Thursday, September 24, 2009

Globalisation, New Jobs and Women’s Empowerment: Myth of Reality?

Eloquent Silences: A Discussion Part Three

John Samuel: There is indeed a whole range of issues related to gender, women's political participation, space and voice in Kerala. But I also think there is increasing awareness and discussion on these issues in Kerala, in relation to many other states. There are a number of paradoxes, contradictions and tension - operating in Kerala society (and that is also the case with almost all other societies.)

The paradox of ‘empowerment’ and ‘space’ is one among them. In spite of having one of the biggest percentage of highly ‘qualified’ or ‘educated’ women in Kerala, there is relatively less space in the leadership roles, articulate voices and empowered roles within the public and private spaces. The fact that such issues are discussed is also the beginning of a change process. Such a process of transformation requires more affirmative action and more active political participation of women in all arena- in academics, politics, media, and social action, etc.

It is important for enlightened and educated women and men to work together to expand the quantity and quality of those spaces. It is important to participate and shape the discussions elsewhere. When we begin to believe in change, change begins to unfold within us and beyond us.

So the first thing women and men will have to fight is an entrenched sense of cynicism.

R V G Menon: In a male-dominated society only those women who conform to the established norms of hierarchy will be allowed to come to the top. This is true of male dominated groups also. This is enforced not necessarily by the males in the society / group. The females who have come to the top through this conformist route, will zealously ensure this, because their own self-justification depends upon this. The nonconformists are a threat to them, more than even to the males. This leaves the males free to assume a liberal and patronizing attitude.

This predicament can be broken only if the nonconformists settle for a long fight, foregoing the rewards of conformism (like moving up in the hierarchy). But eventually their voice will be heard and their viewpoint will be taken seriously. Settling into silence is self defeating.

N P Chekkutty: Anandi's long note calls for a serious response. I have lots of agreements and a few disagreements.

Now let me take this point, women in the freedom struggle. Freedom struggle being what it was, one cannot expect more women to take part in it unless they were inspired by their family, spouses, etc. It was an anti imperialistic struggle and it came mainly from the upper middle classes, the new Indian elite. Masses came to it only at a later stage and even then women who did participate from lower social segments had little chance to emerge as leaders.

But that is not the case today, when social action, politics, etc, are part of a career. We see that a substantial number of women who are now holding public offices, say in Parliament, Assembly, corporation councils/mayors, etc, are daughters/spouses/ close relatives of powerful male politicians, even in the progressive movement. The case is almost similar in parties like CPI and CPM. Ditto is the case with Congress, etc.

I was thinking about many women activists I knew in my student days, mainly from 1972 to 1982-83, and when I wrote down their names I realised most have disappeared. Who emerged at the top, instead, are women who had powerful support in male politicians. Another group that I see emerging at the top consist of newcomers or what we may call lateral entry: They join public life at a later stage when they have completed education, raised kids, had good jobs, etc. Almost all of them are women with strong support among influential males and are from middle/upper middle class only. Those who had to fight up from below never made it.

Kavitha Balakrishnan: I think today some section of women in 20s and 30s are strategically overlooking so called 'intellectual gender debates' (it doesn’t mean that they are not so 'powerful' to do that, they have their share of struggles that they don’t want to project simply on a gender level. They know that it is now too hotchpotch to do it).

And they are living their life on altogether different contenders; more focused on acquiring skills that can professionally and financially equip them to practically evade restrictions on them generally imposed by family and society. Some of them may perhaps look ordinary and conformists, but they are working largely out of their ordinary frames in life....

I don’t think that Kerala alone has feudalist hangover; in metropolitan cities too one finds the very same, equally contagious and dangerous hangover of feudal mindset. Yeah, academic/ activist circles in major cities may give a slightly assertive picture of women who bother to articulate with a politics of 'self'. But a huge number of other women in same such cities have more access and choice to gain financial independence that eventually equip them to live on their terms in spite of their silently internalised ( more practical, one may say) contentions of feminism or gender debates. These women whom generally we find outside the 'cultural / activist' circles are not altogether apolitical, though one may not find them strictly articulating self in male dominated intelligentsia...

Yeah, majority of women apparently don’t bother gender debates... but it doesn’t mean that they are complacent at all.

There are many ways to live with mind....intellectual articulation is just one among them.
And there is of course a vacuum - of new ways of articulation of mind, emotions and state of affairs not yet conveyed properly and inclusively yet widely experimented across the digital technological world where hiding and revealing have umpteen options....

Now that earlier 'cultural contenders' [that was constituted basically by men with essential 'male' hangovers and women masquerading with either 'male' (whom we called feminists) or 'female' (whom we called home-loving gal) gestures and options in public domains] need to device themselves newly. They should incorporate the multiplied options and disintegrated selves of women.

No space is an ideal space. We live in multitudes of spaces, rather. Let all spaces come in...if they bother....

It is about frames of mind as 'beings in a post-cultural-ideological-unevenly globalised scenario' where ghettoism of all kinds dominates but strategies of more effective kinds are generated to meet with ghettoisms.

V Santhakumar: When I was young (in the mid-eighties) and was an activist, I had good relationships with a number of young girls who were socially concerned, and eager to break the then existing restrictions on girls/women. Most of them were from middle class or lower middle class backgrounds. However, they could not sustain that activism/concern, mainly because a conventional marriage is seen as the most important thing for a girl; and to be married, they have to conform to certain social norms which were highly restrictive.

The conventional marriage is an important issue. I am not arguing against marriage...But seeing conventional marriage as the main source of social (and economic) security for girls - a norm widespread among many sections of Kerala society - creates an environment very much against the interests of women....

N P Chekkutty: The marginalisation of women and the economic stagnation in Kerala are quite interlinked. If you look back, you will see it was in the middle of seventies that Kerala’s economy reached a standstill and even registered a negative growth. From then on, the economic trends were such that women were more and more sidelined and their marginalisation and dependence on men-folk became very pronounced.

In my childhood I used to see many women, including our neighbour who was a Nair woman who fought her husband every evening as he came home dead drunk, going to work in paddy fields but by late seventies such possibilities became next to nil even in our remote village.

The social impact was very high. I know many women who had no means to live, and took to illicit brewing. I still remember one of them for whom I used to carry plenty of jaggery from the shop.

Then the only way out was the little money from the men who went to Gulf or who did some odd jobs here itself. The other option was small jobs on offer -very few- from cooperatives and traditional/cottage industries, etc, where political pulls were very strong. Women were pushed to the rear and their limited independence vanished. I can see this in my mother's and elder sister's life: My mother - who worked in the little land we had -was always strong and independent, my sister dependent on her husband. The slide in their fortunes was not to be missed.

That explains the phenomenon of missing women activists in our political sphere and the rising trend of purdahs, etc, in social sphere. They are two sides of the same coin.

But post- 90's, there is a positive trend emerging. Thanks to globalisation, new job chances are rising even in our villages. I see many girls now going to small units, to fashion hair stylists as assistants, to garment makers, to pickle units, to bank pigmy collection centres, to internet cafes, to DTP centres, and so many other things. They are now able to eke out a living and I am sure their new-found freedom in this post- 80 generation, is an indication of their economic independence.

I think like Dalits who find the economic opportunities offered by globalisation quite liberating, women also are beneficiaries of these new changes brought about by economic changes. Hence they would need to devise their own tactics to safeguard their interests when our established left parties, solely controlled by men, take a different line.

Ramakumar: I think it is a huge twist of facts to say that the revival of Kerala's economy after the late-1980s was due to globalisation. My quick points are below.

First, there was a major revival of Kerala's economy after 1987, in which agriculture and industry grew rapidly. Of course, services also grew rapidly, which indeed accelerated after 1991. This was largely remittance-driven, because globalisation involved devaluation of the Indian currency. That meant that the rupee value of remittances into Kerala increased sharply (almost doubled). For your argument to stand, it has to be said that globalisation is totally coterminous with devaluation. Then, it is not the usually tom-tommed benefits of globalisation that we are talking about.

Secondly, the same globalisation has led to a major slowdown in the State's economy after the late-1990s, leading to a huge rise in unemployment rates across men and women. Where would you account that?

Thirdly, it is totally wrong to argue that post-globalisation, there was a rise in female employment in Kerala. Post-globalisation, agriculture and traditional industries sectors, which account for a major share of female employment, have been in a crisis. In contrast, because of gender stereotyping of jobs, women are not able to get an adequate share of the new service sector or modern industry jobs. A slender expansion of female employment has taken place in trade, export oriented garment industries, ICT and tourism, but it has not compensated for the loss of employment elsewhere and is far less that what men have gained. Between 1999-00 and 2004-05, female unemployment rate in rural Kerala rose from 19.7 per cent to 20.1 per cent. In urban Kerala, this rise was from 26.4 per cent to 33.4 per cent! Where is the benefit?

Fourthly, it is a pity that you have fallen into the argument that globalisation benefits Dalits. The argument here (made by Gail Omvedt, Chandrabhan Prasad and others) is that globalisation is a process by which choices of agents in the economy expand, thereby expanding modernity and thereby helping to break down historical barriers of caste discrimination. Here, globalisation is considered as synonymous with capitalism, which, it is argued, Marx and other writers had seen as progressive. The proponents of the positive view conflate the notions of classical capitalism (that Marx talked about in a positive sense) and “imperialism” of the present era. The outcome is that they do not see any role for the state in either promoting development or in fighting imperialism. The state is seen only as an instrument of oppression. The state is not seen as a bulwark in the national development project. The state is also not seen as essential for resisting imperialism.

Look at the data. The pace of poverty reduction has fallen after 1991 in India. That means that some people who could have been lifted out of poverty were not lifted out. Who were these people? Brahmins? Clearly, it were the Dalits and Adivasis of India (and Kerala).

Anandi Krishnan: But post- 90's, there is a positive trend emerging. Thanks to globalisation, new job chances are rising even in our villages…They are now able to eke out a living and their new-found freedom is an indication of their economic independence.

Correct, in a sense. But a girl working in such petty jobs are secondary educated, graduates or PGs and the income she gets is below Rs. 2000 with which she cannot eke out a living, but her ‘middle-class’ needs can be met. (Since most of the jobs she takes up are receptionist or sales type her appearance is counted, which needs lots of money.) She is a reserve army (In a silks store, a sales girl told me that if the customer refused to take a product, the wage of the sales girl in the respective counter will be cut. She is employed, still she is economically dependent. On my travel, I used to talk to these girls and many of them are doing some other small work too. Today's situation insists a woman and also a man to do two or three types of odd jobs to make both ends meet.
The other class of women, mentioned above, is completely thrown out of their job (for which globalisation has played a role.) The agrarian crisis all over the country has created havoc in the lives of peasant women, which reflects in the migration studies. (Sainath explained his experience of staying with the migrants of Mehboob Nagar.) Most of these women are in the unorganised sector, where the wage structure and working conditions are pathetic.(Now that they all come under the welfare schemes, still I have doubts whether what they want is welfare schemes or wage raise?) With NREGA and other reforms, why selling of wives? Where is the Central Governments' policy and promises to increase jobs? How did they fail, and why state governments are keeping mum?
So sad the word ‘labour,’ ‘labourer’, and ‘proletariat’ are also outdated but they all exist very much in this same society, and nobody is bothered. Even the university studies are concentrated on textual analysis and halla-bulla about violence and sexuality. These are the manifestations of the disease.

N P Chekkutty: I think I will be brief with regard to two specific issues I have to address here:

1. Ram says my contention that the pick up in Kerala economy in the past few decades was not because of new economic policies, but owing devaluation of rupee and other circumstances. He also reminds me that the poverty reduction rates have come down in the post-90 days and the losers were not Brahmins but people like Dalits.

This is a point which is hotly contested in every sphere and I am aware my position is quite apart from that of Ram and others like him. I feel it is better to agree do disagree.

2. Anandi points to the fact that economic development while helped some among the poor, has hit many others, like those in agricultural sector.

Yes, the results of these policies have benefited/affected differently people among different segments. Some have benefited, some seems to have become worse off. But my main point was that the women seem to have slowly emerged out of the extremely difficult situation they faced in the seventies and eighties and there is an indication of a new independence among them through access to jobs and income. It is for the state and society to find out who are the losers and help them out. But the fact remains that though minimal and not satisfactory, there is a tendency which is positive and I am happy about it.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

G S Bhargava Passes Leaving Memories of a Great Editor and Human Being

I HAVE to write this in a hurry, but I cannot hold it for another day because G S Bhargava was one person who helped me come up in the profession of journalism, fighting against so many odds.

The day I stepped into the old biscuit company premises of Indian Express, at Domal Guda just off the Tank Bund in Hyderabad, some time in early 1985, the person who caught my fancy was the tall, elegant gentleman who had a pipe in his mouth and kept on talking in Telugu mixed with English or English mixed with Telugu.

He was easy, affable and always accessible, unlike the other biggies in the office who kept you nervous trainee journalists at a distance. As I went in and reported, he smiled and told me Malayali journos were often trouble and hoped I too would keep up the tradition.

I don't know who he meant, but before I reached there people like Mony Mathews, now with Business Line in Thiruvananthapuram, had been making headlines in the Express desk there, and others like R Shankar and Talita Mathews were also at the desk; Shankar a fine gentleman menon from Guruvayur who spoke softly and Talita, a bulky young lady with short cropped hair and a sharp tongue, among others.

It was fun to be there, learning the tricks of the trade, often accepting the choicest abuses from the desk chief and news editor with a smile...

Bhargava was the presiding deity; he liked all and of course he liked the girls more. His family was away in Delhi and some times they flew down to Hyderabad and he brought his kids to the office once or twice and made our dreary life very happy.

First, he thought I was a real stupid guy. I was diffident and could not speak English much, and naturally when I addressed him my mouth went dry and my words often played hide and seek. Once he told me, you came from Kerala and I will see to it that you will go home in no time. Talita took up my defence and kept me under her wings...

But soon his wonderful humanity was visible even to me. He was such a large-hearted, generous person and his political views were left of centre, basically socialist. He had close association with the Indian socialists and was involved in many of their political movements.

Like all good socialists, he was critical of the communists and he knew I used to be a Marxist student activist. But unlike true socialists, he was very friendly even to commies and was always willing to talk to you, engage you in a debate even if you had been the most junior chap in the staff. Once, after he had retired and shifted to Delhi, he came to Hyderabad he came to the Express office and took me out and we had a long talk on some topic on which he had been writing in Mainstream or some other publication at that time. I had my different views and expressed them in a letter, and he was ready listen to me. In fact, it appears that he had a special liking for me as we came to know each other much closer, because on one of his final days in Express, after he had decided to shift to Delhi leaving Express, he came to the desk with a couple of books and handed them over to me. It was a parting gift from a great man to a boy who had come from far away with none to claim as a godfather in the profession.

I bow my head in memory of a great person, a doyen among Indian journalists, who has just passed leaving the profession that much poorer. His last book was a history of Indian journalism, published by National Book Trust. One of my regrets would remain my inability to visit him at his Green Parks residence in Delhi during those days I spent there. Parsa Venkateswar Rao Jjr, now a senior editor with DNA, who worked with us in Hyderabad, had promised to take there as he was indisposed, but unfortunately we could never make it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Patriarchy, Imbibed Norms and Values: Need for Introspection

Eloquent Silences: A Discussion Part Two

N P Chekkutty: Well, what I was trying to say is this: About the convoluted expressions of empowerment in our society, especially among women. I do not claim that men are different. But what makes me worried and why I try to provoke my female friends to think and react, is another trend that I see: Women slowly emerging as the most dependable foot-soldiers of the most retrograde and negative social and political forces.

The classic example of this trend was at the site of Babri destruction. Those who were there to report it (I was not there) could not ignore the ugly sense of jubilation shown especially by females of the Sangh, Sadhwi Ritambhara and Uma Bharati, etc, while people like Vajpayee and even Advani had expressed some shock, at least in public.

I was also referring to the same tendency that was witnessed in places like Maradu (Uma Unni was the quintessential expression o f woman power of the Sangh) and in Nadapuram, where the most virulent and unrepentant group proved to be women.(See the case of Vineeta Kottayi, a widow who was persecuted for over a decade by KSKTU people led by a couple Balan and Narayani. Even the local CPM had to take a stand against them finally.)

That I think calls for some rethinking on the assumption of social scientists that women as a group are normally less prone to violence, are more accommodative in a secular set up, etc.

John Samuel: This is precisely where we have different perspectives. There is nothing like a homogeneous category of ‘women’ or ‘men’- beyond their physical/biological differences. Multiple identities are as much operational among women as much as among men- class, cast, religion, locality, sexual orientation, etc, etc.

Both women and men can be perpetrators of patriarchy. In fact, many such values may be perpetuated by women- partly because of the internalized 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-- by any stretch of imagination.

N P Chekkutty: I do not find much of a difference between what I said, and the positions of John. Even when most women internalize patriarchal views and propagate them, it still remains patriarchy. Even if many men internalize a feminist point of view, it does not erase patriarchy.

That again takes us back to square one.

It is not a question of not knowing what is wrong; but not willing to overcome it, not willing to struggle to free ourselves of these internalized norms, not willing to fight for our own freedom.

Here, this struggle can only be an individual struggle, a fight against one's own hidden demons, not a collective one, though ideologies could help us at best to some extent.But sadly, ideology is nothing but a sham, a mirror image. The self-proclaimed progressive turns out to be the rabid obscurantist; the hated communalist, a sensible human being...

That is why I feel all of us need to keep talking. Whether in this group or outside, we need to talk and engage. Unless we do so and try to understand each other, there is no way out, no way ahead.

I will end this note with a small anecdote, something I experienced a few weeks ago:

It was vacation and two children came to spend a few days with us.
As we were sitting at the dining table, the younger one, a very smart guy aged four, asked me innocently: Uncle, are you a Hindu?

I was shocked, but also amused. I said, No, I am Muslim...

I saw he did not like it at all. His face showed it.

Sometime later he declared he did not like Madhavikkutty.
I asked, Why?
Because she became a Muslim...

You know who is Madhavikkutty?
No, he did not know...

Neither did the Nazi kids know who were the hated Jews.

I am deeply troubled and sad not only about the kid but about me too. It was my fault, or our collective fault; our collective silence, our internalized norms at work here. But I see the child is a victim of a criminal indoctrination. And who did it?

I only hope we will see reason and try to tell our kid better stories, give them better ideas that they would not end up cannon-fodder in a fratricidal war not too far away.

V Santhakumar: How do we internalize casteist, fundamentalist, obscurantist and patriarchal values and how to get over them are interesting questions. The fact that YSR (who may have been brought up in a Hindu landlord family) became (an eclectic) Christian and that it did not prevent millions of ordinary Andhrites from adoring him is interesting. However when the same people want his son to be the CM, we see an element of backwardness; this may be showing that all these apparent identity struggles are the reflection of something underlying....

Neelan says that the decline of the left led to the revival of reactionary forces.Yes it is true that the leftist forces did play a role in bringing up secular, non-casteist, non-obscurantist (but not necessarily non-patriarchal) values in Kerala society. We see a revivalism today. My take is that this is due to the (lack of) credibility of signals sent by leftist forces. Some parts have become outdated to even common sense... The messages of modernity combined with this outdated ones cannot communicate credibly to the youngsters who are likely to be idealist...

Let us take a typical boy/girl: that type is likely to think that we should be more environment friendly, the attack of Bush on Iraq is a crime, less likely to think that people should be marrying only within caste, less likely to think that killing others for politics/religion is good, likely to consider poverty something horrible, etc. My point is that the ground for idealism still exists. They may be even open to greater equality between boys and girls. But they are less likely to be influenced by Communist party's slogans or actions today. Saying one thing and doing something else regarding education, advocating that globalization is bad when everybody is trying to get a job outside or in a company exporting knowledge to outside world....

There is a possibility for building on this idealism to nurture anti-casteist, anti-obscurantist, non-fundamentalist, and less-patriarchal values. Unfortunately this cannot be done by the leftist forces today. Sad part is that no one else is trying to build on this idealism, a value system suitable to a modern world...

R V G Menon: Chekkutty, I suspect the two young guests you had are being brought up in an environment where they don't come into contact with anyone outside their own caste or creed, and are constantly being fed with stories about how ‘bad’ the ‘others’ are. Quite often parents are the very source of such indoctrination. Unfortunately, this is quite common in our society. It is quite possible that this was so, even earlier. But we had many public spaces, like the public schools, where this sort of indoctrination could be countered in a natural way. Unfortunately these spaces are also shrinking now.

Some time back I had recounted the results of a study, which showed how children are systematically being routed to denominational schools, where most of the children and all the teachers belong to only that particular denomination (either Christian, Hindu or Muslim).

I can imagine no other antidote than strengthening the common schools system to counter this peril. Let children of all castes, creeds and classes sit side by side and intermingle, and get to know each other. There is no other way. Even in the case of unaided schools, let it be mandatory that the schools should reflect the population profile of the region where it is located.

N P Chekkutty: Yes RVG, I agree with you. We need to strengthen public schools and the experiences with my own children tell me the same thing. There is something in the very atmosphere of a government school/college that makes the children shed much of the inherited notions about their class/caste importance, their social and economic status and other rubbish and help them reach out to others. That makes them better human beings. Though I do not consider myself a very fortunate person, I do think I am lucky in this sense that I find both my children sensible enough to understand the complexity of our pluralist society and I am sure they picked it up mainly from the government educational institutions where they went.

But the parental role in shaping kids is much more important. The kids I spoke about are an example of what happens. They live with their mother and grandmother as their father is away in the Gulf. The women, for a variety of practical reasons, keep to themselves and that restricts the scope for kids to see the world as it is. Most often, the kids are sent to 'prestigious' educational institutions, meaning caste/ community based schools which charge a fat fee and do not allow the kids even to talk in their mother tongue.

This situation in Kerala puts a lot of responsibility on the mother, she is often the sole person interacting with the kids as in most families where the husband is away, coming home only once in two or three years.

Anandi Krishnan: I agree with Chekkutty that women took a communal role in many riots including Maradu. Yes. The educated Kerala has Nair woman, Muslim woman, Ezhava woman, Dalit woman, etc. (like our matrimonial ads which say, Ezava sundari, Dheevara sundari, Pulaya sundari, Nair sundari, Maraar sundari, etc. )Women are not a homogenous category. Caste-wise, religion wise and class wise there is a divide.

Political space is no more a public space for women in Kerala. It was, once upon a time. That does not mean that she is free from any sort of exploitation. As many have pointed out, there is a communal divide and going back to tradition which is becoming more and more visible in Kerala. Yes, in the so called ‘educated Kerala’. How far our education has worked as a liberating force in the society? It was a liberating force during 20th century - no doubt, all the communal organizations of late 19th and early 20th century have raised the issue of education, especially women’s education. From Yogakshema Sabha to Sadhujana Paripalana Samiti, every community organization called for change. Above all, colonialism and imperialism along with casteism were fought tooth and nail with the help of education. .

How Kerala lives and Kerala thinks clearly reveal the social mobility in Kerala society created by education. It has only helped them to become glorified educated housewives is quite pathetic. And that is the paradox of Kerala’s development model. Can we say that our education today is carrying out this role of liberating people from the shackles of social anarchy?

I agree that Sarojini Naidu and many other women were involved in the national movement. These were individual women. A close study of these women in freedom struggle reveals that those whose brother/husband/father were in the movement only could get involved in it. Akkamma Cherian, A.V. Kuttimaalu Amma, Gracy Aron, Verkot Narayani Amma, Dhakshayani, Parvathi Ayyappan, Arya Pallam, Swarnakumari Menon, and many others.

But that is not an issue. Individual women are not a factor. How many women could become a part of the Salt Satygraha? Why Gandhiji was against taking women to Dhandi? Women from all over India had requested and fought with Gandhiji, sent dissent notes to him that he has avoided women. From Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and also from Kerala, women raised their voices against Gandhiji’s attitude. (Recent critiques of Gandhiji in the books Gender and Nation: Breaking Out of Invisibility, Women in the National Movement, etc, are revealing.) During 1942 when Kuttimaalu Amma was selected by Gandhiji for Individual Satyagraha, (Vykthi Satyagraham) how her needs were ignored has been written about in her diary. Akkamma Cherian’s role in fighting the government in Travancore was tremendous, but still nowhere in history the students are taught any of the details. Kerala society has never digested women who articulated /articulate against the existing societal views. It is true that the patriarchy in Kerala psyche has to be studied.

There is no point in blaming the left alone. As the great Valluvar has said when we point our finger to others, the other three fingers are pointing towards us. All of us are responsible for such a plight.

(To be continued.)

Eloquent Silences: Why Do Women Keep Silent in Public Sphere?

A Discussion: Part One

RECENTLY I was involved in a pretty long discussion at fourth-estate critique, a Google group, which went on for many days, and I realize some very interesting points emerged out of.

Here I post an edited version of it for the benefit of my readers, with thanks to the participants for permission to use their comments here:

N P Chekkuty: In the self-introductions here, I found two comments which gave me reasons to think:

1.Often feels that [this forum] is highly andocentric. (Anandi)
2. As feminists have pointed out, politicized spaces require personal time to spare, machismo, ego, gawkiness, and willingness to get involved into online standoffs – attributes historically associated more with masculinity rather than femininity (C S Chandrika.)

I was somewhat confused and intrigued why do they feel it that way. Is there something in this forum and its topics and ways of discussion that make women feel aloof, uninterested? C S Chandrika gives a hint, describing it as a politicized space, historically associated with masculine.

I do feel we may have to look elsewhere for the reason why open spaces are predominantly male spaces, or perhaps why do open spaces are given a wide berth by women in our society. I feel it has much more to do with the social life in Kerala and the deep feudal mindset we still do nourish even among the progressives.

I found some interesting observations in Amartya Sen's book, Argumentative Indian, where he tackles the question, whether females were excluded from our argumentative/political tradition.

He seems to think, No. He points out that the Indian National Congress had its first president (Sarojini Naidu, 1925) 50 years before UK's ruling party had a woman as their chief (Margaret Thatcher, 1975.)

Then he goes back in history: In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is a great debate with Yagnavalkya in which his stoutest opponent is Gargi. Another major interlocutor is Maithreyi, whose point about the individual wealth and personal achievement proved to be a starting point for his own research on growth and welfare, he says.

So if women could be fiercely argumentative in the past, why not today?

Kavitha Balakrishnan: As far as I understand, one should take into consideration that this forum is so far limited to 'a class of people' and 'a class of topics', like international relations, economics, current affairs etc. A forum mainly of economists, diplomats and journalists, etc.

Yet anybody can break in when feel like, when finds a topic of one's area of expertise, when get time, etc. But no guarantee that they will be treated and taken further with due importance that they imagine they will get in 'cultural circles'.

But why should it necessarily be? This is not a 'representative' forum of diverse communities or identities. This is a very limited forum but made out of resourceful, informative and scholarly people in some ways or the other, yet with lots of limitations to initiate an inclusive attitude to many things that are yet out of one's academic rigors and logics. So I think this is not simply a gender problem; even more serious than that: the limits of our reasoning and intellectual articulations....

N P Chekkutty: In a personal note, a friend says:

As a marunadan Malayali from Trissur, with a deep sense of nostalgia and pride for my land and its people, this paradox has been extremely intriguing. Kerala is no Bihar. Women are educated, financially independent; but disempowered, lack freedom and choices.

But let me ask: Is it true?

Peripherally, it appears women in Kerala are much better compared to other states, statistics also say the same. Hence naturally, they should have been more empowered, more active politically and socially, though what we witness in Kerala today is a reverse trend, the women returning the safety of marakkudas or all-covering purdahs in public.

Every day as I travel in the city buses in Kozhikode, I see with a sense of helplessness the larger and larger number of Muslim women who have now started covering their entire face, leaving just a hole for the eyes, something which I had never seen in the past. I was at my village for the Onam and I found women with similar dress in buses and markets while in the past they were merrily moving about in their colourful kachithuni and long blouses.

Then in trains that travel through Potta, I see the same phenomenon. Larger and larger number of women, frenzied in their ways and unconcerned about their surroundings. Pay a visit to the Mata's ashram or Sri Sri's classes, the same is the scene. Women abound, they make the public space in all those places mainly.

I do feel strongly that this de-politicization of women and their estrangement from social and political action has deeply wounded our society. In Maradu and Nadapuram, I had seen the dangerous portents of it, as one cannot help the conclusion that one of the primary forces behind the rabid communalization of and sectarianism in the society there happen to be women. (In the first instance, it is a Hindutva variety, while in the second it is predominantly secular and Marxist.)

It is for women to tell us why do they go more and more to such depths, cut and run from our common lives? It does them no good, it does the society no good.

Neelan Neelakantan: The whole Kerala of society is going back adorning themselves with signs which were once considered reactionary and rejected. Poonool is back! Chandanam is replaced by Raktha Chandanam, which one finds very violent a sign. Youngsters with jeans and Raktha Chandanam on the forehead make a strange sight these days. Purdah is common. When the real left politics and ideology gets weakened, all the reactionary ritualistic signs will re-appear. They will be renamed as new "cultural identities’ and justified ...

John Samuel: I wonder whether the kind of trend you have mentioned is specific to one gender- women.

In fact, the "patriarchal" power is perpetuated by the men - who control religious establishment, consumer stores and institutions of spirituality and religion. It seems there is nothing new in the fact that women seem to be more in to "bhakti" mode or more manifestly religious or spiritual. This also may have to do with ‘family' behavioral pattern (again perpetuated by a patriarchy). And there is nothing new about the trend- about relatively more 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 "cultural", "spiritual" "creative", "reproductive" and "fertility" 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 with "gender"- or say that "why women are like that?" Of course, we tend to see what we look for.

The new revival of religion- and "spiritual" customer-care oriented new market approach has a lot to do with new sense of alienation and insecurity - in the midst of economic growth, increasing disintegration of community/family spaces, saturation of "secular" dreams, and increasing sense of social, economic and political insecurity, as well as political reactions to perceived sense of marginalization, exclusion etc. So it is nothing peculiar to Kerala. This is happening all over Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia, Europe and the USA.

The new revivalism is also partly a reactionary response to and partly a byproduct of aggressive economic globalization. These days there are many "drive in Churches"- very customer-care oriented, well-marketed, no-strings attached- of course one is expected to pay for a well-organized/managed "Sunday" service. There is no-community or real communion. They are the new service providers in a new market place- because there is new demand for a particularly packaged "psycho-comfort," "feel-good" product- available, accessible and affordable.

We need serious discussions and explorations about the "gender spaces" in Kerala. We need to explore the apparent dichotomies and tensions of such gender-power relationship in the ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ spaces.

There are serious contradictions in Kerala between the perceived ‘empowerment’ of women- taking the social development and gender-development indicators and real ‘disempowerment’- particularly in the private spaces of family and ‘intimate’ spaces of bedrooms, though seemingly ‘empowered’ in the public sphere.

(To be continued.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Laughing Gas

Arrested underworld characters taken to the state with police, media in tow: news

Every goon has his day...!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

YSR Succession: One Must Earn Power and Not Land it as Family Legacy

THE DEATH of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy is sad indeed, but sadder seems to be the sudden pitch for making his son, Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, the new chief minister.

The Hindu report, by my old colleague, S Nagesh Kumar -- who was with Indian Express in the mid eighties when I was in Hyderabad-- today refers to this move by a section of the legislators who claim that there are around a hundred MLAs who are fans of the younger Reddy. Another report in the inside pages tell us that these gentlemen are now threatening a split in the party if the claims of the son is not accepted by the Congress high command, even before the body of the senior leader, who was one of the most successful Congress politicians in Andhra Pradesh for many decades, has been cremated!

I do not think this is the time to think about the legitimacy of the claims of Jagan Mohan Reddy, a 36-year- old Parliament Member, who runs a new media company with newspapers and television channel in Telugu, which came into being during the tenure of YSR who came to power in 2004.

But the trend is unmistakable and disturbing. It goes against the legacy of democracy and democratic principles in succession. But the Congress itself is to blame, as this party has, over many decades, converted itself into a family concern, a private property of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The benefit of that legacy is now being claimed by other regional satraps, and our own K Karunakaran was one of the early practitioners of this Doctrine of Family Legacy when he was powerful enough to make his son an MP and then KPCC president and minister and all that. Let us also remember that it was Defence Minister A K Antony, then KPCC president and now a member of the Congress high command’s core committee, who helped Karunakaran to get away with it as he himself nominated Muralidharan to the Congress list of candidates for the Lok Sabha as the leader had gone for a leak…!

Now the story has come full circle. Those less fortunate guys who had to give way to the Leader’s son way back in eighties are now in control of the KPCC and Muralidharan is out in the cold, trying to get back into the party. He wants a simple membership and nothing more but the party leaders here do not want him at all despite all the pressures his frail father could exert with the high command.

I do feel there is lesson in it for Jagan Mohan Reddy and all other highly ambitious Congress siblings (and of course to non-Congress siblings too): You earn power and not get it as a family legacy which you cannot keep.