Kerala’s politics has long been inseparable from its misogyny

The blatant sexism in Kerala’s political domain continues to show itself to the world in a number of ways, whether it be through the statistics of gender representation or the statements made by mainstream political leaders.
Women Wall in Ernakulam
Women Wall in Ernakulam

In 1987, ahead of the elections to the eighth Kerala Legislative Assembly, political rallies across the state had reverberated with one slogan: “Keram thingum Kerala naadu, KR Gouri bharikkatte” (Let KR Gouri govern Kerala, the land of coconut trees). It was a watershed moment. Kerala was ready to welcome KR Gouri Amma, then three-time minister who had piloted the Communist government’s revolutionary Land Reforms Bill, as its first woman Chief Minister. But alas, the dream was not to be. Not only was Gouri Amma denied the role of the CM (she was made the Minister for Industries and Social Welfare instead), but she even went on to be ousted from the CPI(M) a few years later, in 1994. Up until her death in May last year, she did not receive a clear explanation as to why she was expelled from the party. Was it because of mere political differences, or was it her gender and caste?

Thirty-five years later, when a government was reelected in Kerala in the 2021 assembly elections for the first time in its history, the state once again rose in expectations of its first woman Chief Minister. This time, public support was with KK Shailaja — popularly known as Shailaja Teacher — who had emerged as a prominent political face and even gained international fame for her deft handling of the Nipah virus outbreak (2018) and Covid-19, during her tenure as the Health Minister in the first Pinarayi Vijayan ministry. “After the first term, when the LDF received a second (consecutive) chance, the scenario was perfect for Shailaja to step in and take charge as the CM. She had excelled in her work and won with the highest majority in the state. Yet, she was avoided when the ministry was formed. This alone shows how patriarchal the political parties in Kerala are,” points out social critic Hameed Chennamangaloor.

In fact, to expect any mainstream political party in Kerala to acknowledge or address the gender disparity within the state’s political sphere is like trying to squeeze water from a stone. Case in point is the almost complete silence from the side of mainstream male politicians, across parties and ideologies, on Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama leader MT Abdulla Musaliyar’s snub of a Class 10 student, who was invited to the stage to collect her merit certificate. Samastha even went on to justify its decision to keep away mature women from the stage during public functions, calling it their “100-year-old tradition”. While two women leaders — Health Minister Veena George and Higher Education Minister R Bindu — condemned the incident without mincing words, among men, strong critical words had notably come from LDF MLA Mathew T Thomas and Governor Arif Mohammed Khan. A majority including the Chief Minister, however, played it safe.

Besides all this, it is also to be noted that the representation afforded to women in the Legislative Assembly of Kerala — a state that has consistently boasted of a favourable sex ratio — has been abysmal throughout history. In fact, according to a report by the Scroll, the percentage of women MLAs in the Kerala Assembly has never exceeded 10% so far.

Zahira Rahman, a retired college professor, believes that misogyny is used as a tool in Kerala politics to retain power in certain hands. “This connection between religion, politics and gender disparity is ultimately linked to power. Choices are taken away from women so that power remains within the patriarchal system,” she says, adding that a system in which women are not the decision makers is conveniently accepted by the people — a tendency so ingrained in the state’s political system that it is very difficult to be questioned. Meanwhile, the male leaders find it easy to establish their dominance, she adds.

Though Kerala consistently ranks high when it comes to various welfare parameters including public health and sex ratio, systemic misogyny — both religious and otherwise — has permeated almost all streams of its political sphere. While some of these political streams don a garb of equality, attempting to sweep their relegation of women as secondary citizens under the carpet, some others (read: Samastha) do not shy away from openly declaring their regressive stand in this regard. But whether cloaked or not, the sexism in the state’s political domain continues to show itself to the world in a number of ways, whether it be through something as basic as the statistics of gender representation, or even the often subtle and sometimes outrageous sexist statements made by mainstream leaders every now and then.

A recent example is CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s controversial remark in March this year, regarding an increase in women’s representation in the party state committee. When a reporter asked if 50% of the party state committee will be reserved for women, Kodiyeri had asked in response if the reporter was trying to destroy the party, going on to add that this was not a practical thing to do. The remark was unsurprisingly met with widespread criticism, with the former Haritha (women’s wing of the MSF) leader Fathima Thahliya even filing a complaint against Kodiyeri, claiming that his statement was an insult to women political workers. However, many from within the CPI(M), including K K Shailaja, had come out in support of the party secretary. Referring to the criticism against Kodiyeri as a ‘misplaced’ media campaign, the Mattannur MLA had said that he was only joking while making the comment.

Several leaders of the Opposition UDF are also frequent offenders when it comes to misogynistic comments, with current KPCC President K Sudhakaran being no exception. Targeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in January 2019, Sudhakaran had said that Vijayan had proved to be “worse than a woman” in handling the affairs of the state. “CPM workers refer to Pinarayi Vijayan as a man with two hearts. We too had thought that after becoming the CM, he would do something like a man. But not only has he failed to act like a man, it has been proved that he is worse than a woman,” he had said.

In 2019, CPI(M) Politburo Member and then LDF convener A Vijayaraghavan had also faced criticism for making allegedly derogatory statements against Parliamentarian Ramya Haridas. “The girl who is contesting from Alathur (referring to Ramya) after filing nomination first rushed to Panakkad Sayed Hyderali Shihab (the late IUML supremo) and later to meet PK Kunhalikutty (IUML leader). I don’t know what will happen to her now,” he had said. The statement had stirred an intense row, following allegations that Vijayaraghavan was making an indirect reference to a sex scandal case in which Kunhalikuty was named an accused, but was later cleared of charges. Ramya had filed a complaint against the Communist leader for his comments.

Similarly in November 2020, former KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran had shocked the state with an appalling claim that women with self respect would kill themselves if they were raped. His comments were seemingly aimed at a woman who was involved in the solar scandal and had accused a Congress leader of rape. Though he tendered his apology soon after, this was in no way an isolated faux pas from him. Just a few months before this incident, Mullappally had come under fire for referring to then Health Minister Shailaja Teacher as ‘COVID Rani’ and ‘Nipah Rajakumari’. Though he was heavily criticised for the personal attack that carried sexist undertones, the veteran Congress leader was not ready to apologise, claiming that his words were twisted by a section of the media.

Another repeat offender is former Poonjar MLA PC George, who has consistently turned to victim blaming every time a high-profile rape case hit the headlines. Once accused of sending human excreta to the chairperson of the Kerala Women's Commission, he later publicly called a nun — who had accused a Bishop of raping her — a "prostitute". “Is there any doubt that the nun is a prostitute? Twelve times it was pleasure, 13th time it became a rape? Where was she when it happened 12 times,” he asked at a press meet, inviting ire from multiple quarters.

The scenario is no different at the grassroots level too, where local party leaders often resort to male chauvinism as a tool to attack or suppress women leaders. Recently in February this year, Idukki District Congress Committee President CP Mathew had made vulgar comments against Raji Chandran, president of the Idukki block panchayat who resigned from the Congress to join the CPI(M). Speaking at a public event, Mathew had made a crass comment that Raji would ‘sleep around’ with CPI(M) leaders.

Despite being unable to gain any solid footing in Kerala’s political scene, the BJP too has emerged as a strong contender with regard to the all-pervasive misogyny in the state. One example of this is the remarks made by former Kerala BJP chief PS Sreedharan Pillai against AICC General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, during the Lok Sabha election campaign of 2019. “The Congress is deceiving people by portraying Priyanka Gandhi as a young woman. She is 48 years old, but she is still referred to as a young beauty,” he had said in a campaign speech in Kannur, adding that he was not saying more “since there are women here”

Shahina Rafiq, writer and social critic, wonders why anyone was possibly surprised with the Samastha issue. “Have we ever seen a woman on stage during (the Samastha’s) programmes? Does a woman hold any key position in their organisation? I do not expect any change in their policies in the near future. The scenario will change only when the parents decide not to send their children to such institutions,” she says.

Kerala politics and its vote bank are irredeemably linked with religion, which is more often than not defined by misogyny, observers point out. “The biggest lie we keep repeating to ourselves is that all religions advocate peace. None of them do. The foundation of all of it is violence and bloodshed. They are all antifeminist. This is why patriarchy thrives on religion. It can advocate a purdah for women or deny them entry to Sabarimala. It will not be questioned,” Shahina says.

This in turn makes Kerala politics inseparable from the system of patriarchy, so much so that not only does it allow leaders like PC George and K Sudhakaran to flourish, but it also filters on to other mainstream leaders who would prefer the risk of feminist ire over the fear of upsetting their vote bank. “Women are provided with certain benefits in the name of ‘schemes’, and then they are made to sit quiet. Giving provisions to women is a popular way to keep them from seeking power, which is a practice followed by all political parties here,” says J Devika, scholar and social critic.

“The same Chief Minister, who announced the vanitha mathil (women’s wall) protest to implement the Sabarimala verdict, had kept quiet on the Samastha issue. We have also seen how someone like KK Shailaja was made silent by the party,” she adds.

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