Of Malayalees and Gender

I was twelve when I was flashed in public for the first time. I was asking for some directions to a well mannered ‘uncle’ and while giving me directions, he lifted up his mundu and gave me my very first view of an erect penis. I remember looking at it, wondering what was wrong with it. As years passed, I would get more glimpses such perverse exhibitionism. Then the gropes began, from light touches to my posterior getting completely grabbed. Traveling alone at night in train even the short distance of Cochin to Trivandrum always ensured stares, questioning glances as to why a girl is out alone at midnight.

My friends from North India used to stare at me in amazement when I would recount such stories, wondering how we could just let it be. The truth is, there is not a woman in urban Kerala, who if not groped by a man or been the object of lewd comments (most often uttered as softly as a whisper loud enough only for you to hear) does not know another woman who has undergone such travesties on her person. Kerala, which has 1058:1000 sex ratio and more than 90% literacy, lags behind when it comes to gender equity.

I have often wondered from where this phenomenon originates. Education is supposed to liberate man from primeval, barbaric power equations and demand civilization that modernity assures through social evolution. But somehow, the Kerala Model of Development, with all its achievements, failed to provide basic attitudinal change in men. A woman is still the second sex. The perfect example for this attitude is something that may seem very trivial, but holds much relevance today- restroom facilities for women who commute or journey long distance. A huge portion of the working force comprises of women in Kerala and yet you cannot find decent amenities for women as often as you need them. We can say offhand that there are amenities at bus stands and railway stations, but the question arises on how healthy they are. Use public restrooms for a week and you are in the high risk category for urinary infections. There is a lack of public and official interest when it comes to providing even the basic infrastructure to the ever growing number of females who join the work force or commute to study. There seems to be a wide gap between the theoretical need for gender parity in economic development and the real disparity in their practical implementation in the state which has development indices comparable to developed nations.

Even in the field of education, it is quite visible. Girls are expected to study till they have a college degree or perhaps a Master’s degree. Beyond that, they are discouraged to study because they might fail to get suitable alliances in the marriage market because they could appear to be over qualified for the prospective groom. A PhD is rarely considered to be a door for further research, but as a further qualification for a permanent teaching job or more salary. For all the social concreteness that we impart to women, the nuances are startlingly different. A girl is supposed to take care of the home. Intellectual or academic work is seldom considered to be input worthy of mention by itself. She has to be a ‘good, well bred girl’ for her intellectual capacity to be acknowledged.

There have been instances where people have told me that my passion for cooking is something that will come in handy when I ‘go to another house’. They don’t view it as a part of my creativity which extends to other fields, but rather as the sole criterion for my capacity to be a potential homemaker. But whenever my brother cooks (which he does admirably well when it comes to certain dishes. Also he is capable of everyday cooking more than me.), there are often amazed or bewildered admiration and adoration heaped on him for being a boy and yet enjoying cooking. On the other hand, when it comes to restaurants and the business which is associated with feeding people, we seldom see women chefs or cooks. The public arena is gender customized to maximize the gains for one sex. These same men, who are employed in restaurants go home expecting their wives to have hot food prepared for them from within the four walls.

Think of accidents involving women drivers. Every time there is a mishap, the woman is blamed, no matter how good a driver she might be or whose fault it could be. Even though the number of Malayalee women driving or riding has increased exponentially over recent times, every time a woman displays a lack of good judgment on the road, there are irritated glances which say, ‘oh she is a woman, it is inevitable’. I believe that a woman in Kerala has very high standards set for her when it comes to the public sphere, which was traditionally men’s. She cannot fail or falter in what she does because that is attributed to her gender and not her as an individual or to the social framework which nurtured her upbringing as part of the collective and as the shadow to her male counterpart. Even though an average Malayalee woman enjoys more financial freedom than the average Indian woman, she is still expected to put all that money into her family and not herself, while a man might have more financial liberties on how he spend his income. This translates to a kind of bondage through all the phases of her life. She might be a working woman, but her life should be at home. Her friends must be few and she must cook, clean and make sure the children get good grades in school.

The question before a person, especially the youth of globalised Kerala, is whether he/she should recognise that Kerala is still a man’s land and not every individual’s and clad him/herself in the archetypal Malayalee identity of hypocrisy pertaining to gender roles or not. The Malayalee Manga can be Wonder Woman by day, but no matter how high a post she holds, by evening she is still supposed to be ‘poomukha vaathilkal sneham vidarthunna poothingal’; the ironic remnant of cultural and economic renaissance that failed to eliminate the chauvinistic roots of an enlightened society.

Author blogs at http://sruthi-reflections.blogspot.com/