warrier-Dileep case took a dark twist when another actor was abducted and sexually assaulted in a moving car. Preliminary investigations pointed to Dileep’s alleged involvement in the abduction. Dileep had the support of the industry and his huge fan following, and may have escaped with impunity if the woman actor had not bravely gone forward with her testimony, backed by a newly-formed Women in Cinema Collective.

Kerala today clearly stands at the crossroads where an adult movie actor is publicly celebrated, a well-known actor finds himself behind bars for sexual assault, and there are many girls inspired to take courage from such women as Ranjani Haridas, Manju Warrier or the abducted actor to rewrite the rules.

So, while we wait for the lust to settle on Sunny Leone’s visit to Kochi, it is time to understand that celebrating a woman and her sexuality should go hand-in-hand with women’s empowerment in God’s own country. It is high time that the educational system incorporated subjects like sex education and gender studies, so that there is a healthy space for goddesses to hold sway.

Miriam Chandy Menacherry is an independent, award winning filmmaker. Her best known works are The Rat Race and Lyari Notes. She is currently working on a film about the issue of girl child trafficking.

(Views expressed are personal.)

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