Tuesday 26 February 2019

In Kerala homes, male domination is still the norm: Shoba Arun

This sociologist finds definite signs of regression in Kerala’s famously progressive cultural fabric

Shoba Arun calls the Malayali woman an enigma, but not in an obscure, romanticised way. “A State with an inspiring political past, yet no iconic woman leader. A land of labour reforms, yet Pombilai Orumai never had the backing of any trade union. While support poured in from all corners last month for a symbolic effort like the women’s wall, the nuns fighting for justice never saw such solidarity. A society so progressive, but the victim of a sexual crime is slut shamed in public. The well-cited Malayali woman is definitely not what you think her to be, her identity has more complexities and contradictions,” says the sociologist who lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University, U.K.

In her book Development and Gender Capital in India: Change, Continuity and Conflict in Kerala, Arun tries to explore the paradox that is the Kerala woman by placing her within the theoretical framework developed by French intellectual and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and adopted by feminist Bourdieusians.

Increasing misogyny
She argues that despite very good socio-demographic indicators, the Kerala woman’s role in the development discourse is marred by increasing levels of misogyny. “When you check the gender development index in the 90s, you find that Kerala always forged ahead. But the situation now is more complex. Today, Kerala has high literacy levels and a mass of highly-educated women, but you also see many of them sacrificing their careers to meet the demands of domesticity. And to top it all, the purity of the woman’s body has emerged as a major topic of discussion, which again is a regressive trend.” As a Malayali migrant who grew up in the sleepy Nilgiris, Arun was always intrigued by the stark reality of unequal ‘life experiences’ based on gender. “My parents were often asked why they wanted to educate their daughters when my peers were married off soon after puberty.”
Shoba Arun began mapping Kerala women and their diversity of experience
two decades ago.   | Photo Credit: S. GOPAKUMAR
Arun builds her book on the concept of gender capital or more specifically, ‘female’ and ‘feminine capital’, that is, the way women are socialised into a gender role. Female capital is about the biological notion of gender, where forms of capital can be accumulated, for example, through education. Feminine capital is the gender capital advantage through socialisation and social construction around gender roles. “As a woman, you acquire certain traits, skills and attitudes that fit the generally-accepted template of femininity. You are not accepted into fields that demand dominance or aggression and, at the end of the day, you are reduced to a particular gender role. And because of that, there are limits to how much we can progress or how female and feminine capital can be accumulated or converted into other forms of capital.” She also observes that women in Kerala, as in many male-dominant cultures and contexts, straddle the female and feminine capital construction and accumulation process.

Our movie dialogues drip misogyny. Look at how women are portrayed in most films — they are either domesticated, subordinated idols or objectified sirens

Arun’s book also zooms into specific groups — adivasis and semi-rural livelihoods — as ethnicity and class are crucial in defining notions of femininity. She also finds many intersecting influences on gender. “In many areas, we stand far above the national average, but the adivasi capital in Kerala is always represented as deficit. The average adivasi woman is still caught in a loop of abuse and exploitation; she is always the ‘other’. So when we talk about Kerala women, we are not talking about a heterogeneous cross-section. Not all women in Kerala can increase their social, cultural and financial capital on equal terms; it depends on their diverse social locations and there is no homogeneity in their experience.” Arun says that a paradigm shift from mere representation to a more embedded transformation is needed. “This should take into account the ‘lived experiences’ of women in Kerala.”

Arun began mapping Kerala women and their diversity of experience two decades ago and she points to the reversal of matriliny as a major change. The kinship system that appreciated and valued feminine capital had women as inheritors of family property. “I started working on the subject in the 90s and later revisited the same communities and households multiple times, covering three generations of women. Even in the 90s, many families followed the system of polyandry, but now this female-centric social structure has dissipated,” she says.

Regressive films
Arun finds definite signs of regression in Kerala’s cultural fabric. “Our movie dialogues drip misogyny. Look at how women are portrayed in most films — they are either domesticated, subordinated idols or objectified sirens. And when we analyse the infamous actress attack case and the discourse it generated, what we see is varying degrees of victim shaming. This is no stray incident; more and more women face cyber bullying today.”

She finds that the Malayali woman, who is considered an achiever of feminist goals and human rights, is often victimised and subjugated in a wider context of material, economic and political equations. She says it’s an ‘anomie’ which, in Kerala’s context, does not mean normlessness but an incongruity of norms, and a bias that legitimises social hierarchies. “There are terms like ‘appropriate dressing’ and ‘modesty’, and how women are ‘not expected to be seen in public places after dark’, that point to gendered notions concerning the body, morality and safety. Often, the feminist notions of equality and liberation are inappropriate within homes — a private sphere where male domination is a cultural norm. Even when we look at the Sabarimala issue, we find a multitude of voices, where the root of the issue relates to women’s bodies as polluting and unequal. And despite the impressive pointers of women’s progress, violence against women is also high in Kerala,” she says.

What Arun recommends is a perspective beyond the mere rhetoric of gender autonomy, which is often confined to examples of women’s solidarity such as Kudumbashree. “At one level, we see the Malayali woman as this icon of empowerment, but Kerala could have achieved more in terms of transforming gender relations in a number of spheres, including work, political representation, and social justice. While women in other States are quickly achieving more and are all set to overtake Kerala, we are slowly slipping back to regressive social structures which cannot be merely analaysed as patriarchal domination. We need a new discourse that addresses the wider, heterogeneous reality,” she says.

(Source: The Hindu)

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