IN THE 1920s Queen Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore, a kingdom that would later become part of the south Indian state of Kerala, rewarded women who went to university with an invitation to tea at the palace. The royals were matrilineal—the maharajah’s sister’s sons, rather than his own progeny, inherited the throne. The Nairs, an upper-caste Hindu community, likewise bequeathed the family home to women and believed strongly in female education. “The birth of a girl [was] a cause for celebration,” recalls Gouri Parvathi Bayi, a member of the erstwhile royal family, sitting in her now slightly dilapidated palace in Kerala’s state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.
Modern Kerala is still often upheld as India’s best state for women. It has the country’s highest female literacy rate at 92%, with only four percentage points’ difference between male and female rates. In Rajasthan, a large northern state, only 53% of women are literate: almost 30 percentage points behind their male counterparts. Nationally, only two-thirds of all women can read and write, versus four-fifths of men. Kerala also has India’s lowest rates of maternal mortality as well as a population of 1,084 women per 1,000 men, which makes it the country’s most female state. India’s national population has 940 women per 1,000 men, as couples selectively abort female fetuses or neglect daughters. Haryana, another northern state, has just 877 baby girls per 1,000 boys. Families there have in recent years started sourcing brides from Kerala.
The poor status of women in India has been under the spotlight since the brutal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in December sparked home-grown protests, international criticism, and a revision of the country’s sexual-assault laws. Yet vicious attacks have continued. This month, a seven-year-old girl was allegedly assaulted at a school in the capital, triggering further protests. A Swiss tourist camping with her husband in Madhya Pradesh, a poor and landlocked state, was allegedly gang-raped. Women in the growing urban middle class, in particular, are becoming more independent and educated. Yet a culture of preserving a daughter’s virginity, paying dowries upon her marriage, and then “losing” her and her earning capacity to her husband’s family persists. A lower proportion of India’s women work than do those in any of its seven neighbours bar Pakistan.
Kerala, a small chili-shaped state filled with palm trees, thus bucks some national trends. The progressive maharajahs, who ruled with the permission of British colonisers until 1947, have given way to elected leaders. Many Nairs, whose matrilineal customs were once copied by the less well-off, including Muslim communities, have sold their ancestral land to property developers. Yet women still benefit. Kerala has see-sawed between two coalition governments—one led by the Communist party, one led by the Congress party, which leads India’s national coalition—in every poll since 1982.
Amid such competition, politicians woo savvy voters with welfare schemes that often support women and children. Kudumbashree, a programme founded in 1998 that works with half of the state’s households, organises women into savings clubs and offers grants to entrepreneurs. J. Devika, of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, says the scheme has boosted women’s financial know-how (though the state has taken advantage of low wages when it hires the business that have resulted, such as street-cleaning outfits).
But there’s trouble in paradise. Just over a fifth of Keralite women aged 15-59 are working or job-hunting, which is roughly in line with the national average, according to 2009-10 data. This is partly because they are studying at schools and colleges. But it is also because they regard menial jobs as being beneath them. “A change in mindset is urgently needed,” says a senior state government official, who laments that far more women have their noses to the grindstone in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Also, many families need only one bread-winner. Communist governments and strong unions have resulted in high wages—a carpenter in rural Kerala earns 538 rupees ($9.96) a day, more than double the national average for such work, according to India’s labour ministry. Many Keralite men migrate to the Gulf for work and send large pay packets home.
Perhaps surprisingly, Kerala also has India’s third-highest official rate of crimes against women, with 34 offences per 100,000 citizens in 2011 (this may be due in part to well-informed Keralites reporting more crimes than their peers). Fewer of Thiruvananthapuram’s women go out alone after dusk than do women in Delhi, according to a recent study. Those who do walk alone at night risk being seen as “loose”. Kalyani Nandakumar, a 19-year-old student who is always home by 7pm, feels hemmed in. “Even being seen with a boy is a problem,” she says. “Boys from good families might see you and think, ‘we don’t want a girl like that in our family’.” Kerala’s pride in its women, it seems, comes with a restrictive emphasis on dignified conduct.
(Source: The Economist)