Malayali Feminism 2018: In the Light of Vadayambady and Hadiya’s Struggle

The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, not our own powerlessness, stupefy us.

Adorno.

As frightening spectres of untouchability and unseeability hover around the festering sore of the ‘caste-wall’ at Vadayambady in Kerala, as the so-called mainstream left-led government here continues to pour its energy and resources into aiding and abetting caste devils there, as most mainstream media turns a blind eye, as the Kerala police continues its mad-dog-left-loose act, many friends ask me: why have you not yet written about the struggle there of dalit people fighting of the demon of caste now completely, shamelessly ,in the public once more?

I can only say: I am tired. I am hoarse of writing about the emerging order in which coercion, not consent, becomes the state’s instrument of producing subordination, about the emerging security state overshadowing the welfarist state, about the inadequacies of the rhetoric of Malayali cosmopolitanism in the wake of resurgent caste-community power, about the deterioration of early twentieth century caste-community organizations into caste-corporates managing community assets for the community elite, about the persistent efforts of the state to push the dalit people into a state of abjection.

Am I surprised by this ‘division of labour’ between the NSS and the RSS? No! I have written about it in the wake of the Hadiya case – of how the NSS and SNDP manage economic interests of the twentieth century new elite (by this term I mean caste-communities which managed to secure their interests in twentieth century Kerala, and this includes certain elite sections of the Ezhavas, who were an avarna jati in the traditional order), while they outsource the business of keeping people, especially young people, in submission to family and community to the RSS. Am I surprised that Ananthu A R was dubbed Maoist and carted off? No, not at all.  Did I not write about how young people siding with justice were attacked precisely this way? And now, according to the police authorities’ logic, the best minds in Kerala’s civil society – BRP Bhaskar, K Satchidanandan, B Rajeevan, T T Sreekumar – the list is long – are all Maoist by implication as they protest the police’s vile attacks on the dalit activists at Vadayambady and horror of horrors, even side with the transgender people who the Kochi police consider fair game! We meet bizarre representatives of the state:  District Collectors hallucinate that they live in the Raja of Kochi’s — the Ponnutampuran’s — times before Indian independence and protect Brahmanadharmam the Raja upheld; police chiefs who coolly state that their job is to protect the respectability of the genteel middle class and not the rights of all; left political leaders who kiss the feet of NRI capital and remain permanently indebted to them; and of course, the slimy intellectuals of the CPM who run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

Much has been written on the Vadayambady struggle, and indeed we need to keep the issue from being despatched to darkness, which was what the craven mainstream media would happily do. I however, want to think about the future. For that is where hope lies, and it is important to break free from the fossilizing stare the state now holds us in, preventing us from thinking of how to survive, stay alive, be human — in other words, how to craft a politics adequate to today’s challenges.

And therefore I want to think of feminism in Kerala, post-Hadiya’s struggle, post-Vadayambady. Both events reveal to us some of the challenges that we can no more deny – I mean, no one who has any political spine left can deny: one, that the new elite caste-communities of the twentieth century (the SNDP, NSS, the Syrian Christian community organizations) are ready and eager to outsource the business of policing community boundaries, and the violence that it entails, to the RSS/other Hindutva organizations; two,  the mainstream left is very much part of this game and will not seriously interfere – unless the anti-caste struggle seems to be winning, at which point they may enter and carry off the honours.

But more importantly, the time has come when we need to realize that all of us who are opposed to caste and patriarchy, and to the gross inequalities of resources and power wrought by our late twentieth-century integration into the globalized world economy (and these cannot really be understood apart of each other) need to work on our differences and come together. I do believe that treating our differences as insurmountable and irreconcilable is not just childish and petulant, but also outright dangerous now. Now, whatever we may think about our differences, all of us, humanist and anti-humanist, are ‘Maoists’ and/or ISIS supporters in the eyes of the security-obsessed, Hindutva-inflected state, as many statements by the police now state quite baldly. We, then, need to rethink politics in ways that will help us work together, and this is my way of contributing to it.Though I say ‘ feminism after Hadiya’s struggle’, I want to highlight not just the learning from that specific struggle but from the entire set of resistances in recent times.

So how do we rethink feminism?

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Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Get the fuck out. Refuse to reproduce our communities of birth if they are involved in reviving caste power and in alliance with the Sanghis.

To start from Hadiya, I want to say that it is she, more than anyone else, allowed us to see the crucial importance of destroying sajateeya marriage – marriage between members of the same caste—among the powerful new elite caste-communities in contemporary Kerala.

We need to carefully think of endogamy as it exists across the savarna/new elite- oppressed community divide – of its functions, form, impacts and consequences for us. I think savarna/new elite feminists  ought to break endogamy totally – and that ought to be one of the pillars of the feminism practised by feminists born in the savarna/new elite communities. By now, I am tired of the empty evocations of intersectionality and the self-restraining practiced by savarna feminists whose main mode of engagement with non-savarna politics seems to be through a careful avoidance of engagement and passive agreement – functioning as the Facebook-likes-providing brigade. Which is really easy, because your lack of engagement gets read as support, and of course, you don’t really need to think of your ‘own work’ in smashing the caste-patriarchy-class nexus. Those times, I feel are over. If savarna-born women are serious about feminism, they better start doing their own work: and I say, the most important task they need to take on is the breaking down of sajateeya marriage, and indeed, even marrying between the savarna/new elite communities. For this is the bolster that holds up these dominant communities now. Indeed, the massive violence against young women of these communities who choose to marry Muslims shows that the bolster is under strain, and that is generating great insecurities.

Put differently, I am saying that fighting for equal rights within savarna/ new elite communities might lighten patriarchy there but does not remove the caste privilege savarna/new elite- born women enjoy over their avarna sisters. So getting the fuck out may be necessary – and if we choose partners from our own castes, engage in radical self-critical concrete proposals on how to exit the community altogether. I mean, I think savarna feminists should not contribute to the reproduction of their regressive communities in any way, implicit or explicit.

Exiting through marriage – exogamy — is one way this may be done, but also maybe through conversion, coming out as queer, building queer families – we need to think more. Maybe we should think of marriage and relationship sites which will help people connect beyond their communities of birth! However, for avarna, muslim, and christian communities in India now endogamy may hold different  significance and so the thrust could be on democratising marital relationships fully as a condition for continuing endogamy.

So while the goal to democratising marital relationships remains important for all women, savarna/new elite-born women ought to strive beyond it by actually breaking the endogamy imposed by their communities.

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2. Learn a lesson from the struggles of the transgender communities

The transgender community in Kerala has made an active bid to enter the social and political mainstream, and this has now brought them much visibility here. But what has been truly moving and humbling for us has been the stern refusal of leading voices in the community to condemn those among them who may be relying on sex work for a living.  In their responses to the accusations raised by the Kerala police, these voices have stressed over and over that the transgender community, in order to be a truly empowered constituent of the mainstream, may need not just resources and government support, but also time – and convivial friendship – from others. They have asserted the right of members to form alternate families, and have refused to judge each other with patriarchal standards

This is a lesson that feminism in Kerala has taken too long to learn. To build a strong alternate community, one needs to first stop moralizing and refuse patriarchal explanations for our failures and success. We need to take seriously other women when they speak about state violence, especially when they belong to groups the state actively demonises. We saw the regrettable reluctance among leading feminists to listen to sex workers around a decade back; in Hadiya’s struggle, too many feminists were ready to dismiss Hadiya without even listening to her; too many sniggered, telling her to be grateful to the Indian Constitution, at a time when we were appalled by the Supreme Court’s treatment of her. This cannot build a feminist community, whatever else it may lead to. And sucking up to the social right-wing, or to the NIA, for that matter, is not going to save anyone from the heavy hand of Brahmanical dandaneethi that will surely fall on all women, and goody-goody feminists (except those who as clever as Madhu Kishwar) are not exempted.

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  1. Accept that support for women’s labour struggles are not what feminists offer ‘for poor women’ but actually central to building feminist solidarity itself.

It is time that we began to take head-on the reality of the  oppressive relations that exist between savarna/new elite women and avarna women – that the genteel domesticity and mobility of the former are dependent on the later. Instead of focusing on how the order of caste permits men to oppress women, we need to focus on how it permits women to oppress other women. This demands that we focus on domestic labour especially, and all forms of women’s undervalued labour in the productive and other sectors historically, and the manner in which it shapes the relations between women and divides them. The struggle for justice and fair wages and practices, and rights and voice for domestic workers then needs to become central to all feminist politics. But we also need to develop radical theorising around domestic labour and emancipatory politics around paid domestic work. By the latter, one means going beyond the discussion of fair wages, but of building feminist work relationships between employers and employees, that does not reduce it to merely an exchange within the capitalist circuit – and indeed, builds solidarity in the full realization that the domestic worker’s struggle is not merely hers but integral to all anti-patriarchal struggles. And this needs to be extended to the struggles by all women workers — whether they work at home, in the municipality, hospital, or tea garden.

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  1. Feminism needs to take sides unambiguously in the politics around bodies.

In Kerala now, the young are fighting for their bodies – for the right to dress their bodies as they deem fit, to define their sexuality, to free their bodies from being turned into instruments of reproduction of caste-communities and families, to resist the reduction of their bodies into labour power saleable in the global job market. Feminism cannot dither anymore in its decades-old habit of being wary of demands for sexual liberation, for in these times, that just cannot be feminism anymore. Feminism needs to be shameless, totally shameless, in insisting that sexual rights, inequalities, issues, and injustices have to be public concerns, and take an unambiguous position on this vis-à-vis the social right-wing. It cannot afford to be queasy about discussing questions of dangers and pleasures in sex, as well as rights and violations in intimate relationships.  Any talk of gender that refuses to do so, one may say, is immediately complicit with the massive apparatus that runs the length and breadth of the state, extending from the patriarchal family, through schools, tuition centres, coaching camps and so on, to technical institutes, finishing schools etc. into which our young people are being sucked in and turned, quite violently these days, into docile labour for the global labour market.

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  1. Embrace, yet know the limits, of cyberfeminism.

For some time now, cyberspace is where feminism – arguably, third-wave feminism in Kerala — has found voice[s] and presence[s].  This is an exciting moment of defiance by Malayali women, who have, by default, all been made into ‘feminists’ there. Surely, it is not just the insecurity of the misogynist majority that is responsible for this, but also the very structure of the social media. In Kerala, judging from the past, it is women who have written autobiographies, or engaged in some kind of active self-construction, who have faced the offline equivalent of trolling here, from the 1930s at least. Kamala Surayya is a well-known example, but there are many others too.

The patriarchal unconscious here gets stirred up when a woman reveals that she does indeed possess a ‘private’, as opposed to just the domestic – and finds resources from it to construct herself. This ‘private’ exists by implication and signs of its presence provoke a great deal of patriarchal anxiety, especially of a sexual sort, since the ‘private’ is associated with the sexual. So, then, this chain of associations means that every woman who engages in self-construction is by default overstepping the family’s and community’s construction of her, and this means that she does indeed possess a ‘private’, which by association, is sexual – therefore, the woman who engages in self-construction is by implication likely to engage also in sexual transgression. And worse, any woman revealing herself in an autobiography or self-construction is also revealing her ‘private’, which indicates her propensity to be sexually transgressive – and is therefore ‘asking for it’.

Now, consider the enormous proportions of this ‘problem’ for patriarchal authorities in the time of the Internet: thousands of women are engaged in self-construction, of various degrees, through the social media and other cyber spaces. Indeed, each woman, however demure she may appear, is constructing a persona for herself in cyberspace, however minimally. That means that to the patriarchal unconscious, all these women are revealing their ‘privates’ and hence their tendency towards sexual transgression, and therefore pose a veritable tsunami that must be immediately put down. No doubt then, that the attacks on assertive women in cyberspace, especially sexually-coloured threats, have been particularly intense. But what is truly interesting is the way in which most of these women have refused to be cowed down and continue to take and guard spaces online.

Yet we need to ask ourselves the question if the very structure of the social media has also not worked to individualize resistance intensely, and indeed, cultivate the individual through what is often outright narcissism. Feminists need to see that cyberfeminism is not merely talking feminism in cyberspace, or using cyberspaces to feminist ends. Indeed, cyberfeminism is already distinct in that it did not share the positions of the early techno-enthusiasts uncritically; and now we need to also recast it in ways that allow it to shape empathetic communities and mutual learning. And this is not unique to Kerala; this has been widely discussed in the literature on third-wave feminism elsewhere too.

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I stop here, hoping to spark off a conversation.These are of course only a beginning – however shaky, one must begin somewhere, and beginnings are always risky. To me this is important precisely because I want to break the petrifying stare of the state, and fly off into the world of possibility. That is perhaps the only way to survive the state’s relentless draining of the energy of resistance.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Malayali Feminism 2018: In the Light of Vadayambady and Hadiya’s Struggle

  1. Vadayampady caste wall , organised resistance to Hadiya’s choice of faith & marriage, virtual casteist insult thrown to the dead body of distinguished artist Ashanthan , etc etc seem to have a distinct pattern.
    It appears that typically “feminist”/ “leftist” / “atheist”/ “rationalist”/ “intelligentsia” responses (or lack of responses) not only fail to address the core issue in the respective case but they also smacked of collaboration with sort of “Kerala laboratory” in the making… You find vacuous ‘leftist’ rhetoric (which in turn ,is avowedly anti-Hindutva) often deeply entrenched in Brahmanic ways of seeing and acting.
    The state supervises all these experiments , with the help of brutal might of the police on the one hand and a coercive array of opinion makers on the other, whose advocacy is all about understanding the deeper meaning of “dharma”and propagating sort of “sarva dharma samabhava” !
    In fact, the “laboratory” increasingly seems to work on the principle that the more you talk about contradictions between religions, you talk much less about the decisively oppressive structures of caste and gender ,and leave alone criticism of the political economy of neo- liberalism and the ideological apparatuses that prop it up.

  2. ND

    Who is the old elite, if Nairs and Syrian Christians are new elite? And is it justified to place Ezhavas along with Nairs and Syrian Christians, in this new elite formulation, especially in the light of our history and the fact that the former is twice as much in population compared to the latter groups.

  3. K SHESHU BABU

    Convincingly explained !
    Present situation needs sharp debate and pro – active steps to curb the ever threatening male hegemony in the garb of aggressive hinduism

  4. Dinakaran

    Four days since these extremely thought-provoking issues have been raised, it is perplexing to see only three comments to have arrived. I thought the eternally alert readers of this site would have reacted in good, bad and ugly ways to let the author of the piece to wrestle with opinions, enabling her to lift her fundamental ideas to a subtler level.

    On second thoughts, is the silence all that innocent? Is this the case of the dog which did “not” bark ? Are the ideas too unsettling for the armchair progressive that a convenient indifference would be the best technique to sweep the issues under the carpet ?

    Ignore we must not ; because the left politics of, arguably, India’s most literate state is facing a cul-de-sac. The ugly under-belly of its ruling class is getting revealed day-by-day and it isn’t a flattering sight. A conflation of greed, racism, anti-minority posturing(social, religious, sexual,differently-abled minorities are victims), and a total absence of self-criticism has created a meta-community of “winners” , eager to pounce upon any gestures of defiance by the poor, weak and the unorganised.

    To resist this inexorable movement towards a veritable disaster, it is imperative that fresh strategies have to be devised and debated. J Devika has set the ball rolling. It is for all those who value fresh thinking to grapple with the ideas and develop them into political acts.

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