Possibilities in Ecofeminist Politics for Contemporary Kerala:A note for Discussion

Forum for Discussion

From this issue of Samyukta, we begin a new column to discuss contemporary issues.


Ecofeminism points to a politics based on a necessary connection “Women” and “Nature”1. In that sense it remains one of those strands of politics that adheres, at least to some extent, to the dream of a sisterhood.2 The early texts of ecofeminism clearly project it as a which women figure as major agents, but involve the interests of humanity3. Ecofeminist thinking has been often associated with the of people marginalised by modernising development and instrumentalist reason involving local, often non-western. value- systems.4 However, even though ecofeminists insist that ecofeminism necessarily resists incorporation depoliticising developmental schemes, the into influence it exerts on both proposals put forth by individual NGOs and radical environmental mo as well as in the rhetoric of the global developmental agencies is undeniable5.

In other words, it is amply clear by now that ecofeminism, despite its early origin in the feminist movements of the West, has been appropriated by non- western feminists and environmental activists to suit local struggles and to voice particular and local interests in struggles over gender and environment; at the same time, its language has also been appropriated by the mandarins of global development to push through their own economic-political agenda. Given the currently dominant division of labour in which the lust world, and now ever-more frequently, the third world metropolises, figure as sites of knowledge production (irrespective of how such knowledge may be classified. as “revolutionary” or “establishment —oriented”), and the less urban third- world as the object, this is a vital point. For those interested in forging a locally sensitive politics of gender and environment, it sets a double task: on the one hand the deployment of ecofeminist thinking in service of World Bank wisdom needs to be combated, on the other hand, there is the job of producing our own version, to suit our immediate struggles in contemporary Malayalee society.

This could be the opening gambit of this discussion: there is no readymade version of political activism alive to the interpenetration of patriarchy, instrumental reason and developmentalism that may be directly assimilated into the contemporary political environment in Malayalee society. In order to be sustainable, such politics should be freshly wrought in intense awareness of context and the balance of forces that construct it. No doubt, this appears to be a risk, a rejection of easily available models, but it is an unavoidable one. After being for decades the very Mecca of developmentalism, and having chased the will-o’-the-wisp of Development for quite some time, modern Malayalee society can ignore the writing on the wall only at its own peril6. The Kerala Model appears less rosy now than it used to7 , and the harsh lessons to be learnt about the consequences of blindly following prescriptions scripted elsewhere are all too plainly etched today.

It is not difficult to demonstrate that the people of Kerala are going through not simply an ecological crisis or merely a tense phase in gender arrangements. The situation is clearly more complex. We are facing no less than a crisis of “staying alive” (to draw upon Vandana Shiva’s fruitful coinage) in which the social and the ecological, the material and the non-material dimensions are intensely intertwined. It is also evident that many of the issues raised within Western ecofeminism are relevant in contemporary Kerala, or are busily adaptable. For instance, there is considerable scope for a feminist intervention into anti-consumerist activism and awareness- raising activities which are already established in Kerala to some extent. It may even be argued that feminist protest against the commodification of the female body must be effectively accompanied by a powerful anti-consumerist campaign. To take another instance, there would be little disagreement that there is the need for a radical critique of the medicalisation of female bodies in Kerala where natural processes like childbirth are now effectively treated as pathological8 instance would be the possibility of moulding peace-activism, prominent element in western ecofeminism, into a “Respect for Life directed against brutality and violence sponsored by both the stall state institutions like the organised religions. Indeed, these would be poised upon the critique of the rosy picture of “Kerala” projected in discourses ranging from development literature to tourism. It can be hardly forgotten the much-displayed demographic “achievements” gaudily displayed much-vaunted “Kerala Model”, there is the little-noticed history of intervention of institutionalised modern medicine into the bodies of women.9 By such critical exercises, ecofeminist thinking could well develop a style of feminist activism that may have a catalytic effect in raising issues hitherto insufficiently problematised by a progressivist critique. It could also possibilities of feminist intervention hitherto ignored, underrated or unnoticed. Ecofeminism could, for instance, act as a bridge between an over-rationalisitic style of feminist activism and radical theology. Within environmentalist criticism, an ecofeminist critique could highlight the extent to which men, women and children bear the cost of environmental destruction differentially. It could strengthen environmental activism by forcefully upholding the ethical and normative aspects of environmental struggles and by drawing upon the values of nurture and care. It could, further, legitimise alternative value-systems that have been suppressed by modernisation. In sum, ecofeminist activism could well exert a transformative effect on feminist, radical, theological environmental activism in contemporary Kerala.

Needless to say, all these interventions would have to be premised upon a deeper critique of the liberal, individualistic middle-class culture that hegemonic status in contemporary Kerala. It is no exaggeration that this now-dominant ideology has steadily grown in scope and influence through past, stretching over at least one hundred and fifty years or so. Rarely challenged in any serious sense; even the high-tide of leftist cultural flowering of the mid-20th century, which sometimes displayed signs of a challenge domination of middle-class aspirations, did not qualify to be a full-fledged thrust. Indeed, it remained subservient to the larger frame of middle-class while often provoking new interpretations and extensions. No fund critique of the privatised, individualised, production-oriented self was taken seriously. Not that such critiques were entirely absent10, but often, they were not even recognised as such. It is also not as though modem institutions remained insulated from all criticism; however, they largely remained within the ambit of an individualistic rationality. This is most obvious in the currently familiar criticism raised of that bastion of middle-class values, the nuclear family. While the balance of power within the nuclear family, the division of time, space and labour it fosters, the relations it permits with the world outside etc. are all subjected to critique, the highly individualistic self it is expected to nurture either remains untouched or justified as an “inevitability” foisted upon us by “modern times”.

It is also inevitable that ecofeminism will have to engage with the ideology of womanly domesticity that lies at the heart of the modern project of producing individual-subjects. Ever since the late 19th century, different groups (missionaries, the functionaries of the modernising governments, social reformers, religious figures) have incessantly voiced the need for transforming women so that they may become capable of producing disciplined, efficient, productive and docile subjects within their homes. It must not be forgotten that the assignment of the supervisory and managerial functions within the domains of the domestic and the sentimental to the woman, marked the female social role as an active one. The progressivism regarding gender roles often found characteristic of Kerala’s socio-economic growth is strongly overlaid by the conviction that the capacities apparently specific to women—which were projected as defining their roles as homemakers and fashioners of individuals within the domestic domain—were relevant not only within the home but also in public institutions. The qualities of nurturing and caring attributed to women were, in this frame of reference, strongly tied to the need to institute non-coercive, sentimental forms of social disciplining typical of middle-class power. Interestingly, the task of socialising not just the young but also wayward husbands was entrusted to women, claiming, precisely, a “natural” inclination supposedly ingrained in women stemming from their maternal capacities. This is what an ecofeminist politics will have to challenge and overcome.

Ecofeminist activism cannot avoid the task of reactivising the debate around “womanly qualities” so as to free them from such bondage. It is clear that the latest chapter in the story of the developmental agencies’ attempts to “empower” women in Kerala strongly draws upon this association. Also, we are all too familiar today with popular agitation that strongly relies upon the identification of women with the custodians of social (middle-class —defined) discipline and order. One has only to look at that sort of anti-liquor agitation, which foregrounds aggrieved women as major agents, channelling their very real discontent and suffering into a campaign for social “order” and “moral life”.11 So also, the social welfare programmes, lauded as highly successful in Kerala, continue to locate women as guardians of the Home and Hearth, and as responsible providers.12 Ecofeminist thinking could aid the questioning of such association by once again pushing the issue of “womanly values” social relevance into the centre of debate. It may be able to mount s to the ideal separated self of liberal thought (which includes liberal well), advancing instead the ideal of “embedded self ”. In short, it may be able to reignite the debate on Womanly values etc. so as to tear them away project of fashioning the full-fledged “hard” individual. It may make possible the reimagining of femininity that could serve as a basis for rethinking the self and the community itself. I would like to imagine this as the central thrust and outstanding feature of ecofeminist activism in contemporary Kerala. In other words, ecofeminist work here must not be simply reduced to entrusting the care of the environment to women- one may readily envisage the induction of “soil conservation” or “water saving” into the long list of productive activities recommended to woman within the ideology of modem domesticity. It must also be certainly more than a criticism of techno-bureaucratic aft celebration of marginalised ways of life and knowledge.

For sure, this involves the reaffirmation of femininity, and different from the strategy of dismissing the whole notion of femininity itself in favour of a gender-neutral self. Precisely because of this, ecofeminist activism may be regarded with some suspicion, particularly by feminists of a persuasion. But the risk that ecofeminism might be subjected to interpretation and application is one that must be faced and overcome. Further, even as a strategic reappropriation of femininity seems to be an elf necessary way of challenging “hard” individualism, the risk of “internal dissension” will have to be reckoned with. But so long as we are view it as not damaging “dissension” but enabling internal critique, will remain unfounded.


1. This is not to ignore the many different ways of thinking abet development, environment and nature that have surfaced within feminist thinking since the 1980s, which display considerable intellectual sophistication. However, these were often critical responses to the ecofeminist vision. See Agarwal, 1991; Rochleau, 1996. .

2. See the contrast Agarwal makes between “romantic” and “strategic” sisterhood in global feminism. Agarwal, 1991.

3. See, D’Eaubonne, 1990, first published, 1947.

4. See Shiva, 1988.

5. But ecofeminism is not alone here. Besides, feminist interventions in Development Studies has been fruitful in carving out a space; but while this body of knowledge does not seek to resist incorporation, looking for moments of intervention, ecofeminist theory has tried to maintain a definite distance, which, however, has no‹ been very successful.

6. No place in India has been so deeply enamoured by the dream of Development and its promises as Kerala; nowhere has Nature been regarded as nothing above a resource, or even an evil force to be overcome. Innumerable texts that sing high praise to the blessings of Development have been produced in Kerala in the past half-century. I will cite only one, which aptly embodies the desire and the vision of Developmentalism: E.M.S.Nambutiripad ‘s reimagining of the Mavelinadu of the 2th century in his text Onnekaalkoti Malayalikal (1946) reprinted in P. Govinda Pillai (ed.), 1999: some of Malayalam’s best modem poetry, like Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon’s Sarppakkadu ( 1950), which not only displays allegiance to Developmentalism, but also exhibits the irreparable split and tensions within those of that generation who internalised the faith in Development. Despite the charge raised by many critics of the Kerala Model (George, 1993; Subramanian, 1990; Tharamangalam, 1999) etc. that social development in the latter half of the 20th century has in one way or the other left economic development neglected, my own ongoing research into the generation of public consent in Kerala for family planning in these decades seems to point at an overwhelming anxiety over economic development that overrode any desire for fundamental expansion of choices, social freedoms etc. Obviously, social development appears to be a construct that needs to be deconstructed from the vantage points of the marginalised sections. Besides the 1990s have seen a host of “new” problems in society and nature besieging Malayalee society: the massive degradation of the environment, new epidemics, pollution of unprecedented proportions, the alarming rise in general crime rates, a general disillusionment with public life, the costs extracted by the coming of global consumerism, the decline of the welfare state and others. In such a situation a rethinking of the desire for Development cannot be postponed anymore.

7. See Saradamoni, 1994. Even ardent devotees are beginning to admit that all is not well with gender relations in Kerala. See, for example, Franke and Chasin, 1994.

8. There is increasing concern these days that the number of C sections is increasing at an alarming rate in Kerala. It has also noted that the gynaecological departments have a crucial role to making the health business lucrative in Kerala. Health Surveys co by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parish at have clearly indicated tendencies and criticised them, though not from a feminist perspective.

9. It is now well known that the final success of the sterilisation programme in Kerala was reached when the number of female sterilisations massively outpaced the male sterilisations, despite the fact that the latter happens to be easier, safer and more readily reversible. Besides, the family planning programme in Kerala completely avoided any questioning of the issues around women’s free access to contraception, choice and issues of female mobility etc. that could have been potentially raised at that juncture. Instead, its advocates assiduously portrayed it as a programme that would not in any way threaten middle-class morality, or the “natural” maternality ascribed to women.

10. For example, the work of Lalithambika Antarjanam may be read as a powerful critique of the interplay of modern gender-power and “hard”‘Individualism in Malayalee modernity. See Devika, 2001.

11. This is not to discount the many valiant actions undertaken by women braving the liquor Mafia, and the state’s silence. However, the attribution of the disciplinarian’s role needs to be taken with caution. The history of 20th century Kerala provides us of at least one example of how an agitation which mobilised massive numbers of women of all classes on precisely these grounds (i.e., that women as guardians of social morality and disciplined domestic life, must fight in the public domain when these were found threatened) promptly sent them back to their “proper” after the goals were achieved. I refer to the Vimochana Samaram of the llate 1950s. Of course today’s struggles are quite different but deployment of the same sorts of justifications and arguments is certainly disturbing.

12. This is particularly true, to a large extent, of “empowerment” programmes like the Kudumbashree, which have been hailed as successful contemporary Kerala.


Agarwal Bina. Engendering the Environment Debate: Lessons from the Indian Subcontinent. East Lansing, Michigan: CASID, 1991.

Christ Carol, Plaskow, J (eds.). Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. NY.: Harper & Row, 1979.

D’Eaubonne, F. ‘A Time for Ecofeminism’ reprinted in Carolyn Merchant (ed.), Key Concepts in Critical Theory. Ecology. N. Delhi: Rawat Publishers, 1989.

Devika, J. ‘Unreasonable Discontent: Gender and Individualisation in the Writings of Lalithambika Antarjanam’. Paper presented at the Seminar on Rethinking Modernity Nov. 16-18, 2001. Dept. of Philosophy, Sree Sankara University, Kalady.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Franke, Richard W. Chasin, Barbara. Kerala: Development: An Analysis of the Fiscal Crisis and its Implications. Thiruvananthapuram: CDS, Monograph Series, 1993.

Menon, Vailopilly Sreedhara. Sarppakkattu. Kottayam: SPCS, 1950

Nambutiripad, E.M.S. (1946). ‘Onnekalkoti Malayalikal’. Repreinted in P. Govinda Pilla (ed.), E.M.S: Sampoornakritikal 1945-46, Vol. 6, Thiruvananthapuram: Chinta, 1999, 288-347.

Rochleau, Rosemary. Woman-Church : Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

Saradamoni, K. ‘Women in Kerala and Some Development Issues’, Economic and Political Weekly, Sept. 15, 1990.

Tharamangalam, Jospeh. ‘The Social Roots of Kerala’s Development Debacle’ M.A. Oommen (ed.), Rethinking Development: Kerala’s Development Experience Vol. I, N. Delhi: Institute of Social Sciences, 1999.


DEVIKA J.. Is currently a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral research was on “Individualisation and the Rooting of Modern Gender in Early 20th century Kerala.” She has published a book in Malayalam of feminist theory titled Streevadam.

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Is currently a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral research was on “Individualisation and the Rooting of Modern Gender in Early 20th century Kerala.” She has published a book in Malayalam of feminist theory titled Streevadam.

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