Young Women in Kerala : Between Empowerment and Death? — Part I

[This was a note titled ‘We Still Need Feminism’ which I wrote on March 31 on my Facebook page; I thought it relevant to re-post it here as it appears that an ‘honour killing’, of a sort — an ‘honour suicide’ — may have actually surfaced in Kerala. More on that in the next post]

In JNU, last week, some of us were noticing how there seemed to be a notable increase in the numbers of students, both women and men, from the Hindi heartland. It is interesting, said one of my friends, that the deterritorialised university spaces in Delhi can no longer back off from directly confronting the tensions through which these societies now live through. “Look at that girl,” she said, pointing to a sprightly young woman, a bright student who I’d briefly met earlier,”she comes from a family that’d kill her if she married out of her gotra. And she is involved with a young man who’d not even of her region. We must fear the worst and prepare to confront evil.” For a brief moment, in my fright, I thought, well, at least we don’t have honour killings in Kerala. Honour kidnappings, yes, but I haven’t heard of too many honour killings. Maybe honour killings are still on their way here (like dowry deaths were, in the 1980s, when I was growing up into a young woman). We have some time to rally against them.

As I walked back to my room that night, I thought about my reaction with discomfort. Somehow, my horror about ‘north India’ seemed to echo, in some way, with a strain of Malayalee exceptionalism. Everywhere in Kerala, there is talk of women’s ’empowerment’ in the mainstream political discourse. Champions of governmentalized women’s empowerment (of the Kudumbasree variety) tell us that women are getting out there, working in self-help groups, are full of confidence. They don’t need feminism, these folks claim, they are empowered. They have pulled themselves out of narrow domestic lives, they are ready to fight the panchayat elections! Yes, women are murdered in ‘uncivilized’ ‘north India’; down here they are being empowered to escape patriarchy. And they add: feminism may be relevant there, but here it is redundant.

What bothered me, I sensed, was not just  my implicit assent to such ethnocentric hubris, but also my failure to interrogate the consequences of  individualized ’empowerment’.

I was assailed by a particularly painful memory, from a year back or so. This was  of the suicide of a young female self-help-group organizer in a village in the outskirts of Trivandrum who I had interviewed as part of my research . Her death was a huge shock to me; it made me feel tremendously guilty that despite our long conversations I could not even sense the crisis that she’d been trying to negotiate. The news that she had committed suicide made me desperately search through my memory of my interactions with her for what I may have missed. All I could remember was how empowered she had appeared; young, confident, cheerful, despite the fact that she was the major support of her below-poverty-line family which was clearly bidding for upward mobility through education. She had left off after a BA, doing all kinds of work to support her family: giving math tuition, did part-time cashier duty at a local supermarket. She had reached that level braving her father’s drunkenness and her mother’s poor resources (she was a domestic worker) through paying for her schooling from the income she earned  packing jaggery at a local godown on weekends and evenings. The self-help-group formation was a chance for her to step out and acquire a public life, and I still remember how heartening it was to see her sheer pleasure from  just getting out of the house! However, I also noted uneasily how she worked an impossible triple shift: doing more than her share of housework at home to escape her mother’s censure of her ‘free’ lifestyle; working for an income; performing the labour of government for the panchayat expecting or receiving meagre remuneration, simply for the pleasure of staying in the public. It was apparent to me that she faced an uphill climb: her mother was imploring me to advise her not to “run around so much and earn a bad name”, but she still went to her daughter when she needed cash. But I was under the illusion that this young woman was strong enough to weather all of this: she looked as if she were bursting with energy, she was so ’empowered’.

This is why when she called me three days before her suicide, I did not really get the signals too well. I did sense something wrong in her tone; I repeatedly asked her if something was wrong, and she kept saying no. I disbelieved my own instincts only because the image of her that I had was that of a capable young woman who had surmounted her difficult circumstances on her own — a heroic image. All my reading about the flimsiness of individualized agency was disarmed, I think, when I actually witnessed the performance of such agency. Three days after the phone call she killed herself. I got to know of it after I returned from a trip. Groping inconsolable in dark helpless anguish, I saw, in stark nakedness, how hollow ’empowerment’ could be, especially when young women from economically and socially disadvantaged circumstances seek it. Her relatives told me that she had killed herself because the man she had loved (a cousin, apparently), and who had promised marriage, had decided to marry her sister, who she had educated, who had just then got a steady job. The whole family had known about this decision, except her. When she stumbled on this information, it was too much to bear.

Well, that may sound like a silly sentimental story to many, especially to women like me who may consider themselves somewhat more liberated. But even so, I could see what her despair might have been. In a non-urban, if utterly fragmented community  like the one in which she lived, a woman’s only chance to experience warmth, affect, is through marriage. And a woman who can’t pay dowry or at least generate a steady income, has few chances of finding a suitable mate from her own community and acceptable to her family. At the same time she would be totally prohibited from making friends with men, from exploring the possibilities of finding a mate outside family and community circles. Indeed, in many of our conversations, she had told me, proudly, how she’d never given anyone a chance to talk bad of her.

I can perhaps never forget the stinging sorrow that hit me when I realized that for all her bubbly demeanour, she simply did not have the emotional resources to tide over the betrayal — and none of us close to her even saw it.  Unlike women like me who do enjoy more economic and social privilege, she could not escape her narrow and stifling world. Migration would have been an option — widely chosen by many economically disadvantaged women in Kerala. But that would have only integrated her into the disempowering, even dehumanising world of informal sector labour.  Instead she dared to dream of full citizenship and integration into the public, staying back in this hostile society and trying to be an active organizer of local women for the panchayat. I believe she was punished for that daring. To me, it reveals that limits of individualized empowerment. Individualized empowerment is certainly not impossible. But it is more possible for women with sufficient resources of all sorts — economic, social, emotional, intellectual, cultural. For others, it may weave a tragic story: of simply running out of steam, left all alone in a difficult climb. And even if successful, the scars might remain, in deep insecurity, destructive competitiveness, abiding distrust of others, the inability to make alliances and connections. I have seen that too many times in women who have braved much, all by themselves, on lonely paths.

That convinces me that we do need feminism — antipatriarchal struggles that address woman as a collective. So that women can live full human lives without necessarily treading the heroic path.So that they do not have to murder themselves unable to cope with a society that places impossible demands on them. So that they stop thinking that their journeys are on unconnected, precarious, individual paths that they MUST tread all alone. So that sharing and connection is still possible. That alone will save young Malayalee women who are not of the elite from teetering on the brink between suicide and mental illness. Contrary to what our smug intellectuals have to say, it is not the upper-class young women in Kerala who need feminism anymore. They have their escape routes, and these are widening, it seems. It is the disadvantaged but educated, individuated, young Malayalee woman who desperately needs feminism. Individualized empowerment, routinely dished out by our governmental machinery,cannot be a substitute.

12 thoughts on “Young Women in Kerala : Between Empowerment and Death? — Part I”

  1. Thanks for this article. Most young malayalee women I know, including myself, are constantly on the lookout for escape routes. Being part of the minority who have the option of migrating outside of Kerala to study or work in good places, some of us do manage an escape. But most have no such options. Middle and lower class malayalee women, both young and old seem to bear the double burden of being the main labourer who keeps the household together while being careful not to hurt the image of the ‘man of the house’. If there isn’t man in your house, there are others waiting to play the role. This confuses many a young, educated woman but she is quick to realise that she can, and will be punished if she dares to take charge ordefy expectations. She will be denied affection, called ‘un-marriable’, called a man, and laughed at. Neighbourhood women’s groups, at least in my locality, are often a joke and there is no sense of solidarity when there is a crisis in a member’s life. Men dismiss them as women who have nothing else to do indulging their fancies. Women are shy to defend themselves and often the ventures disappear without a trace. When a woman candidate stands for elections, even now, the party men come to ask for votes from heads of families with apologies and then reassurances that despite it being a woman candidate(and hence, not vote-worthy), they will take care of things. There are no real support systems for women in Kerala, none at all that come without expectations of morality and duties. For all the work that women do to keep children in school and to put food on the table, they have no power and no one to go to. Women in Kerala need feminism as much as their counterparts elsewhere.


  2. ““Look at that girl,” she said, pointing to a sprightly young woman, a bright student who I’d briefly met earlier,”she comes from a family that’d kill her if she married out of her gotra.”

    – Do you mean they would kill her if she maried within her gotra? That’s usually what observant Hindus are against. Otherwise it seems like her family is hellbent on breaking a taboo, which is odd.


  3. It is a terribly sad, and shocking story … I feel so angry at a wasted life; especially considering she was resourceful and a capable person.

    However, I could not follow your conclusion. How would generic ‘feminism’ have helped her. She needed to be able to reach out, and be supported by people around her, but she decided otherwise. Being part of a feminist movement could have hardly helped her handle the emotional deathstroke she was given.


  4. Devika’s uneasiness at her reaction to “those North Indians” for their regressive social behaviour as against the so called progressive and empowered malayali culture is exactly what i feel. There is a great deal of complicity and complacence in the malayali intelligensia as they propound as to how progressive their society is. These are bolstered by statistics and data from organisations that the intelligentsia love to quote from- like the UN’s social sector analysis and the national surveys in this regard. The celebration of certain aspects of malayali culture have become so de rigeur- the high level of literacy, peppered with anecdotes as to how the bus driver will talk of Che Guevara or that tea shop discussions will be about esoteric aspects of marxism, the falling birth rate, the radical streak , the awareness of rights etc etc. However there exists deep feudal strains in the society that the left rule has managed to cloak. This combined with the arrogance of thinking that malayali society is a cut above and believing every bit of praise they get from gullible outsiders have left a people who think that that they need not introspect. This does not augur well for this society.


  5. I hope I’m not getting off-topic here, but after reading this article I would like to share that I empathize a similar concern for my ‘teenage-girlfriends’. Here they’re not economically, socially, intellectually, or culturally adversed. They are just 15-18 year olds who take extreme steps because for example, they had a fight with their boyfriend. Or just simple as that or even to blackmail their lover to obey them. It is all nonsensical. Do you know what I mean? My best-friend contemplated, actually ‘cut her wrist’ numerous times so that her boyfriend would not break up with her or he would lover her forever and ever… and her friends followed. It’s a trend! Anything happens, they cut their wrist. Last week she fought with her mom and cut her wrist. This is not some psychological disorder here… because she is not the only one. It’s depressing.

    Okay I did go off topic, but I thought I’d share this tread among youngsters today.


  6. There is no harm in saying that in a comparative analysis society in Kerala is much better than societies in some other states in terms of indicators. Has anyone anywhere argued that Kerala has reached a stage that nothing is to be done now as Kerala has become the utopia in reality when it comes to gender equality.

    Devika statrts like this
    “That convinces me that we do need feminism — antipatriarchal struggles that address woman as a collective. So that women can live full human lives without necessarily treading the heroic path.So that they do not have to murder themselves unable to cope with a society that places impossible demands on them. So that they stop thinking that their journeys are on unconnected, precarious, individual paths that they MUST tread all alone. So that sharing and connection is still possible” and then

    “Contrary to what our smug intellectuals have to say, it is not the upper-class young women in Kerala who need feminism anymore. They have their escape routes, and these are widening, it seems. It is the disadvantaged but educated, individuated, young Malayalee woman who desperately needs feminism”

    Can the society be so neatly divided that some dont need feminism while some need it.
    Is feminism is a drug be taken continuosly and then it can be conveniently discontinued
    to be substituted by another drug.
    The writer has some points but is confused as she is unable to understand a fundamental fact, solidarity cutting across classes and castes is necessary for all women.Whether it is always feasible is another issue.


  7. I generally agree with what you say Devika. Even in Tamil Nadu, the general consensus about women’s status is that they are better off than North India… more empowered etc… I feel that the way patriarchy manifests itself in the South and North is quite different… this doesn’t mean that southern society is more progressive or sensitive to women’s issues.


  8. My condolences.
    The author’s incoherence appears to stem from the trauma that has been inflicted on the author. A death from a broken heart should not be linked to ‘honour killings’ and ‘honour suicides’.
    This sad event was the result of a double-cross by the potential groom. What are the real reasons that lay behind the suicide – we may never know – but we do know that it was too much for the person to bear. To loop it to ‘honour killings-suicides’ and ‘feminism’ is just going over-board and bordering on hysterical.
    People who are poor and destitute do not need too much to be pushed over the edge (Im surprised that there are no price-riots ever in India). In fact, surprisingly, in Kerala – they even raise a voice and fight for their rights!!! That is so bad for industry – so sad !!
    If it is the poor (women) that you want to help, then you need to look beyond feminism and patriarchy.


  9. There seem to be a profound contradiction in the manner in which boys and girls of Kerala are allowed more or less equal measures of material resources on the one hand, and yet grown up women are not encouraged to conduct themselves as intelligent and responsible humans on the other! Discuss women’s problems with any writer or rights activist. As a woman/’feminist’ you are more likely to be told of the need for pragmatism ; to be practical on your limitations in choice of love and relationships. Perhaps you will never get a space to express yourselves with less inhibition and you will never be told of the potential strength waiting to be unleashed in the course of struggle for dignity and justice!


  10. Waiting for the whole essay before any comments could be made.

    But as to this first part, I hope that you would clarify the next alternative to individual feminism and what you meant by “antipatriarchal struggles that address woman as a collective..” From having read you so far, I am sure that you still would not want to connect that struggle to a political level.

    And to this statement that “It is the disadvantaged but educated, individuated, young Malayalee woman who desperately needs feminism..” . Do you mean to say that only those women (with such rich adjectives..educated, individuated, young..) need feminism? What about uneducated, socialized, general women? Don’t they need it?


  11. bigboss, thanks for pointing that out. Yes, I remember that my friend mentioned that she could not marry within her gotra, and also mentioned a couple of gotras into which members of her gotra could not marry. I think such prohibitions differ from region to region; the point was that whatever those prohibitions may be, violating them could mean death.

    Jano, permit me to disagree. I think we should recognize the difference that a large and powerful feminist movement can make; unlike what you think, it does empower women to speak and act against entrenched forms of misogyny. But more importantly, it would challenge and destabilize hegemonic forms of patriarchy, such that the recognizable life-options for individual women would expand. One would no longer be so dependent on family and community sources for emotional sustenance. I think we need to remember that these structures are undergoing tremendous change; and there is no reason why one should be forced to store all of one’s emotional eggs in one basket.

    ooh,on the other hand , let me tell you that are enough people who proclaim feminism to be redundant now that we have kudumbasree. In fact the argument is that the beneficiaries of governmentalized empowerment measures do not need feminism. If you read the piece carefully, you’ll notice that I’m arguing that this is the distinction that is being bandied about today, very frequently. My argument is that this is fallacious. Of course everybody needs feminism — women, men, children, everyone — but for who is it a matter of life and death? Certainly upper-class educated women with mobility can maneuver better (though not escape) patriarchy; individuated women need more than that. Staying happy with a ‘fundamental fact’ ( that we all need feminism) is nothing but being content with the banal. One needs to probe deeper and take the nuances of a situation seriously if one is to be more precise about the relevance of a politics.

    Yojimbo, you seem to know the truth about Indu’s death, maybe you should contact the police etc before setting out to chide me. And I’m not interested in the helping-the-poor business so please proffer your advice elsewhere.

    rajeeve, the opposite of individuated is not ‘socialized’ and the opposite of ‘young’ is not ‘general’. Perhaps you mean non-individuated and not-young women who lack education and mobility. Perhaps they need feminism, but much more than that. Feminism is not a panacea; it is a perspective that can inform a variety of struggles around very varied demands. There is nothing that stops struggles for basic conditions of individuation to adopt a feminist stance. Secondly, addressing women in the collective sense is a politics in itself — it helps all women but most importantly women who are struggling within their limited spaces.


  12. Sad … and what is more sad is that such incidences are not rare. What strikes out in this case is that how what appeared to be a perfect tale of success and empowerment was so fragile and vulnerable inside. Will there ever be an ism which will free women from emotional vulnerability … her craving for family , children and relationships …..

    Another malyalee woman who was working to take care of her mother and siblings and was planning marriage and further studies at the same time was thrown out of the train and killed last month. Seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. More empowerment, (if not more) atleast not any less vulnerability and exploitation.


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