Kerala is a very interesting society to look at when it comes to the role of women. Historically, as a matrilineal society, the ownership of property was handed down from mother to daughter instead of father to son, distinguishing Kerala (and certain parts of the North-East) from the rest of India. Women were respected – or at least they were never seen as less important than men – and participated in large numbers in the workforce. However, this system of inheritance, known as ‘Marumakkathayam’, was seen as inequitable towards the beginning of the 20th century and was finally abolished by the Kerala State Legislature in 1975.
Even though, as we have written elsewhere on this site under ‘Woman in the narrative’, women continue to be present in working life at most levels, they are noticeably absent in the political machinery of the state; there were 6 women in the Kerala State Assembly in 1957, which increased to the majestic figure of 7 in 2011. The following comments in ‘Globalization in India: Contents & Discontents’ (Pearson, 2010) by Dr. G. Arunima, Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, are particularly noteworthy and help to explain this anomaly:
“The sexual politics of Kerala needs to be linked to a larger phenomenon from the earlier twentieth century where the growth of nationalist (and later communist) political activity is co-terminus with the emergence of a discourse of masculinity. This discourse, especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, was linked to a critique of matrilineal practice, the dominant form of kinship in Kerala. The masculine idiom was ‘progressivism’. In many respects it was to move out of the ‘barbaric’ past of matrilineality into patriarchal modernity; it was the language of ‘social reform’ of this period that actually enabled the anti-matrilineal legislations, but more importantly constituted the political training ground for the latter-day ‘communists’. For many among them, it was the recovery of a ‘masculine’ identity, apparently shackled till now by the matrilineal (read ‘women-centred’ culture).”
It is also important to position this against the level of sexual violence in the state, which has been helped in no small amount by the depiction of women in the media; eve-teasing, for instance, is not seen as a crime but as a route to winning over someone, and the number of people viewing porn, including students.
Over the years, popular culture has added different nuances to the role of women in Kerala society, and they have contributed to her subservient position to men. From teleserials such as Sthree, the first Malayalam TV series to have caught the imagination of a large percentage of the satellite TV-viewing population of the state in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, to Malayalam films in the 80’s and 90’s where strong roles for women were virtually non-existent, women were shown that female virtue lay in obedience and dependence. In the 80’s and 90’s especially, as large segments of the female population in Kerala, especially in rural areas, succumbed to what was popularly called the ‘Gulf widow’ or ‘virtual widow’ syndrome, these shows had a lot of clout.
Over the past few decades, joint families have become less common and women have become strong economic partners in relationships. This is very visibly reflected in Visual Culture scene in Kerala. More confident female characters are being written into the narrative – ‘22 Female Kottayam’, ‘Thira’, ‘How Old Are You’ etc. are examples of recently released movies in Malayalam where the protagonist is a female character.
During the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the Malayalam Project will draw attention to the evolving nature of the woman in popular culture. There were some extremely inspiring female characters written into the narrative over the earlier part of this century, like Indulekha, and that begs the questions: where did they go, and how can we draw on the strength they exhibited, today?
Anjali Ramachandran is the Head of Innovation at PHD Media in London.She does Research and Planning for clients like British Airways, Amnesty International, the World Gold Council, Britvic and vInspired. She co-founded Ada’s List, an online off-the-record space for women working in the digital/tech industry to share information, professional tips, advice and projects. She also occasionally writes for the Huffington Post UK.
Follow her blog One Size fits One.