It is hardly news in Kerala by now that its been raining misogynists, rape-talkers, and swollen-rotten masculine egos in these early days of 2013. The PJ Kurien controversy has been a trigger of course. But I am astounded at the collective frenzy of Congress stalwarts. Kerala today is like a coconut garden taken over by a bunch of supremely drunken … well .. simians. Here we are, helplessly watching the tipsy horde ascend the fruit-laden coconut palms, pulling down ripe fruit and raw ones, tender leaves and drying ones, with nary a care for all of us down here! Everyone, from senior leaders, many insecure dumb ass-males on FB and Youtube, to minor lawyers in small-town courts with sadly dessicated minds but hugely swollen male-egos, to elected MLAs on the floor of the Kerala State Assembly, and judges whose guardian-angelic misogynist aura glints a bit more menacingly in private conversations,each of them seem to be up their own coconut tree throwing down various half-witted, asinine comments,venting their immense distrust of women who don’t fit into the homely-comely-motherly stereotype.
Let me give you a sample of the various clumsy ola-madals currently landing on the heads of innocent Malayalees: According to the Mathrubhumi’s reporter P S Jayan who covers the Kerala State Assembly’s proceedings (Trivandrum edition,14 February 2013), Home Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan turned down the Opposition’s demand for re-investigation of the infamous Suryanelli serial-rape Case, which is currently rocking the Congress’ boat again in Kerala after 17 years. The victim, who was just about 16 years old when she was abducted and subjected to rape for over 40 days continuously, has consistently accused the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman P J Kurien of having tormented her. On 31 Jan 2013, the Supreme Court set aside the verdict of the Kerala High Court which had acquitted the overwhelming majority of the 35 persons who had been found guilty by the special court, and reduced the sentence of the single accused that it found guilty. And Kurien’s alibi has been wearing rather thin too. No wonder, then, that the Congress stalwarts have all gone into the coconut-tree-climbing tizzy.
The Minister claimed that the government had received legal advice that there were no grounds for re-investigation — and that the reference to ‘victim’ in the Central Government’s ordinance can be female or male! “Have you any prior experience with Kurien?” snapped Vayalar Ravi at a woman TV journalist who had asked him about the controversy. Later, like the tipsy gentleman up above whose intention is merely to share the joys of a juicy tender coconut, he apologized and said he liked to joke with journalists.
The bigger joke is of course is the Kerala Government’s desperation to pass legislation to ‘protect the privacy and dignity ‘ of women running precisely parallel to their desperation to protect P J Kurien who seems to be getting sewed tighter and tighter into the most uncomfortably ‘protective’ gunny-bag of self-proclaimed innocence. Mathrubhumi’s N S Jayaprakash (Trivandrum edition,15 Feb 2013) reports what seems to be the veritable downpour of misogynist half-ripe coconuts in the discussion of the proposed bill: K Muralidharan cut down the first bunch of rather hard-skinned macchingas : Women are under threat, he claimed, because of Cafe Coffee Day. Because of off-track walking. Also because of mobile phones and too little clothing. But he was afraid that he may not be able to smile anymore at women in his constituency because of this bill, reports Jayaprakash. Dominic Presentation seems to have climbed a much-taller tree because his missile struck the ground much harder: he felt that the bill may affect “cross-eyed people” (men, he meant) adversely. Because they may seem to be looking at women when they are actually not.
Not to be undone, their friends outside the Assembly have clambered high above and unleashed a veritable hail of sturdy coconut stems, flower-bunches, in fact, chopped down almost the whole of their respective tree-tops. Leading the pack is the gentleman who may well be crowned the Prince of Male Chauvinst Blather, a certain R Kumar, who has apparently been training student police cadets in Kerala’s colleges. Few can outdo the missiles that he hurls from high above, which are canon-balls than coconuts. Here is a sample of his ‘rape-speech’ made at a prominent women’s college in Thiruvananthapuram — words which carry the same hateful desire to discipline the ‘wayward jeans-clad woman’– shared on the internet:
“The male community, including myself, needs only 10 minutes, just ten minutes (pointing to himself) as a Biology medical science teacher I can say, just ten minutes, to send what is called sperm, into the uterus of a female. But for the next 10 months the child will grow in the mother’s, the woman’s womb. That is why the Holy Koran teaches that women should conduct herself properly. But, they (girls) don’t like it!If a boy jumps, ‘I want to jump more than that’ is the girl’s attitude. If you (girls) try to jump like the boys do, you will slip and fall and hurt your backbone and your uterus will be displaced. Then you will have to go to (mentions some hospital) spend 3 to 4 lakhs to get the uterus back in place, that is if you want to have a family. If you don’t need a family then its okay.”
The Prince was deeply puzzled by all the outrage: why, I praised women, really, he pouted later. I said they were mothers and gave birth in pain! But the second place was taken by none other than R Basant, former High Court Judge and the one of the Archangels of Kerala’s Guardian Angelic Moral Police force (I have written on this style of moral police earlier, on Kafila). Widely recognized in Kerala for his integrity, his guardian angelic aura makes it hard for us to imagine him on top of something as mundane as a coconut tree. But his statements, apparently made in personal conversation, make us believe that he manages to part of the mayhem staying right on the ground, and without being the slightest sign of tiddliness. And of course, it confirms the feeling that his judgement in the Kerala High Court in 2005 which acquitted nearly all the accused in the Suryanelli Case was also guided by deep prejudices against women, especially young, non-motherly women.
Indeed, as I try to pick myself up after having been knocked down by several of these missiles, I wonder what is it that has let loose this sudden collective assault on young, non-motherly women, by men from such diverse walks of life, and in such frantic ways that clearly border on the absurd? I’m not saying that there are no women at all in their brigade. Indeed, I’d count among them certain prominent women who told me that they felt that Eve Ensler should not perform ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in Thiruvananthapuram as it was ‘culturally inappropriate’. Their fears, too, are all about the young, non-motherly, jeans-clad young woman who demands control over her body too explicitly.
What is it that makes the Malayalee elite feel so threatened by young women? Visiting women’s colleges in Kerala today, one cannot but be struck by the constant effort to confine young women to ‘safe spaces’, monitor their movements constantly, efface their sexualities through dress-codes and codes of conduct, and refuse them the power and dignity of youth by reducing them to ‘adolescent girls’! Recently, I was amused to note how, at a prominent women’s college in Thiruvananthapuram, all the young women were wrapped up in drab uniforms while their middle-aged women teachers all seemed dressed to kill, in expensive sarees of silk and cotton, and clad in considerable amounts of gold jewellery! Of course that partly gladdens the heart of a middle-aged woman like me, but it also set naked before me a clearly emergent hierarchy not just of pedagogy but of class and, importantly, age. Clearly, the aging Malayalee elite seem more threatened by young women than by young men — and not really surprisingly.
Life has certainly changed in Kerala since the 1990s and the structural conditions that produced angry young men are weaker now: unemployment has fallen significantly for men; opportunities for migration are ever-greater; and boys are all the more valued at home since even an addle-brained nincompoop can successfully claim a few lakhs as dowry. Now we have structural conditions that will hopefully produce the angry young woman: whose opportunities in the labour market continue to the be strictly limited, whose entry into public life is seemingly smoothened, but seriously limited, whose life and death are made to depend on their marriageability — which includes, primarily, the ability to shell out a significant dowry.
I think this shrinkage of space for young women and girls has something to do with the apparent rise of violence, especially sexual violence, against young girls by their own family members in Kerala. Though this may turn out to be reporting bias, I cannot help noting: it is not that the trafficking of young girls was unknown in Kerala. Indeed, in the near-famine conditions of the 1940s, the starving poor did sell their children, especially girls, for cheap — and this was widely lamented in the radical left writings of the period. But I have also found evidence of something similar to the kind of violence we find reported now, against young girls by their family members — and that was within the confines of the homesteads of the conservative Malayala brahmins. The terrible oppression and lack of value of the Malayala brahmin women is of course an abiding theme in Kerala’s social reform-saga. But one wonders if there aren’t certain similarities between that absurdly patriarchal structure and the present-day Malayalee elite family. For instance, in the ‘structural worthlessness’ of young women, who are, in a structural sense, objects who must be given away in marriage necessarily, and to equals or superiors through dowry payments, and whose unmarried status/ free choice of a partner would bring great ignominy and loss of face to her kin. Also, the fact that obligations of the natal family to the young woman, especially of her brothers, are essentially around the conduct of her marriage. Brothers may support sisters whose marriages have failed, but their support is not given within the structure of kinship obligations, rather they are driven by such aspects of the relationship as personal closeness and normative considerations, the strength of which may wary.
But alas, I must say that this is just loud thinking. We need good, rigorous, ‘angry’ research to open up a whole set of questions that will rip the mask off the Malayalee elites’ self-perception of itself and Malayalee society in general — especially about family life and intimate relationships. I do hope the present discursive assault by sundry patriarchs provokes productive anger of many kinds in young women, but especially intellectual anger. Good sociological research — of the sort that would help one to make sense of social change, fueled by precisely such anger — seems to be largely dead in the state. Instead we seem to be stuck on themes that are ‘safe’. Or plain foolish. I will never forget a certain young woman from a university in Kerala, who came to meet me. She said that she was going to research the history of Pathanamthitta district. Oh, I asked her, are you going to do local history? Not yet, she said, giving me a coy smile and dimpling prettily. But very soon I will be doing local history. Because my marriage is in two months and I will be a Pathanamthitta local after my wedding. This young woman was anything but angry.
But one may also not necessarily expect intellectual anger from Malayalee students in the more politically and intellectually-charged metropolitan universities and institutions inside and outside India. I have often observed with amusement the way some of these shrewd young people pick topics : fashionable (i.e. in circulation in these metropolitan campuses), politically correct (i.e. in line with the reigning intellectual wisdom there), and requiring the shortest, easiest, and most enjoyable data collecting (here the rule is, pick a population that is necessarily small so that extensive interviewing etc can be avoided). Or analyse already available data — so easy now, with all the software you don’t have to move from the armchair! And I have realized that such quantitative research relying on ready-made, large data-sets could even be a form of therapy for those of us in qualitative research who are continuously ambushed and harried by the unpredictability of the real world! For reducing the world to numbers may potentially afford us the comforting illusion about its manageability!
Of course there are very many students who aspire to avoid these well-worn tracks, and they are not at fault necessarily — there have also been changes in the research system that forces students to take the easier path. However, there is still a very visible lack of imagination in tackling the latter and in asserting intellectual independence. And just as an intellectual vacuum can produce mediocrity, an atmosphere in which political correctness locks us into little intellectual-moral circles that we mis-recognize to be the public can produce fashionable-looking banalities. Right now, I can hardly see the angry young woman in my field, social research, who would interrogate the patriarchy of her times to produce a resistant new discourse.
But surely, there is light at the end of the tunnel: for instance, in the form of the lone young woman at Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram – Arya – who stood up to challenge the Prince of Misogynist Blather mentioned above and who did not flinch even when blithely insulted by him. May her tribe increase!