The Orphaning of ‘Women’s Collective Interests’ in Kerala


There is considerable outrage in Kerala about how the accused in the murder of the young woman worker Soumya in 2011 has slipped the noose at the Supreme Court. There is considerable doubt remaining on how the murder of the young dalit woman student Jisha was handled by the present government. In both cases, the accused are not men who would earn the sympathy of the Malayali middle-class – in one case, a tamil homeless man, and in the other, a Muslim migrant worker. Not surprisingly, the cry for their blood has been particularly shrill. Outrage at the Supreme Court’s refusal to endorse the lower court’s judgment in the first case is particularly striking – not only because of its loudness, but also because one is unable to forget the Suryanelli case. The difference between the present cases and the Suryanelli case is that in the latter, the victim has been condemned to living death, though she has persistently fought to be heard as a survivor of the most horrific violence. Yet her pleas that the powerful Malayali politician P J Kurien be also tried never roused the kind of outrage was have heard recently. It appears that the Malayali public is kinder to dead violated women than women who survive violation; it also seems harsher towards abjected males than to .powerful males who occupy the pedestal of elite masculinity.

Indeed, one is struck by the fact that in the complaints that young women raise about sexual violence or harassment, it is either bloody-thirsty yelling for death penalty, or the demand for highly individualized justice, which virtually demands also that the state stoke the victim’s family’s desire for revenge, that crowds out all other ways of seeking justice and emotional closure. What is particularly troubling is the implicit understanding that in such cases, no claim of collective harm can be made at all. So one cannot argue, it appears, that the harm of  Soumya’s or Jisha’s murder falls on all women in general and on working class women, especially of the historically oppressed social groups, and not just on their respective families. This adds up to the blatant denial of anything like women’s ‘collective interests’ – more often than not, when these are invoked, the response is that they can only be ‘vested interests’, aimed maliciously at men. Just a few days ago, a young friend, Aswani Dravid, and her friend were brazenly assaulted at Kochi by a group of men, and the response of the police authorities has been precisely this: disbelief that her attempt to politicize it is in ‘good faith’, and in the possibility that she is articulating not just her personal interest but actually the collective interest of women! That this is most frequently the case when the complainants are either young and/or urbanized women is intriguing too. This is perhaps the way it is everywhere in India – in metropolitan and non-metropolitan academic institutions, among senior and junior academics – and Kerala is certainly no exception at all. In sexual harassment cases in universities and other institutions, we are only too familiar with this: so frequently are powerful male academics defended with the argument that complaints against them can arise only from professional envy, never from a concern about women’s collective interests.

I have been wondering in the wake of some truly bitter experiences, why even seemingly sensible people fall into such faulty reasoning when the complainant is young and/or urbanized. Part of the reason is surely that changes in the family in Kerala have meant an intensification of the parent-child axis in patriarchy, familial and public. While feminists are still derided, the main target of patriarchal authorities is now young people in general – and young women in particular. The police surveillance on young people in Kerala seems to have risen to new heights with active policing of youth lifestyles, which the police perceive to be linked to youth crime. Several such instances have been reported recently. Last year, police action against cannabis users focused on attacking wearers of Bob Marley T-shirts and other accessories, explicitly arguing that Marley was indeed a promoter of drug use. This campaign was supported by the State Youth Commission, which, according to news reports, called for a complete ban of Marley accessories.  Police in Kerala now also actively surveil teenaged students, rounding up truants and reporting them to school authorities:  students who had played truant at school and college to watch the hit movie Pranayam were rounded up, and that provoked no outrage. That this was a serious affair is indicated by the fact that the police had even code-named this swoop – it was called ‘Operation Gurukulam’.  Sartorial codes of young people have also invited police disciplining: low waist jeans and fancy hair-cuts, especially, by young people, and the later was part of ‘Operation Vidyalaya’.  Disciplinary efforts originating outside the immediate contexts of particular educational institutions include more generalized measures like the ban on cinematic dance.Most alarmingly, it appears that now fears about ‘youth decadence’ are now associated with college-going students, and formal student organizations. The event that triggered this new fear, expanding the already-existing moral panic around youth, was a rowdy all-male Onam celebration in the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, which resulted in an accident in which a woman student was killed by the revelers’ speeding vehicle. This has provided an occasion for tightening disciplinary controls, including police intervention, on students’ celebrations, through the more specific projection of the more generalised fear of youth on this group of young people  but interestingly enough, without much attention to the blatant masculine hubris . These measures have also targeted student union activities, bringing them into closer surveillance. Needless to say, the policing of young women, common and culturally entrenched in Kerala in the twentieth century, continues to manifest in ever-more insidious forms in the face of growing resistance from young women, especially women students. It appears then, that young women – and older women who seem to speak like them or in their interest – cannot represent ‘women’s interests’ in Kerala’s cultural mainstream.

So, does the idea of ‘women’s interests’ now migrate to older women? Sadly, no. Older women in Kerala are now solidly confined an increasingly-economistic and individualizing idea of ‘empowerment’ – such has been the rollback of interesting experiments that could have been initiated in the Kudumbashree which could  have contained these. I argue that this has, ironically, served to render the newer and the refurbished components of women’s domestic labour that keep the out of paid work strictly limited. Women’s domestic role as it was specified in early 20th century Malayli modernity always had a strong component of affective labour – and it was even argued that the mother’s direct performance or the non-nurturant aspects of domestic labour would endow it with affective power – but as Kerala transitioned by late 20th century into a society highly dependent on the migration of skilled labour, this component has not only intensified, it has also been reoriented from the need of Nation-building towards the need for child-crafting to suit the demands of the global job market. It has also gained increasing spread – research among working class women now reveals the extent to which these women sacrifice paid work in order to manage their children, trying to get them through the educational system. The discourse of empowerment that is aimed at these women remains curiously silent and blind towards this increasing burden, and more importantly, it adds a third kind of labour – provisioning labour, through which women access state welfare through precisely the mechanisms of ‘women’s empowerment’ in panchayats and elsewhere – to the woman’s daily labours. It is often this labour that is projected as ‘women’s empowerment’, and therefore, it usually stays out of critical scrutiny! Now, there is no denying that many women find empowering aspects in the performance of provisioning labour – and it is indeed true that ‘work’ and ‘life’ cannot be readily separated in it. But what troubles me is that there is no effort at all to even reflect on what part of these women’s provisioning labour would be ‘work’ and what would be ‘life’. Surely, that is a feminist question and responsibility?

In sum, neither among young women nor among older women can the idea of ‘women’s collective interests’ find legitimate articulation in contemporary Kerala, it seems. How can one not sigh when one remembers that this is in the backdrop of struggles by women workers – tea plantation workers, saleswomen, nurses – articulating their interests defying the leaderships of trade unions that can see nothing but class?

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s