Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Kerala gender conundrum

Quality of life means different things to different people. A thread that runs through this thought-provoking blog post by Viju Balanarayanan, a former colleague.
The overarching theme of Viju’s post, though, is that cities like Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi — and Kerala as a whole — are not very friendly and safe places for women. In other words, Kerala may score high on the ‘liveability’ index based on parameters like water, sanitation, shelter and literacy, but it sucks if you consider parameters such as the freedom that women enjoy. As he writes:
But if you are woman, you are at your own risk if you venture out after twilight. If you are a single, widowed or divorced woman staying alone, the city becomes a preying monster. Even without your knowledge, stories begin to circulate (especially if you smoke and drink) that you are ‘available.’”
While there are exceptions, much of what Viju says is true. The levels of gender disparity in modern Kerala are stark; as they are in many other parts of the country.
What puzzles me though is how often people are surprised at the gender disparity that exists in Kerala. And this, perhaps, has much to do with two decoys — Kerala’s high literacy and heritage of a matrilineal society.
Yes, it is true that Kerala enjoys almost 100 per cent literacy. But literacy does not necessarily lead to greater gender sensitivity and equality between the sexes.
And while some communities in Kerala, such as the Nairs, were (and are) matrilineal, they never were matriarchal. And that makes all the difference.
Traditionally, descent and inheritance in these communities was through the women, but power was generally in the hands of the eldest male — the karnavar — be it a brother or uncle. There may have been some families with a matriarch or two, but this was probably the exception rather than the rule.
So take away high literacy and perceptions of a matriarchal society and Kerala becomes pretty much like any other part of India. More educated, perhaps, and with better healthcare, but with many of the gender inequalities that exist in other parts of the country. Consider, for instance, the films and television serials that literate Kerala’s entertainment machine now churns out. How many of them feature strong, independent female characters, let alone strong, independent female characters in a lead role? And the few strong-ish female characters that appear are mostly the ‘bad’ ones who either meet a sorry end or see the ‘error’ of their ways. Yet, these films and television serials are lapped up by Kerala’s literate audiences.
None of this, however, explains why it isn’t possible to have a meaningful, equitable equation between women and men in Kerala and elsewhere. Finding an answer to that might just help make Kerala a truly liveable place for all people.


Arjun Sreedharan said...

A good chunk of harassments against women happen by what is euphemistically called as moral policing. May be we need a Moral Policing (Prevention) Act.

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Arjun: For me, moral policing is a symptom rather than a cause of the gender disparity that exists in Kerala and elsewhere. The real causes are within us and bringing about changes in the human mind is not the easiest of challenges.