Time to dump ’empowerment’? Feminism, women and the state in kerala today

This reflection has been long coming: the whole idea of women’s empowerment has been steadily deteriorating in Kerala since some years now. Actually, even from the side of the government, there is much less talk about it, even though it flowed into Kerala in the 1990s through the government, somewhat neoliberalized already, after the Beijing Conference. The national environment has of course been especially hostile with Hindu majoritarian conservatives in power whose ideas about ‘Indian culture’ do not offer any prospect of expanding the resonances and meanings of women’s empowerment — the opposite being more likely. But in Kerala too, interest in it has decidedly shrunk. Among its former constituents, especially the women’s self-help groups, it means little other than income-generation and entry into local politics.

Worse, ‘women’s empowerment’ is now most discussed perhaps during the elections: to frame the exclusion of women from the higher echelons of power. And its icons disappear alarmingly soon: the tragic example, of course, is K K Shylaja, ex-Health Minister of Kerala, once hailed as the epitome of women’s empowerment, now effectively exiled from the public even after a more than decisive victory in the last Kerala State Assembly elections. It is clear now, much clearer than ever before, that the whole discourse of women’s empowerment was perhaps meant to produce docile political subjects, representing order, discipline, and efficiency. Of course, many women tried to exceed this, but they have been too often reined back in; some unintended consequences may have survived but certainly those are not many.

Indeed, now that an army of cheap female labour for governance has been produced at the local level, and the present government shows no signs of rejuvenating the discourse of women’s empowerment despite many opportunities including the floods of 2018 and the ongoing pandemic, one can only conclude that female docility need no longer be glorified through it. That is, if it had been necessary to demand, implicitly, that women turn docile if they are to gain a share in state power, now that demand can be made quite explicitly. That, perhaps, is the distance between the ex-Health Minister K K Shylaja and the present one, Veena George. The idea that women who share state power must be seen, not heard, must just follow orders from above, is now utterly normalised in dominant left circles in Kerala.

There is however a second reason why the discourse of ‘women’s empowerment’ needs to be dumped. Just the other day, an atrocious public attack by a policewoman C P Rejitha, member of the so-called ridiculously-named ‘Pink Police’ ostensibly meant to protect women, you a working-class man and his eight-year-old daughter. She abused him and hurled the false charge that he or the child had stolen her mobile phone (on the grounds that he looked ‘thin, short, and dark’, apparently) , proceeding to frisk them publicly and to drag them to the police station. The phone was found in the back seat of the police vehicle right then!! The unbelievable hubris sent shockwaves through Kerala. The police authorities conducted a sham of an inquiry and awarded minimal punishment. But this is no isolated incident. The high-handedness of the Kerala police is now much discussed, especially after they were tasked with the greater responsibility of implementing lockdown restrictions. Police attacks on tribal people and other marginalized sections are now publicly justified by the leaders of the dominant left in power. There are of course other signs that the nature of state power is changing quite momentously in Kerala — from the downplaying of panchayati raj, the viciously anti-democratic planning of the so-called Silver Line Semi High-Speed Rail project, the continuing support to Adani’s utterly destructive port coming up at Vizhinjam, and so on. Pandemic management in Kerala has moved away from its former reliance on local authorities and the public health department into the hands of bureaucrats and the police.

Given this, I would not hesitate to call C P Rejitha an ’empowered’ woman. Since empowerment involves the bestowal of a share of the state’s power on the empowered, in this case, Rejitha was merely using the increasingly-coercive, elitist, casteist-racist power of the state in present-day Kerala that she shared as a police officer. The ‘punishment’ she has been given seems to confirm this altogether, for it seems no punishment at all, merely a farce to pacify the agitated. Indeed, the very mildness of it seems to confirm her actions as an ’empowered woman’ in the police.

This, and the first-mentioned silencing of the discourse of empowerment at women’s entry to the upper reaches of power, are good reasons enough for me to reject the discourse altogether at least for the local context. If, in the 1990s, the discourse of empowerment was meant to turn women into obedient subjects who would share the state’s largely-non-coercive initiatives to nudge people into becoming subjects of self-help, it seems to have changed quite starkly at present. At the highest level , women are empowered on condition that they merely comply with the commands of the male leadership; at the bottom where naked coercion is now increasingly common, they may share coercive, elitist, casteist-racist power. Both without invoking the discourse of empowerment at all.

Where does that leave all the women in local governance who were most closely identified with women’s empowerment once? Local governance is increasingly less identified with power but it is still the place where ‘women’s empowerment’ is still granted some resonance. Yet in this space, it now approximates more closely to income-generation; and no matter how much it is advance, there is a lack of fit, ever-palpable, between the increasing awareness of patriarchy among younger women, and what is on offer as ‘women’s empowerment’ in the panchayats.

We need to revive and restore the discourse of women’s liberation. Feminism is no organized movement in Kerala, but it is everywhere, feeding of the immense disquiet of two whole generations of women who entered higher education. One hears whispers against patriarchy now grow bolder everywhere — among shop-girls, nurses, in courts, schools, and colleges — and the patriarchal backlash too has arrived. Not even right-wing women can deny that they need to escape from patriarchy — for all their espousal of ‘Indian tradition’ and how it is beyond such things as patriarchy and caste. That was amply clear recently, when a prominent supporter of the right-wing women’s initiative to protect the blatantly-misogynist ‘tradition’ around the Sabarimala temple, found herself doubly victimized by vindictive family authorities and a powerful suitor in retribution against her rejection of both (‘don’t mix feminism and religion’, she had said back then).

What these women who fume against dowry, against patriarchal restrictions on mobility and social freedoms, who long to work and be independent, who are ambitious even if those ambitions may be limited to setting up an independent domestic space of their own, seek is certainly less of ’empowerment’ and more of liberation.

Unlike ’empowerment’, however, liberation asks for much more. You cannot, for example, say, ‘don’t mix feminism and religion’. To be empowered in the neoliberal dispensation is to share power, patriarchal power; but liberation demands that you turn a critical eye against power. You will have to accept that no matter how high you may fly, if you are female, you may be shot down and no ‘religion’ or ‘tradition’ will come to your aid. You can’t say ‘don’t mix feminism with caste’ and that state resources empower all women alike. Liberation demands that you understand the tenaciousness of Malayali patriarchy to lie precisely in its interwoven-ness with caste-community power — that they form the warp and weft of our social existence — that you cannot be liberated and continue to reproduce the power of elite caste-communities or suffer casteism. And you can’t, unlike in the 1990s, step smoothly into the gender trainer’s shoes, reinforce (perhaps inadvertently) the divide between feminists and ‘ordinary women’, and hope to make the best of the deal — simply because it appears that there appears no deal anymore.

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