Finally. Decades have passed in which we slumbered on eased by the magic mantra that women’s empowerment will emerge like a butterfly from the cocoon of women’s self-help groups, whispered in our ears by the state in Kerala. In the meantime, what we saw was often the opposite. Indeed, the more women became central to family sustenance and public care-giving in society, the deeper the misogyny penetrated, the wider it spread.
This was, however, no simple backlash. The Kudumbashree women have been mostly revered; the violence was always directed ‘outward’ towards ‘other’ women who seemed to breach or complicate the standard narrative of family, modesty, ability or who simply did not live within circles of privilege and inclusion. The search for such others became more and more intense and appeared never-ending.
Indeed, in the recent years, law-enforcement authorities in Kerala seem determined to normalize every kind of violence against women here — against women of all kinds — by refusing to prosecute criminals and by victimising and baiting survivors. With the whole of political society either looking on passively or making noises to their own advantage.
So the other day, three women — well-known faces in the Malayali digital world and outside, decided to confront a repeat offender, a man who had been circulating an extremely insulting video against ‘feminists’ on his YouTube channel. It had created much disgust and was widely protested against. Complaints to the police apparently fell on deaf ears; so also complaints to YouTube. The three women doused him with tar oil, slapped him, and forced him to apologize — and posted the video online. The police swung into action, filing cases against both parties on complaints by each. True to the Kerala police’s new mission to oppress Malayali women, they charged non-bailable offenses in the case against the women, while the man has been charged with bailable ones. Malayali social media is in uproar; protests against both the man and the police are being planned as I write this.
The narrower context for this eruption is surely the attrition suffered by the identity of the ‘feminist’ in the recent years in Kerala. After the Kiss of Love protests, the identity of the feminist did become an empowering one, especially for young women seeking public voice, even though the feminist movement had shrunk into nearly non-existence. The reluctance to call oneself a feminist was definitely fading among the young, and even hostile attacks that sought to debase ‘feminist’ by coining new derogatory words like ‘feminichi’ were fought off quite successfully (with many feminists appropriating it). Even when abandoned by the state and women who participated in political society, ‘feminist’ seemed to bestow ‘power within’ to young women and thus empower them. Things turned somewhat with the Sudra protests over the Supreme Court’s judgment on the entry of women of menstruating ages into the Sabarimala temple in 2018. In a few painful months, we watched with horror how the ‘feminist’ was turned into a convenient whipping girl by both the left and the right in Kerala. The left’s strategy was even more thorough: they divided the ‘good feminists’ (the ones who complied with them, not demanding equal voice in political decisions) from the ‘bad feminists’ (those who demanded voice and/or held the Chief Minister accountable for the promises he had made regarding women’s temple entry).
This happened at a time when patriarchy in Malayali popular culture was mutating — we were moving from the toxic macho masculine (represented, for example, in the cinematic presence of Mohanlal’s upper-caste Hindu macho roles) to what I would call the ‘pathetic hypermasculinism’ (represented by the roles played by the actor Dileep). It may be that this was partially at least a response to the growing assertiveness of young women in Kerala who had, by now, spent a couple of decades in higher education, exposure to metropolitan life in India and abroad, and access to other worlds through the digital and other media
I do believe that the present culprit, Vijay Nair, is part of this new wave of patriarchy. ‘Pathetic patriarchy’ specializes in presenting itself as the voice of the male victim of powerful women and thus implicitly acknowledges women’s power. It makes abundant use of innuendo, bad humour and other circuitous references instead of outright attack; no wonder the social media is where it thrives best. Pathetic patriarchy in Kerala is also characterised by the ways in which it exaggerates the ‘problem’ of power-hungry women and uses pseudo-science to inflate it to the point of appearing outright comical. Above all, pathetic patriarchy seems to appeal to men who may find it hard to meet the requirements of macho masculinity — indeed, its astounding reach might be precisely because of this. Rajith Kumar, whose ‘trainings’ in schools and colleges in Kerala normalized misogynistic speech is a leading figure of pathetic patriarchy; he commands a whole ‘army’ on Facebook. It is almost as though the attacks on women by ‘pathetic patriarchs’ act as a compensation for this lack. Besides, pathetic patriarchy seems to elicit a lot of sympathy from the macho — as was evident to us in some research we did on gender-based cyber violence against women in Kerala. In many cases of serious privacy violation and sexualisation and commercial exploitation of prominent women, the culprits turned out to be ‘pathetic patriarchs’ — ‘little men’ who felt it necessary to hold women down or very young, insecure men. In most of these cases, the macho masculine represented by the police, condemned the wrongdoers but also persuaded the survivors that the wrongdoers were not ‘men’ enough to repeat the crimes…!!
These ‘little men’ find it convenient to cloak their misogyny in feminist-bashing. Given the attrition of the identity of the ‘feminist’, using it as a cover enables greater reach. In the atrocious video that Mr Nair made on ‘feminists’, he included the senior activist Sugathakumari who has frequently spoken for women but is certainly no feminist; likewise, he has included references to many other women who are prominent in public but do not take the identity of feminists for themselves.
The three women have sounded a warning so strong that one can feel the tremors run through the Malayali social media almost literally. So many insecure men are rushing up and down, putting down hostile barbs under each post in support of the women, like dogs peeing under each and every lamp post to secure a sense of territorial control. This is not going to end here.