Can we now practice some love? Thoughts on safety and feminism from Kerala

Around two weeks back, just about a week after the ritual of Women’s Day celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram, a 49-year-old woman decided to go get herself some pain medication at 10 30 at night, after all home remedies failed against her persistent body ache. She lives in the beating heart of the city of Thiruvananthapuram in a rented house. This house is in a leading middle-class residential locality, full of houses, usually very quiet. She is , however, not a typical owner-resident. An employee at a local firm earning a very modest salary, she has lived alone for years in rented accommodation, raising her young daughter. The daughter is now a confident young woman who has worked for some years and now seeks to expand her career options. The rent takes up nearly half of her income, but mother and daughter have struggled together to protect each other.

It is such a middle-aged woman who went out to buy pain medication on her two-wheeler at 10 30 in the evening. Half-way through, she realised that she had forgotten her purse; she drove back home. She paused, noticing that a man on a scooter was following her, and quickly started again to reach safety. Just as she was trying to turn into the lane which leads to her house, he blocked her , and getting off his bike, helmet still on, came up to her and grabbed her breast. Shocked beyond belief, the woman protested aloud and tried to push him away. That seemed to trigger him. He grabbed her by the hair, dragging her to a nearby wall and rubbed her face hard on it, and beat her head on it several times until her eye was a mass of blood and her brow and face were completely bruised and blue. He scratched her face, leaving it totally ravaged and rained blows on her. Fearing for her eye as her vision blurred, the woman cried out aloud for help. There was a group of women working in a nearby firm who watched the scene; so also the security guard there. No one answered her cry. The ordeal ended only when she managed to pick up a few rocks from where she lay and threw them at him. He ran away.

But the real ordeal was only to begin. She stumbled back home . Stunned, her daughter called the local police station at Pettah, requesting help to call an ambulance as she feared for her mother’s eyesight. She was asked many questions and then refused help even though she told them that they were just two women. The daughter plucked up courage and drove her mother to a local hospital. She herself was near panic, she said, unable to even switch off the ignition of the two-wheeler she rode. When her mother was being attended to, the Pettah police called at midnight, telling her to go to the police station immediately to file a complaint. It was impossible to leave her mother alone at the hospital and she told the cop that. Three days of silence from the side of the police followed; the women then complained to the Commissioner of police. Her statement was taken after then.

Once the press got hold of the story, there were some stirrings. Two police officers were suspended (which is of course, as everyone knows, is neither shame nor any serious loss in the world of the Kerala police). The investigation is on. The press seems to have been fed with a story quite unlike what the woman actually told them — which may have quite serious implications for the investigation — and this is despite several attempts by her to correct them. Now, it appears that the police are determined to wrest or actually wring, evidence out of the victim herself. She has not yet received a copy of the FIR, even as she is pestered for her recollections of the incident; her male contacts are being approached. Of course the police need the victim’s cooperation, but are they allowed to wring it out of her in ways that are unmindful of her consent and dignity? Whether real or not, the impression created by the police investigating the case is not a positive one — they have left her feeling all the more alone and fearful.

Meanwhile a local BJP-controlled channel revealed her name — and this led to further complications. As usual, relatives and others accused her of being foolhardy, going out late at night. A hailstorm of the usual questions about why she did not organize her life efficiently enough to avoiding seeking pain medication at night followed. That this incident has shaken the fragile economic security that these two brave women have built for themselves is somehow completely invisible to everyone else, though. It took ten whole days for her nearly-smashed eye to heal; it was just luck that it was not smashed. And on top of that, this mass of accusations, suspicions, and what not.

Curiously, the first response to the press reporting was the suspicion that this was a premediated attack, planned by some man who had a score to settle with her. That, I suppose, was expected, given the combination of persistent if subdued misogyny that permeates all social circles in Kerala, and the hubristic pride in ‘social development’ which rules out the possibility of random attacks against women in public places (in other words, ‘…she MUST have done something and this was probably revenge/comeuppance etc. etc.). And of course, the fact that so many such incidents — murders of girlfriends after affairs went wrong etc. — have been reported lately. But strangely enough, few seem to take cognizance of the fact that the crimes against women in public places in the heart of the city of Thiruvananthapuram in recent times have not been infrequent. In fact there have been at least eight different attacks in the heart of the city against women out in the roads either at night or early in the morning since October 2022. There is reason to think that the actual number of attacks could be more: young women thus attacked are much less likely to complain simply because conservative families would immediately curtain their mobility.

The other remark has been that the attacker was probably a drug addict and hence an aberration. The unstated corollary of which is : ‘not ‘normal’ men’. But there is something especially disturbing about this crime: the man explicitly conveyed to his victim that the violence that followed her protest was a punishment for her daring to protest. Grabbing a woman’s hair and smashing her face against the wall is typical of domestic violence — in that sense this violence only shows the extent to which the predator seems adept at both sexual and domestic violence. Or this is a criminal who sees all women as prey, at home or outside, and sets out to punish any woman who resists him.


But what explains the relative silence of Kerala’s progressive and feminist mainstream? The explanation can be summarised as below:

  1. In present-day Kerala, feminist response to crime is directly proportional to the value of the victim to the interests of the CPM and the distance/perceived antagonism of the accused from it.
  2. Sexual crime elicits a stronger outcry when the complainant belongs to, or has strong connections with that fragment of the Malayali elite with intellectual pretensions and progressive postures. This applies to sexual crimes against dalit women too.
  3. The harm of sexual crime is perceived in sharper terms when it appears to be (even though not explicitly claimed to be) an impediment to women of /connected with the above-mentioned social fragment in their endeavours to gain space and resources, or when it is against children, perceived as a violation of pristine innocence.
  4. Sexual violence is more likely to be protested when it appears premediated and directed uniquely to the victim. The actor-assault case of 2017 in which a woman was sexually assaulted in a running vehicle on a highway, and in which the woman complained to the police immediately was no doubt a turning point ; it has definitely helped reduce the stigma against women complaining against sexual assault. However, that applied to premediated violence, often rising from prior and personal grudges against the victim. Women who are sexually assaulted by random strangers just because they happen to be out at night or in a deserted place are still under clouds of suspicion in the eyes of families and law-enforcement authorities — they still face questions about poor choices of the times they choose to go out etc. In short, they are told that it was their fault to a greater or lesser degree/they asked for it.
  5. ‘Feminism’ in Kerala today includes everyone from neoconservative authors like Indu Menon who write successful trauma porn and who do not hesitate to deploy metaphors of dirt and decay against the caste-oppressed in their non-fictional writings, to urban elite neoliberal feminists on social media, to third-generation CPM-ladies lapping up the ‘rewards’ from the CPM-led dispensation via nepotism. It is no longer even against patriarchy in any general sense.
  6. In much Malayali mainstream feminism, and the exceptions if any are few, brahminical patriarchy is conceived, in practical terms, as that which excludes the women of certain caste-oppressed groups (understood as those that share blood and kin-ties), and suppresses the freedoms of women of the oppressor-castes. Naturally, the solution to brahmanical patriarchy understood thus is to (a) simply include dalit women (of the approved castes/groups) with middle class cultural capital (earned by their own labours, usually and not because of their association with elite women) to different degrees in the circles of elite feminist women, and (b) remove the obstacles in the path of elite women’s march towards full membership and powers in their privileged communities/circles (the left parties are not a caste but does function like a privileged caste, socially). In short, the Indian version of liberal feminism, undeniably. That is, not really anti-caste.
  7. Not surprisingly, this understanding renders invisible those who rebel against caste endogamy and leave caste privilege; nor was the massive, debilitating, physical violence of the state towards non-elite dalit women (such as family members of the demonised dalit organization Dalit Human Rights Movement, of dalits with roots in the highly-ghettoised ‘SC colonies’) even visible to them. Leading AIDWA feminists wax smugly eloquent about ‘caste oppression’ being evident in endogamous marriage, but hardly even mention that out-casting and social expulsion of women born higher in the hierarchy of caste who chose to marry ‘down’. Brahmanical patriarchy in Kerala now punishes women who choose ‘downward social mobility’ with a vengeance, and we have seen the extent to which it may go since 2017 at least, with the Hadiya and Anupama Chandran cases. Feminists aligned with the CPM choose to look away or attack such women outright, as seen very openly so, in these cases. In a mockery of the idea of intersectionality, only cases that promote liberal feminism in the two ways mentioned above are counted as worthwhile! No wonder that the present case, though of appalling violence, has not been yet deemed worthy of sustained attention in the Malayali liberal feminist social media.


When I wrote about this on Facebook, I received an angry message in my inbox telling me that leading feminists like Ajita or Aleyamma Vijayan have ‘important things’ to do, and since people like me are ‘useless’, I should be devoting time to helping the victims. Well, I hate to make you feel bad, brother, but the NGOs led by these stalwarts are government-recognized ‘service providers’ to women who have suffered unsafe situations in the cities they are located in! They are actually sometimes paid for it even, you know? The website of Sakhi, a leading feminist NGO in Thiruvananthapuram, states unequivocally that ‘Sakhi assists women and girls who experience violence at home and in public places’ before proceeding to list the Kerala government’s Sakhi One-stop centres for victims of violence. There is active funding for research into and action on VAW, and Sakhi has tapped into this quite successfully. As for Anveshi, it says again, quite openly and clearly that “Anweshi has been collaborating with other NGOs and government departments in its efforts to highlight the issue of growing violence against women in Kerala and in its struggle to get justice for women and children who are victims of such violence.” Anveshi at least receives funding from public money for the work it does, and so it might as well do it . And unlike what you think, brother, I receive a salary for the work that I do, and it is not for work exclusively on women and I assure you that better people than you deem it quite worthwhile!

There are two key reasons why these groups, despite the claim to have helped ‘thousands of women’ to recover, do not respond to the most wounded. First, they are primarily ‘service providers’, and so those who seek ‘services’ must go to them, not expect them to come. Exactly like the Kerala police, in this case. Secondly, they are embedded in a culture of lazy social protection, fostered since decades by the Kerala government which has been using ‘voluntary organisations’ since the 1980s to provide ‘services’ to those deemed ‘weaker sections of society’ (according to the annual Kerala State Economic Reviews at least). This has always been a rag-tag bag, slightly notorious even, of organizations that receive funds annually from the government for taking care of ‘weaker sections’, including women outside the family and community . They include some older Mahila Samajams, outfits floated by various religious groups, NGOs by social welfare entrepreneurs etc etc, and also some feminist NGOs. While the grants to them helped to puff up the image of Kerala’s commitment to social welfare, little was done to critically examine what they actually did, and if their work actually furthered human rights and the goals of the Indian Constitution, beyond the ‘help’ that many of them did offer. The coming of feminism as a politics made no dent whatsoever to this entrenched habit of governance; feminist NGOs were simply added as ‘service providers’ and if they made any effort to change the entrenched ways of providing ‘service’, that does not seem to have made any difference. So it is clear why the woman and her daughter who were deeply traumatized by the violence the former faced neither knew about the teeming numbers of ‘service providers’ around them, nor did they receive even a call from any of them.

Of course, the sender of this message, this CPM aangala, has forgotten the left-party women’s fronts. He would, wouldn’t he? These women are the very adornments of their parties. Dressed in white and red with glorious, dosa-like bindis (a la Brinda Karat), they gladden the hearts of the Party-family. They can’t be expected to jump into the fray unless (a) the perpetrator was strongly perceived to be an ‘enemy’ of the Left parties, (b) the victim’s social and cultural coordinates are such that backing her involves assured rewards. Anyway, the AIDWA’s 13th national conference in Thiruvananthapuram in January 2023 had indeed announced a national campaign against increasing violence against women…. that should be good enough. Good women talk, my brother says, they don’t act.


So are we doing something about this? Yes, indeed, but not what you think. No candlelight protests, no ‘night-protests’ with police support. Instead we offer simply, our loving presence, in challenging spaces and times. We affirm it with gifts of food and affection, offer words of support and endearment, safe spaces to come and relax in. We try to cushion the wounded from the pitilessness and veiled hostility of the ‘investigators’ — of the police, the press, the ‘locals’ and the family. We draw upon our own friendships and networks to strengthen the wounded in their struggle for justice and healing. That is what worked in the only two struggles in which two women, Hadiya and Anupama, who were not feminists to start with, won against the combined array of patriarchal forces: the mighty political leadership, the so-called ‘progressive’ civil society as well as the openly-regressive one, and the state

In other words, we struggle to free ourselves from this deadening of the senses and practice love. Towards a feminism that will beckon to those of us who yearn to find ways to practice love politically, to free love from the limits of kinship, blood, class, and education. That feminism cannot but point towards the prospects of building webs of love and giving, potentially ever-expanding. This might protect us against the violence of patriarchy, not the hyper-patriarchal state. This might aid us in challenging the forces of patriarchy and emerge the stronger of it. This might let us limit the use of medication and therapists in the restoration of our mental health. It may allow us to imagine new communities at a time when neoliberal individualization steadily erodes community and collective ties on the one hand while increasingly-insecure caste-community patriarchies step up border-policing.

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