Kerala Women:less than Equals?

Abstract: Women in Kerala, despite many indicators like favourable sex-ratio, literacy, access to education and health care are far from being equal members of the society. The state has witnessed many socio-political changes in the last hundred years. But the period seen as ‘progressive’ saw the building up of a gendered hierarchy, pushing women to a dependent status.

Keywords: equal gender standards of education, cultural gender system, female subordination, unrecognized women contribution, secondary citizen

Two sets of ‘results’ that came out in the month of May in Kerala received front-page attention in the newspapers. One was the result of the election to the state legislature, where more than seventy per cent of voters used their right to choose who should represent them in the law making body. The other, a series of results of the terminal examinations in schools and colleges, beginning with the secondary school leaving certificate (SSLC) examination. Girls received most of the top ranks in the SSLC and BA (undergraduate level) examinations, while the top positions were shared by girls and boys in the vocational higher secondary examinations. This feature has been continuing for several years.

Kerala women have been receiving formal education for more than hundred years. In recent decades, schools and colleges have come to most parts of the state with the exception of some tribal and fisher people’s pockets. As a result women here, by and large, are free from the inhibitions which women in other parts of India face regarding schooling. Women in Kerala had also taken to salaried jobs much before the independence of India. They became teachers in schools and colleges, nurses and doctors and low and medium level functionaries in government service.

Let us see how women fared in the election to the State legislature. The following table gives the total number of seats and the elected number of women and men separately in the elections held in 2001 and 1996 respectively. While thirteen women became members of the legislative assembly in 1996, their number was reduced to eight in 2001. Thirty women contested from the national parties, Congress, the CPI (M) and BJP fielding eight, eight and six candidates respectively. There were eight women who contested as independents. While the Muslim Leagues did not field a single woman, small and not much heard of parties put up one or two women. The CPI (ML) Redflag had women contesting from Thrissur district. Siva Sena had one and SUCI had three candidates. Of the fourteen districts in the State, only seven had at least one woman elected to the legislative assembly.

Number of Members Elected to the
State Legislative Assembly, 2001 and 1996

2001 1996
Districts Women Men Women Men
1. Kasargode 5 5
2. Kannur 1 9 1 9
3. Wayanad 1 2 1 2
4. Kozhikode 12 1 11
5. Malappuram 12 12
6. Palakkad 1 10 1 10
7. Trissur 1 13 3 11
8. Ernakulam 14 14
9. Idukky 5 5
10. Kottayam 1 9 10
11 Alappuzha 2 9 3 8
12. Pathanamthitta 1 6 7
13. Kollam 12 2 10
14. Thiruvananthapuram 14 1 13
Total 8 132 13 127

When the SSLC results were announced, the Chief Minister of the state congratulated the rank holding girls, their parents and the school authorities. He expressed the hope that women would attain distinction in other fields also. While the Chief Minister’s sincerity can be trusted, we cannot be oblivious to the reduced number of women members in the state legislature and the fact that a ministerial berth could not be offered to a Congress woman MLA. These do not appear to have crossed the Chief Minister’s mind, not to speak of bothering him. This confirms an obvious fact that, Kerala women’s life, problems or status have not entered the consciousness of people in authority or in society in general as something to be taken seriously and urgently attended to.

Kerala has remained for more than hundred years, the only state in India enjoying a sex– ratio favourable to women. Even as voters, there were many constituencies where women outnumbered men. For more than five years women have held one-third posts in the three-tier local level administrative setup. However, I am yet to see reactions of individuals or groups of women to the recent election and its results.

The discussion so far gives us some idea of the complex and contradictory nature of Kerala society within which the women’s power or lack of it has to be understood. In the English language the word power means ability to do anything – physical, mental, intellectual or spiritual; capacity for producing an effect; strength; energy; right to command, influence, control etc. None of these meanings is significantly different from the other, and women everywhere, not just Kerala, have some kind of power, however we may define it. It may not be the same over space and time, for the same individual woman or women in general. “Women everywhere hold some measure of influence or informal power. The degree varies with the gender system of their culture, the status of the class, caste, race or religious sect to which they belong, the state laws under which they live, the economic and political position their nation holds in the international structure of power and their personal attributes and life histories” wrote the renowned anthropologist, Eleanor Leacock (1986:107)1. Leacock was among those who pioneered research to delve into ‘myths of male dominance’ and unveiled notions about universal ‘female subordination.’ When Women’s Studies came to be accepted as a discipline much work was done exposing the ‘invisibility’ of women. This was a major observation in the report of the Committee which enquired into the status of women in India2. As this coincided with the UN Declaration of the International Year and later decade of women, all over the world research was conducted on women and their lives. The results highlighted the unseen and unrecorded work that women did, the responsibility women bore as ‘heads’ of family which also went unnoticed3, and placement of large numbers of women in low skilled and low-paid work. In one sense these assertions showed that women’s contributions both to their home and the national economy were significant, but not recognised. That is, women had the ability to work for wages, without dislocating the domestic responsibilities. They were thus taking decisions about coping with complex demands for time and energy. We can argue that these women had power, ability and strength. But the question is when they remained or preferred to remain unaware about their abilities, what can we make of the situation.

In order to assess women’s power and authority in a given society, Leacock wrote, it is essential to survey the gamut of important decisions made in society and to ascertain in so far as it is possible, how they are made. Too often formal ‘chiefly’ roles vis-à-vis outsiders have been mistakenly assumed to reflect the holding of internal authority. Since standard colonial practice is generally to ignore influential women, and to undermine their positions, outside observers have commonly underestimated women’s decision making roles in colonised societies (1986:110). Women should not only have awareness about their own ability or power, but also about the socio-political atmosphere under which they operate, the dominant views about women, and the status and the limits society prescribes for them. It would be useful to examine these in the context of Kerala.

Kerala Model

We began this paper with a look into the election and examination results in Kerala. Let us see something more about Kerala society and how women find themselves within that. The region of Kerala State4 and the women of Kerala have always been seen as different from other places in India. The matrilineal system of inheritance and the customary practices allied to that system, chiefly among the Nairs of Kerala has attracted visitors to the region from ancient times. Even those who did not welcome the system talked about the freedom women enjoyed, though not always in an appreciative manner. We shall examine this a little later.

But, of late, Kerala’s achievements have been acclaimed internationally, on another front. The state has been seen as a place where the physical quality of life of the ordinary people has improved even when the people face acute unemployment and the state has not done well in the economic front. Social indicators in the state including sex-ratio, female literacy rate, falling infant mortality rate and increased longevity both among men and women are much above what we find in other states in the country. Kerala is also a place where parents, particularly mothers wish to see a better life for their children than what they themselves have had. The inhibitions one finds in other places against sending daughters to schools, whether it be due to absence of girls’ schools or the non-availability of schools near their homes, and taking modern medicines are practically not seen in the state. As a result, you find large numbers of girls and young women attending schools and colleges in Kerala. In strength, girls out number boys at all levels of education except at the professional level. Studies undertaken in many countries suggest that girls lag behind in mathematics and science subjects. The girls’ numerical advantage remains even at the postgraduate level for all subjects. Another feature of the state is that young unmarried girls go to other states in India or other countries in search of work.5

All these give an impression that women of Kerala are enjoying greater freedom than women elsewhere in the country. Will the above factors alone give women freedom or power? For that we have to know more about the reasons for the girls going to schools and colleges6, seeking jobs even at places away from home, and also women’s own perception of their life. ‘Modern’ education or the type of schools introduced since the British established their sovereignty came to Kerala before the end of the nineteenth century. As the British did not wish to disturb the social arrangement of the times, these schools were not open to low or ‘untouchable’ castes. Struggles to gain the right to enter the schools were important in the agenda of those castes that agitated to establish their dignity as human beings. It is interesting to remember that Ayyankali, a great ‘untouchable’ leader asked women of the caste who were predominantly agricultural labourers to stop their work as a mark of protest against their non-admission to schools. He, later on, opened a girls’ school for the low castes in his native place. While this was a reality, girls from castes like the Nairs and Syrian Christians had started filling the classrooms and later, colleges. However, it is only after the independence of the country and later after the formation of the Kerala State in 1956, that educational institutions came nearer to the homes for most students.

Socio – political changes in the early twentieth century

During the period starting from mid-nineteenth century very important changes took place in the social organisations in the state, affecting the structure of family, marriage and similar area regarding inheritance etc. concerning some major communities. Their women, as a result of the matrilineal system they were following, enjoyed some amount of autonomy unlike the women under patriliny. Leela Dube, an authority on family and kinship, has observed that under patriliny both boys and girls took their identity from the father and were placed in his lineage and family. While a son was a permanent member of those units, a daughter was viewed as a transient or impermanent member. Dube has pointed out that under matriliny children of both sexes acquired permanent membership of the mother’s descent group, and it did not change at marriage that (1996 b:5, 6) in practical terms, matrilineal women had a stake in natal homes throughout their life. Women were the carriers of family name and property over generations and as such, a girl child was absolutely necessary. There was social sanction for separation or divorce and also for the remarriage of divorced, separated or widowed women. As children belonged to the natal family of the mother, disputes over custody of children did not arise if the parents separated. These women who had a space of their own, were not dependent on husbands, unlike their sisters under patriliny.

But the laws to “reform” matriliny did make holes in the above arrangements.7 The changes in the customary practices came along with changes in land relations.8 Land, which was an important source of power and prestige, became a commodity, which could be divided and transferred or sold. Indivisible land ownership had formed the base of matriliny. Apart from this, the laws to reform matriliny brought about major changes in man-woman relationship. Husbands gained greater visibility and power. He even gained a right over wife’s property; of course not exclusive (1999 : 96).

The decades following the above period are marked by what has come to be known as Social Reforms Movement which shook the rigid caste structure in the state and led to the emergence of radical politics and left ideology which spread within the society ideas of freedom and equality. In other words justice became a desirable social goal. However, the idea of a socially just society did not include anything about equality between the sexes or notions of gender justice.

Gendered Hierarchy

The past decades which witnessed intense political activism and growing sense of rights were also the years when Kerala women were becoming less than equal both within the home and outside. By and large women were also made to accept this, even if we come across women and women’s groups fighting against discrimination, injustice or humiliation which women face practically everywhere. It is not possible to categorically point out the reasons for this. When progressive and left ideology held sway in the sphere of ideas it was believed that a socially just society would automatically improve the status of all including women. In fact, women’s specific demands were seen as moves towards separatism. To be more specific, ‘feminist’ independent voice came to be seen as negative or reactionary, which could be ignored. Some examples are the responses from women who were small landholders and whose family had no other income. One woman wanted to know how the ceiling limits on land would be fixed in the case of a couple both of whom had inherited family property. She argued that the woman be allowed to retain her land as very often the husband would have regular non-agricultural income. She talked about the possibility of strained relations between the couple, when the wife would be deprived of any economic means if she were to surrender her lands. The decades since the passing of the ‘progressive’ land reforms legislations, for which Kerala has received much applause, the state has witnessed the disappearance of agriculture as a respectable and remunerative occupation. Production and productivity fell and the small peasants went in search of other work. We have not cared to find out what happened to those women whose only source of income was from the land. A good section of the women labourers engaged in the various tasks in paddy cultivation moved to quarry and construction work. All these women, landowners and labourers, lost the skill and knowledge gained over generations.

Coming to the jobs in the organised sector, especially in the Government, we can find large numbers of women in every Department, though their numbers may be largest as teachers. Though there is no ban on women reaching the top or the highest level, their numbers at the higher levels, when compared to their male counterparts are still small. Their presence in their service organisations, both as members and leaders, is limited. And those women who are members or are somewhat active do not raise questions about the absence of hygienic and neat toilets or a place where they can take lunch or rest for a while, or any issue relating particularly to women. Several years ago researchers at the Govt. Women’s College in Thiruvananthapuram told me that employed women here did not have any control over their salary9. I could not believe it as there are plenty of women here who have their own salary/pension, various forms of savings, rent from houses or other property, interest from investments and similar sources of income. But I could not doubt it when I came to know from reliable sources that a large-scale survey at Trissur undertaken by COSTFORD also came up with similar findings.10

All forms of harassment which women face within the home and at the work place have been observed by researchers in recent times.11 Their findings become topics of discussion at seminars organised by women’s groups and in front-page news. In an earlier election to the state assembly a top-level politician alleged to be involved in a rape case was defeated, and women’s consistent propaganda in the election campaign was an important factor for that failure. However, women’s groups could not repeat their performance in the recent election where again, top-level leaders alleged to be involved in cases of harassment against women were contesting.

I was taken aback and felt disturbed to see that both the political coalitions in Kerala,the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) did not think it necessary to state that they would try to create a society where all, especially women and girls, could live and function without fear. We see that the political, social, cultural and literary life of Kerala is increasingly becoming a male domain. It is interesting to see that Kerala has disproved the one time belief that education and economic autonomy will ‘liberate’ women. True, education has played the role of a leveller and economic development has created a new middle class in the state. Women of these classes may aspire for greater upward mobility for their families, but one cannot think that gender equality is one of their concerns. In fact, they are to a large extent responsible for spreading ideas of consumerism, extravagant life style, which includes lavish marriages. Family Courts and Women’s Commission have brought to light the widely prevalent marital discords. Reports on domestic violence are on the increase. Women from the middle classes are not free from both. Yet, they are more or less silent on such issues. In fact, one can undoubtedly say that the messages to girls and young women from these classes are those that discourage independence, self-respect, and equality.

Marriage — a goal for girls

The stories we hear about marriage negotiations, bargaining, and compromises show how unequal this relationship is from the very beginning. I am now used to a vocabulary, which I did not hear when I was growing up. They relate to daughters’ marriage, its inevitability and the parents of brides accepting any or every demand from the bride groom’s side; even allowing them to decide the girl’s future, including her employment. Recently, I had the misfortune to hear the details of such a marriage, the bride highly educated and employed, both her parents also highly educated professionals. The cultural compulsion behind such marriages is yet to be studied.

Another interesting piece of information was given to me by a young, educated and employed woman married to an influential political leader. According to her “we should not fight on small issues like men not helping in home management. Just by saying I am so and so’s wife I can get so many things done.” Can we equate these “calculations” to “power”?

As for the lower middle class and poor women, day– to– day struggles to live take a lot of their time and energy. They include struggles to find work and wages, fight against harassment on the road, in the bus and the workplace, coping with rising prices and non-availability of food grains in the ration shops. Along with all these they are also trapped in the trends set by society and middle class, especially as regards the role and place of women, marriage, women’s conduct or social strictures. Besides, they also see violence increasing in society and are eager to protect the girl’s virginity.

Women’s Studies and Women’s Realities

Do Women’s Studies capture these realities? Most of the things we have discussed do form part of research findings and seminar topics. What has not happened is the establishment of linkages between women’s position or experiences to wider socio-political and economic developments of the state. Harassment and abuse of women at the public sphere as well as within the home are reported to be high in recent years. We have statistics on the type of crimes for each district. This data is limited to crimes ‘reported’ to the police. We have to take stringent action on this. More important, we have to take into account the increasing spread of violence in society; not just against women. It is also important to understand violence which women have internalised. It is essential to record the nature of violence, who inflicts it, on whom and how it affects different sections of the people. Even violence which is not directed against women affect them most. Their reaction to violence is to withdraw from public sphere and close their eyes to what happens around. Some women’s groups who fight against specific cases of violence do not earnestly try to find out why violence is increasing and why women become victims of violence.

The same is true of unemployment. The number of unemployed people is available, even if it may not be always accurate. Various people can offer different reasons for increasing unemployment. Apart from linking the growth in unemployment to globalisation or any new economic policy we have to redefine the concept of employment and wages. What we need is not partial or temporary palliatives. We have to reinterpret international economic development patterns to our advantage. This essentially means that our people’s, mainly women’s skills and knowledge have to be preserved and they should receive new training so that they will not be losers.

Kerala women, with education, right to employment and some amount of economic security are not totally powerless. But for various reasons they appear to have accepted a ‘one step below’ attitude and look ‘contented’ and enjoy the status-quo. What should bother us is not whether they have power or not, but how to make them view themselves and their lives honestly and fearlessly. They are part of a society, which is to a very large extent, satisfied with the present or is scared of change. We have not yet developed a vision of a new, equal and harmonious society. True, all women may not immediately come forward to envision such a future. But a minority of concerned women can provide a beginning and that will be the starting point for women to think of what they have lost — equality, freedom and dignity and what they can surely gain.


1. The late Eleanor Leacock was a staunch Marxist and committed scholar who did pioneering work, questioning many anthropological observations.

2. The report titled ‘Towards Equality’ remains a reference book for those who wish to engage in women’s studies.

3. According to the United Nations, almost thirty per cent of women all over the world were responsible for the management of their households, including bringing in income. Those households may have male members who did not earn due to unemployment, illness or old age. Besides the responsibility women felt in feeding the family members is never felt by men. As a result women take up any job and also undersell their labour in the market.

4. Kerala State was formed on November 1, 1956, when the already merged princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Malabar province of the old British Presidency of Madras were brought together as a linguistically unified state.

5. Young women migrated to the convents in Europe as European girls became less and less interested in becoming nuns. Later girls and young unmarried women migrated to the prawn peeling units along the Western coast of India. The inhuman treatment they got received wide publicity so that the government was compelled to take note of the matter. Though not like Sri Lanka or Philippines, the flow of young women to many parts of India and to a small extent to the Middle East, continues with occasional news of harassment. Most of them try to earn for dowry and marriage and not to establish economic independence.

6. Gilbert Slater, the first Professor of Economics in the Madras University and a Britisher has observed this with surprise.

7. Matriliny did not allow partition of joint family property. One of the demands of men who agitated for reforms in matriliny was the division of property among the different units of the joint family and later among individuals.

8. See K. Saradamoni: Changing Land Relations and Women — A Case Study of Palghat.

9. “The women were not allowed to touch the salary”. This was the way the researchers put it in Malayalam.

10. COSTFORD (Center of Science and Technology for Rural Development) with its headquarters at Trissur is involved in research on socio– economic matters, organising seminars besides undertaking cost– effective construction of buildings. They also train workers, especially women, as masons and for other tasks in construction.

11. While sitting through seminars where researchers gave details of incest which is prevalent in Kerala in a magnitude that it has to be taken note of, I have wished that what I heard was not true.

Dube, Leela. Kinship and Gender in South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi: CWDS, 1996.

Kabeer, Naila. Reversed Realities, Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1995.

Leacock, Eleanor. ‘Women, Power and Authority’ in Visibility and Power — Essays in Society and Development. Leela Dube, E. Leacock and Shirley Ardener, Eds. New Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1986. 107-135.

Rendel, Margherita. Women, Power and Political Systems. London: Croom Helm, 1981.

Saradamoni K. Matriliny Reformed, Family Law and Ideology in Twentieth Century Travancore. New Delhi: SAGE, 1999.

—. “Changing Land Relations and Women: A Case Study of Palghat, Kerala” in Women and Rural Transformation. New        Delhi: ICSSR, 1983.

—. “Crisis in the Fishing Industry and Women’s Migration: The case of Kerala” in Women and Seasonal Labour Migration.        Leos S. Sandbergen, Ed. New Delhi: SAGE, 1995. 155-248.

Slater, Gilbert. Southern India: Its Political Economic Problems. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1936.

Women’s Studies Group: University of Birmingham Women Take Issue: Aspects of Women’s Subordination. London: Hutchinson, 1978.

Senior social scientist, retired from the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre. Her major concerns are social change and inequality. Author of several books and a large number of articles, she has done extensive field work in Kerala and outside. Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala; Divided Poor; Filling the Rice Bowl — Women in Paddy Cultivation; Matriliny Reformed: Family, Law and Ideology and Sthree, Sthree Vadam and Sthree Vimochanam are some of her major works. She is active in many socio-political groups.

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Senior social scientist, retired from the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre. Her major concerns are social change and inequality. Author of several books and a large number of articles, she has done extensive field work in Kerala and outside. Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala; Divided Poor; Filling the Rice Bowl -- Women in Paddy Cultivation; Matriliny Reformed: Family, Law and Ideology and Sthree, Sthree Vadam and Sthree Vimochanam are some of her major works. She is active in many socio-political groups.

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