Saturday, May 3, 2014

Day 4- Kerala and women

(PW: This article is about women and abuse. Contains some adult material.)

It all started when many of my friends shared this post. It kept popping in my timeline and I kept avoiding it but then this morning it came up in a different conversation and I read it. It brought back so many memories. Mostly not good ones.

I lived in Kerala for 4 years. It is not a long time- I have lived in the US for 2 and a half already. But the difference is I lived in Kerala in those crucial years of adolescence, when one learns a lot of new things about themselves and the world, when a child has his/her first harsh clash with adulthood. For the most part, I have very positive memories of Kerala (if it were not cliched, I'd have called them green memories). Beautiful place, stunning after the rains, sweet sing-song language, etc. Our school was among the most conservative, but I didn't mind it all that much. So until this morning, when anyone asked me about Kerala, I had nothing but praise to say (it's my dream retirement place btw. It is so beautiful I'd love to go there when I want to relax and appreciate the beauty of nature, and would actually have the time to do it.) It is amazing that I had forgotten.

I had forgotten the extensive chauvinism that pervaded every inch of existence there. Now don't take me wrong, I am not saying that Chennai is by any standards less conservative or more feminist. But maybe it's because I talk about Chennai often, or maybe because the details blur in time, but it all came rushing back as I read the post. And the surprising part was not the reality I remembered, it was the fact that I had forgotten.

I find that amazing because I have not forgotten most of the details of my Kerala stay. From the streets to the junctions to the faces of the innumerable people I knew there to individual events and experiences- most of it is still fresh in my memory. However, it seems that when something is out of sight for a while, one tends to forget the nastier details in light of the overall good effect the place had. 

Now you might wonder- what could I have possibly forgotten or left unnoticed? Why did I mention chauvinism in relation to a place known for 100% literacy, high education rates among women, and especially known as traditionally "matriarchial"?*

Let's get to some details.. (all based on personal experiences, so the usual statistical issues of small sample set, etc. might apply)

  1. School teachers would advise us on minor details of what clothes to wear. Before you think that's common or something, let me describe the extent. A teacher once told 3 of us girls that wearing school uniform made from polyester cloth was bad. She did not give a 'because'. We had also been advised on things like what the "proper" length of a duppata is and how many pins one should use to hold the duppata from flying. No, not kidding. (I admit this was in the early 2000's, but I still find it appalling).
  2. Once a school teacher actually punished a girl for standing in the corridor and talking to a guy from a different class. Just plain run-of-the-mill talking. I could rest my case at that.
  3. Some teachers tried to imbibe the opinion that the first duties of a girl are towards family. Not in the general sense. It was more of an "you are educated and all ok, but if you don't get married after college and don't think that having children is more important then getting a job, you are a slut." I don't remember if anyone actually said it  this bluntly to us, but the sad part is I wouldn't be surprised if they had (and I just forgot).
  4. The first time I ever learned that people could grope and shove inappropriately in public was in Kerala during a hartal. Sadly, it was not the only time. In fact, I later learned that some men tend to use hartals as excuses for molesting or other such behavior.
More recently,
  1. About 70% of my friends (girls) from Kerala are married. Most of them are 25-26 years old. That is not surprising, but about 60% were married 3 years ago. When they were 22-23! Almost all the ones that are married have a kid who is just about to start school. Most of the women in this sample set did not seem to have made either of these decisions as a result of much thought more than out of a sense of duty or "what else is next".. Only 3 (and exactly 3) in this sample set work.(I actually spent this morning counting from my fb list of contacts!)

I am not even sure I need to explain why I find these facts horrifying. To me, it's obvious. But to humor the casual reader...
Inequality anywhere is horrible enough. But to the degree I have mentioned above - where extremely personal choices like clothing are curtailed in order to maintain a false image of "chastity"**, where a woman is looked at as an object for a specific purpose like child rearing, is terrifying to me. What's more terrifying is of course the fact that this is in a state with supposedly good education, and in highly urban areas of such a state. I do not generally believe that education or urbanization imply gender equality, but the notion that such things happen in remote areas or due to lack of education should be avoided.

And this brings me to my 2 conclusions of today, both of which I hope to expand upon later this month-
  1. That the problem facing supporters of gender equality is bigger than we'd think. (Something that I realize more and more with every day in the US). Financial  equality or even the rights to make certain decisions in a family might lull us into a false security that the battle for equality is slowly being won, when in fact the forces in society that favor a status quo simply find newer ways to achieve their goals.
  2. The problem with education in India. Instead of saying that the system is not good enough, I'd be more specific and say that education in India is still disconnected with everyday lives. CBSE can come up with brilliant textbooks that emphasize equality, secularism and rational thought, and still teachers and parents continue to emphasize the opposite style of thinking, leading to the dichotomy we see in everyday India where people think "Book vook sab theek hai, par apne ghar pe yeh sab nahi ho sakta". This really needs to change.

Anyway, I am glad that some other bloggers started this conversation. To me, that's a beacon of hope until the time we continue to fight these things. And given the reality, hope is something we really need to fight on...

*I actually knew the details of what one of the links I posted mention about Kerala not being strictly "matriarchial" but really matrilineal. And yet, when people say matriarchial a million times, I forget they are wrong. And subconsciously I internalize the idea that women in Kerala are better off than women elsewhere in India. That is part of the reason I started this post- to fight that internalized idea.
**I am actually appalled that I even need to use this word. In this day and age.

P.S: I am sorry to my Malayali friends if this sounds like a lot of state bashing. It is not intended to be so. I chose to write about Kerala precisely because it is better off than many other states in India in many ways. And because I love it as much as I do.

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