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Women in Kerala: Perceived empowerment, real disempowerment

Despite Kerala’s higher human development and gender development index, there is still an entrenched patriarchy and reduced space for women’s voices in public and private spaces. John Samuel examines this paradox

There is a whole range of issues related to gender, women's political participation, space and voice in Kerala. But I also think there is more awareness and discussion on these issues in Kerala than in other states. 

In spite of Kerala’s relatively higher human development index and gender development index, hard questions have to be asked about entrenched patriarchy and reduced space for women's voices in the political party process, public debates and discussions. 

This paradox of a good gender ‘development’ index and the relative lack of women's empowerment in Kerala must be discussed and understood. 

Kerala has a high percentage of highly ‘qualified’ or ‘educated’ women, and yet there is relatively little space for women in leadership and empowered roles, and fewer articulate voices in public and private life. But the fact that these issues are being discussed suggests the beginning of a process of change. Such a process of transformation requires more affirmative action and more active political participation of women in all arenas -- academics, politics, media, and social action. 

The first thing women and men will have to fight is an entrenched sense of cynicism. It is important for enlightened and educated women and men to work together to expand the quantity and quality of spaces that empower women. When we begin to believe in change, change begins to unfold within us and beyond us. 

There is nothing like a homogeneous category of ‘women’ or ‘men’ beyond their physical/biological differences. Multiple identities operate as much among women as among men -- class, caste, religion, locality, sexual orientation etc. 

Both women and men can be perpetrators of patriarchy. In fact, many such values may be perpetuated by women partly because of the internalised sense of ‘norms’ constructed and made almost pathological over a period of time. 

Just because a woman is part of a reactionary or fundamentalist or established power structure does not necessarily make such structures and processes less patriarchal. Almost all women leaders in South Asia are the torchbearers of a set of conservative values and not expressions of feminist politics. 

I wonder whether the trend of growing fundamentalism is specific to one gender -- women. In fact, ‘patriarchal’ power is perpetuated by men, who control religious establishments, consumer stores and institutions of spirituality and religion. Women seem to be more in the ‘bhakti’ mode or more manifestly religious or spiritual. This may have to do with behavioural patterns within families (again perpetuated by patriarchy). And there is nothing new about the trend of relatively greater spiritual/religious inclination among women. This aspect requires more serious research in relation to the constructed roles of gender in different societies and its relation to notions of ‘cultural’, ‘spiritual’, ‘creative’, ‘reproductive’ etc. 

There is indeed a revival of religion -- in its conservative as well as consumerist avatars. And this new revival of religion -- in institutional, political and market varieties -- is a larger trend. So how can one link this only to ‘gender’ or ask why women are like that? Of course, we tend to see what we look for. 

The new revival of religion and the ‘spiritual’ customer-care-oriented new market approach has a lot to do with a new sense of alienation and insecurity that comes in the midst of economic growth, increasing disintegration of community/family spaces, saturation of ‘secular’ dreams, and an increasing sense of social, economic and political insecurity, as well as political reactions to the perceived sense of marginalisation, exclusion etc. This is not peculiar to Kerala; it is happening all over Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, Europe and the USA. 

The new revivalism is also partly a reactionary response to, and partly a byproduct of, aggressive economic globalisation. These days there are many ‘drive-in churches’. These are very customer-care-oriented, well-marketed, no-strings-attached, though one is, of course, expected to pay for this well-organised/managed ‘Sunday’ service. There is no community or real communion. They are the new service providers in a new marketplace catering to the new demand for a particularly packaged ‘psycho-comfort’, ‘feel-good’ product that is available, accessible and affordable. 

We need serious discussions and explorations about ‘gender spaces’ in Kerala. We need to explore the apparent dichotomies and tensions of such a gender-power relationship in ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ spaces. There are serious contradictions in Kerala between the perceived ‘empowerment’ of women (as indicated by the social development and gender-development indicators) and real ‘disempowerment’-- particularly in the private spaces of family and ‘intimate’ spaces of bedrooms. 

One way of tackling the contradictions is challenging our own personal attitude, behaviour and communication. It is true that many men (including me) tend to be arrogant and argumentative in our communication, without enough patience or grace to listen to other perspectives and perceptions. We may feel that this aggressive, argumentative mode of communication is part of required masculine behaviour. At a personal level, it is indeed a struggle to challenge and change our default mode of behaviour and communication and I hope we can challenge and change ourselves at the personal and societal level. 

Though there are some discussions in Kerala on issues related to women's space and empowerment and the entrenched patriarchy, I think Kerala society has a long way to go in recognising and addressing the issue.

Infochange News & Features, October 2009