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Making Space for Feminist Social Critique in Contemporary Kerala

Women's literary writing in Kerala has gained a fairly wide market. Even as younger women authors have succeeded in breaking earlier stereotypes and frameworks of depiction, the category of 'pennezhuthu' has come to be questioned as a defining term that limits, instead of enabling. Incisive feminist critiques of contemporary patriarchy now draw upon a variety of disciplines, with the result that long held notions defining Malayalee womanhood are being questioned with increasing regularity. Concomitantly, stereotyped frameworks and the pulls of the market continue to exercise a powerful influence. It makes it all the more necessary to foster independent initiatives in feminist knowledge generation in Kerala. "Women's Imprint", a women's publishing venture in Malayalam is involved in such efforts to help create new networks of resistance and towards ensuring that gender remains a contested category in public debate.

Making Space for Feminist Social Critique in Contemporary Kerala

Women’s literary writing in Kerala has gained a fairly wide market. Even as younger women authors have succeeded in breaking earlier stereotypes and frameworks of depiction, the category of ‘pennezhuthu’ has come to be questioned as a defining term that limits, instead of enabling. Incisive feminist critiques of contemporary patriarchy now draw upon a variety of disciplines, with the result that long held notions defining Malayalee womanhood are being questioned with increasing regularity. Concomitantly, stereotyped frameworks and the pulls of the market continue to exercise a powerful influence. It makes it all the more necessary to foster independent initiatives in feminist knowledge generation in Kerala. “Women’s Imprint”, a women’s publishing venture in Malayalam is involved in such efforts to help create new networks of resistance and towards ensuring that gender remains a contested category in public debate.



hese are times in which the marginality of women to public life in Kerala is increasingly coming under critical scrutiny. The issue, it appears, is not really the invisibility of women in public arenas. Indeed, the vast expansion of the media since the early 1990s has assured that the “sites of enunciation” have increased phenomenally as far as gender issues are concerned: we have now, an ever-increasing number of talk shows, discussions and special slots for gender issues on TV. The attention that the mainstream media pays to such issues is also not negligible. In the discourse of development, a dominant presence in the Malayalee cultural sphere since the mid-20th century, “women” have always been a significant presence, especially as a way to represent Kerala as the utopia of social development. This continues with telling variations in the present era of “gender mainstreaming”. However, we question glib readings that interpret the greater visibility of women as evidence for the widening of their access to the public.

The decade of the 1990s also saw the firming of the feminist presence in the arena of politics in Kerala. The implementation of the 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in local bodies has brought a considerable number of women into these bodies. “Gender mainstreaming” has also proceeded apace, and now “gender training” is an eminently familiar, technical and mostly nonthreatening term. The Kerala government’s “women-oriented poverty mission” has been lauded as a successful innovation in women’s empowerment. Yet, the extent to which these initiatives have been successful in politicising women is still doubtful; the possibilities they offer, too, appear mixed. It is also important to remember that the government’s efforts to mainstream gender took place precisely in a period of accentuated confrontation between the feminist movement in Kerala and almost all sections of entrenched political society, which was certainly a major way in which feminists grabbed the attention of the mainstream media. In these struggles, the feminist movement relied heavily upon the judiciary and the media, which did bring certain gains.1 However, the fatal flaws in this strategy were all too evident in the wake of adverse legal judgments, particularly, the recent high court judgment in the infamous Suryanelli serial rape case. Indeed, this reminds us that the media visibility women have gained, and the new possibilities opened up by gender mainstreaming cannot in any way replace feminist activism or intellectual work in the public.

Yet the 1990s and after have also opened up unmistakable possibilities. The twists and turns of feminist politics in this period have alerted us to the need for greater reflection on the challenges of building genuinely pluralist politics.2 These critical insights offer hope for complex and incisive forms of feminist social critique and activism. Secondly, the 1990s and after have also seen a greater number of Malayalee women migrating to universities and research institutions in the national metropolises and abroad, attaining higher levels of competence in the social sciences and humanities. Today, the possibility of extending the scope, sophistication and sensitivity of feminist social critique in Kerala seems to have grown in unprecedented ways. Within Kerala’s own university system, critical spaces – such as in the women’s studies units and centres – are being slowly cleared.3 This reflects in the relative rise of scholarly writings by women and in the number of active women participants in public debates in the 1990s and after. Thirdly, though women are still in the lower rungs of the media in Kerala, more women now work in the media than ever before. Lastly, though an explicitly feminist position in literary writing – ‘pennezhuthu’ in Malayalam – has faced considerable hostile criticism both from masculinist critics and women authors to whom it appeared to be yet another form of labelling or ghettoisation, women writers continue to produce powerful critiques of everyday patriarchy in Kerala.

Against this backdrop, we wish to reflect upon the history of gender difference in Kerala’s public sphere and its contemporary shape. Also, we would like to put forward a few thoughts on the link between feminist political and intellectual work in Kerala in the present.


Something in the shape of a “public sphere” began to concretise in Malayalee society only around the second half of the 19th century. In this arena, ‘public interest” became the key concern, and issues came to be debated in its terms. By this we mean the formation of many fora of discussion, in which participants who had acquired certain sorts of skills attempted rational deliberations on issues and themes that were identified as “public”.4 The earliest journals were brought out by the missionaries in Malabar and Travancore,5 which were concerned both with proselytising as well as introducing western -Christian ideas of society, morality and modern science. Soon, however, newspapers and journals began to articulate the “public interest”. Governments began to be criticised sharply enough to provoke retaliation [Raghavan 1985: 61]. This field was shaped in and through the confluence of several elements of change in the socio-cultural environment in the highly charged political situation of late 19th and early 20th century Kerala: the solidifying of the politico-administrative machinery of modern government with its effects upon the social organisation and the distribution of power and authority; mission establishments with their increasing dissemination of western knowledge; new notions of religion, faith and ritual; new technologies like printing; the emergence of new modes, techniques and ethics of economic production, and new ideals of individual achievement; the formation of a reading public; the emergence of the modern literary institution; the emergence of new forms of social interaction such as debating societies, reading clubs and women’s associations; the appearance of new institutions like those of community formation/reform. The public sphere had by these times certainly emerged as the space in which new forces contended with established socio-cultural and political forces for hegemony. The privileged groups who seemed able to harness public life to their ends were largely the modern educated or those who had gained early access to and familiarity with modern ideas and institutions, for example, sections of the nairs or the Tamil brahmins. Later other groups joined them, which were much lower down in the local caste hierarchy, like the ezhavas. Those excluded were generally far away from contact with modern ideas and institutions – for example, both ‘antarjanams’ (Malayala brahmin women, who were obviously upper caste, but strictly forbidden from any form of public exposure), and most of the poor labouring classes were equally excluded from the public sphere.

Significantly, this emergent institution was an already-gendered space (in its assigning of “special slots” for women in women’s associations or magazines) and a gendering one as well (in the very circulation of new ideals of gendered subjectivity within it). Early discussions on the established order of caste in Malayalee society frequently put forth, directly and indirectly, the ideal of a society based on gender difference as the alternative. This ideal society, it was often claimed, would be rooted in what appeared ordained by nature/god-gender difference. It was and projected as characterised by the broad division of social space into the public and the domestic, deemed appropriate for men and women, respectively. Thus, publications that focused on “general”/“public” issues assumed the presence of a “general reader” defined in male terms, and as someone capable of participating in public debates on equal terms with all others. However, “women’s magazines”, starting from the later 19th century publication Keraleeya Sugunabodhini onwards, largely identified as their reader the woman seeking advice about transforming herself in the shape of the ideal womanly self, ensconced in the modern domestic domain. Precisely because of the preponderance of pedagogic concerns and the overwhelming direction of their critical gaze towards “tradition” and “superstition”, the public appeared in them as largely ‘lokaparichayam’ (familiarity with the world) or a thoroughly apolitical ‘pothuvijnanam’ (general knowledge). This is not to ignore that there were some powerful efforts to shake this idea up in the 1930s. This was evident in the writings, for instance, of first-generation Malayalee feminists like Anna Chandy, Parvati Nenminimangalam and Kochattil Kalyanikutty Amma, or in magazines like the Mahila, which tried to attain a balance between critique and pedagogy. Women also continued to write critical articles on a range of social issues that directly or indirectly touched them, for instance, in women’s columns in magazines like Kaumudi in the 1950s. However, these have largely left the predominance of pedagogy untouched: it continues to define the print media that addresses a female readership to a very considerable extent even today.

The interventions of the first generation feminists indeed deserve greater attention. These women belonged to the early generation of modern educated women in Malayalee society, many of them were employed in modern institutions that continued to expand in these times. They did not question the solidity of the “natural” divide between men and women that allegedly assigned to them specific sets of qualities, dispositions and preferences, which in turn made them suitable for the public and domestic domains, respectively. Indeed, their strategy was to blur the boundaries between the public and the domestic, to point out that there were emergent institutions in the public, such as schools, hospitals, reformatories – even the police – and so on, where “womanly qualities” seemed absolutely at home.6 But they did make significant effort to alter the pedagogic mode of addressing women dominant in the Malayalee public sphere, and limiting such discussions to women’s magazines and associations. For instance, Anna Chandy, a prominent early feminist in Kerala and Kerala’s first woman lawyer, literally barged into a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram in 1928, to make a long speech that brilliantly refuted the arguments made by Sadasyatilakam T K Velu Pillai, a powerful intellectual in Travancore in those times, against the government’s decision to employ a few women [Chandy (1929) 2005:113-29]. In 1932, another prominent woman intellectual, B Bhageeraty Amma, protested in the Sahitya Parishad conference held at Ernakulam against the organisers’ decision to allow women speakers only in the session set apart for them, and not allow them into the general sessions (reported in ‘Mahilabhashanam’, The Mahila 12 (4,5) 1933: 158). These authors were also careful not to direct their critical gaze exclusively towards traditional forms of patriarchy and engage with emergent modern forms as well – such as dowry [see Amma (1912) 2005: 67-74].

These women also sought to politicise the category of “women”, projecting “women” as a group that faced common forms of oppression despite their differences in location and social endowment. This was evident in their demands for greater representation of women in the new political institutions such as legislatures, and reservation for women in government employment. In the 1930s when communal politics gained extraordinary significance and presence in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar [Rangaswamy 1981; Ouwerkerk 1994; Menon 1994], these arguments were either rejected or accepted with strong qualifications. Attempts by women members in the legislatures of Travancore and Kochi to introduce legislation on behalf of “women’” met with considerable suspicion. For instance, in the discussion on the Child Marriage Restraint Bill introduced in the Cochin legislative council by Thankamma N Menon in 1940, the well known reformer Sahodaran K Ayappan argued that since the bill would affect Tamil brahmins most, it should not be passed without their approval. To this, Menon argued that it affected

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

women most directly, and as a women she was well within rights to have introduced the bill.7

Male intellectuals, “modern” and “traditional”, seem to have been wary of these moves. Their responses ranged from outright hostility to highly qualified acceptance. Hostility, bordering on misogyny, was evident in the hugely popular writings of prominent male intellectuals known for their humour – the latter becoming a vehicle for the expression of thoroughly misogynist fears. There were shades of these, of course, which ranged from E V Krishna Pillai’s exhortation through his male character in his play Pennarashunaadu (The land were women rule) to the (shamed and tamed) feminist wife that she should “… go straight to the kitchen, you must attend to the children. You must guide the formation of my character. You must help, serve, nurse me, as my queen, my servant, my mother, my teacher” [Pillai (1936) 1980: 400], to less pronounced or cryptic forms. Thus the well known author Sanjayan (pseudonym for M R Nair) commented in the 1930s about Kochattil Kalyanikutty Amma’s travelogue Njan Kanda Europe (The Europe I saw) that the only change it required was a change in the title. His suggestion that it be changed to Europe Kanda Kalyanikutty Amma (Kalyanikutty Amma, who saw Europe) reflected his fear of female individuation and public presence. Sanjayan’s sigh over the quarrelsome women speakers of “these days” in his obituary of the author Teravath Ammalu Amma who he celebrates as the paragon of female virtue that consolidates itself in “legitimate space” and desires nothing more is also telling [Sanjayan (1936) 1970: 163-64]. Women who ventured to seek a place in the emergent political institutions faced even greater troubles: Anna Chandy who contested the elections in Travancore in 1931 had to face indecent posters in Thiruvananthapuram (editorial, Nazrani Deepika, 1931). The editorial she wrote in the journal Shreemati when she lost, protesting against unfair tactics evoked a clearly misogynist response from a leading newspaper, the Malayalarajyam [Beemar 1931].

After the 1940s, however, this generation seems to have gone into decline. Some of these women did figure in development activism (like, for instance, Parvaty Ayyappan and Konniyur Meenakshi Amma), but have remained largely unnoticed or even unremembered. Later the public debate on gender difference deteriorated considerably; the projection of the ideal homemaker as the ultimate goal of women’s self-fashioning became steadily entrenched in public discussions. Not least among the reasons for this decline, it appears, were the by-now well-charted shifts in the advancement of demands on behalf of “women” as the national movement intensified at the national level, and the strengthening of the left forces at the local level. It has been pointed out that the decade of the 1940s, which made visible the huge social and economic divides between women, had a definite impact upon the efforts to secure demands on behalf of “women”. Women who entered the public largely entered the political – nationalist or communist – mainstream, and gender, in various ways, came to be regarded as secondary to “national” interests, or questions of nation, class and community [Forbes 2000, Roy 2002]. The first generation feminists in Kerala failed to respond creatively to changing political circumstances. Their political conservatism, combined with their intense elitism which prevented them from regarding working class women as anything more than “raw material” that needed to be moulded into ideal womanly selves, under the guidance of more “enlightened” women, probably contributed hugely to their marginalisation.8 This, we feel, should be taken fully into account, even as we criticise the intense masculinism of all powerful political movements in mid20th century Kerala, including the left.

Like elsewhere in India, in Kerala too, women activists in the nationalist and on the left came to be increasingly sidelined. Even where they survived, the anti-patriarchal agenda of these movements gradually receded, and increasingly became part of statesponsored “social welfare” activity. Gandhian women activists retreated into “social work”, often after bitter experiences (a good instance being the firebrand of the anti-Dewan movement in Travancore, Akkamma Cheriyan). In 1951, the president of the Travancore-Cochin congress committee, Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai, stated publicly, in response to questions about the huge gender gap in the Congress candidates’ list, that women in Kerala were “empresses of the home”, who have property rights, that they do not desire anything more, and that politics was not their space, anyhow. However, during the infamous “liberation struggle” against the first elected communist government (1959), the same “empresses”, rich and poor ones, were mobilised for public protest in an unprecedented way [Gopalakrishnan 1994]. But once the struggle attained its goal, these women were promptly forgotten. Indira Gandhi’s appeal to reward the women protestors by granting them more representation in the candidates’ list for the elections in 1960 fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile women were gently shooed back into either the home or at most, into “social work” (editorials, Nazrani Deepika, 1959).

In the post-independence period, unlike in the earlier legislatures, women’s interests were to be represented by particular political parties. Women workers were strongly organised by the left in the 1930s itself – the first strike by women agricultural workers took place in Kuttanad in the 1930s, and also the first trade union of women workers, among the coir workers of Ambalappuzha [Devayani 1995], issues of gender were strongly subordinated to issues of class. And the communists were no better than others, when it came to encouraging women in fullfledged political activity. In elections to the state legislature in 1960, for instance, there were but 14 women candidates in all, of whom four were communists, three were independents supported by communists and seven were Congress candidates (Nazrani Deepika, January 10, 1960). Women workers, excluded from elite womanhood, were being organised as workers, with gender struggles being circumscribed, largely subsumed under class struggle [Velayudhan 1999; Lindberg 2001]. Indeed, as an astute observer noted in the 1950s, speeches in women’s associations in those times seemed to be addressing not gender but class [Saraswati 1955]. However, the general absence of women in the early trade-union leadership has been noted, though they were active in agitation [Rammohan 1996: 158-59; Lindberg 2001]. This is despite the fact that separate factory committees were organised in many places for women workers, with fulltime women activists. They were also given special representation in union management committees. Along with annual union conferences, women’s meetings were also held. It was in such a conference, that the Mahila Sanghom was formed [Cheriyan 1993: 332-35]. However, in general, the move was towards what Lindberg has termed “effeminisation” of women workers: while the family wage, which relegated women to the status of “secondary workers” was upheld, maternity benefits were strongly fought for [Lindberg 2001].

Thus neither the attempted politicisation of the category of “women” by the first generation feminists, nor the leftist mobilisation of working class women in trade unions seriously challenged modern gender ideology. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the dominant construction of womanhood in Kerala has been wholly agreeable to state interventions in the name of social welfare and the general good, while remaining mostly inimical to any radical politicisation. Indeed, the female agency celebrated by the Kerala model resembles what Kumkum Sangari calls “women’s agency derived from consent”, a product of a certain “bargain” struck with patriarchy, which should clearly be distinguished from a “politically interventionist feminist agency” [Sangari 1999: 365]. As she argues, such agency, far from being a favourable condition for the growth of feminist consciousness, can function as a great impediment [Sangari 1999: 364]. Indeed, the experience of feminist political mobilisation in Kerala testifies to this [Devika and Kodoth 2001; Erwer 2003]. We would even argue that patriarchy in Kerala partly rests upon the agency of the “Kerala Model Woman” – the better-educated, more healthy, less fertile, new elite woman.

However, critical efforts that sought to question and reframe modern gender in non-masculinist terms largely happened in Kerala’s thriving literary public sphere. Even in its early days – in the late 19th century, the institution of modern Malayalam literature had opened up more space for women. Reviewing Tottaikkattu Ikkavu Amma’s play Subhadrarjunam in 1892, the critic C P Achyuta Menon argued that though women may well aspire to be literary authors, they should expect no “special concession” – membership would be granted solely on “literary merit” [Menon (1892) 1994:106-9]. Soon enough many women realised that such membership was not easy to secure. Reflecting on the conditions of such entry for women, K M Kunhulakshmi Kettilamma, writing in 1915, remarked that to enter the modern literary scene, women required not just the linguistic abilities (that helped in composing traditional genres like the ‘kilipattu’ or ‘champu’) but also “life experiences”, which may be acquired only if women have “social freedom” [Kettilamma (1915) 2005: 48-51]. Women’s membership in the literary institution also seemed linked with their heightened emotional natures. Indeed, the best women writers have been hailed to be “super-feminine”

– contrasted, especially, with feminists who are not. Recently, an advertisement for a collection of short stories by Madhavikutty waxed thus: “Amidst those who attain contemporary status through asserting feminism through interviews and public statements, the feminine mind that reaffirms femininity through writing…Stories which fathom women’s public and private sorrows better than anyone else. Creations that reject male authority but do not travel to the poisonous poles of man-hating…” (Mathrubhumi Weekly, April 23-29, 2006:49). In fact, the well known feminist literary intervention in the 1980s in Malayalam, ‘pennezhuthu’, was frequently faulted precisely for these latter ills.

Entrenched literary criticism in Malayalam has, since the mid20th century developed specific strategies of “taming”, in the writings of such authors as Lalitambika Antarjanam, K Saraswati Amma, and Madhavikutty, which systematically reduced to the terms set by modern gender ideology. Antarjanam’s writings, which sought to reimagine modern gender in terms favourable to women, were effectively disarmed when read as a paean to apolitical and sentimental modern motherhood. Critical efforts that questioned the foundational claims of gender, like the writings of K Saraswati Amma, were completely ignored and forgotten unto the 1990s. Madhavikutty’s rebellion was effectively contained by readings that readily absorbed her into (the highly masculinist) late modernism in Malayalam. Pennezhuthu, because of its explicit political stance, was less amenable to such taming, and hence have faced the most hostile criticism both from conservative critics and many women writers themselves, who perceive it as yet another form of ghettoisation. More importantly, pennezhuthu built important links with the nascent feminist movement in Kerala. Indeed, it may even be claimed that the Malayalam literary domain was where the explosive power of the feminist critique made a significant dent early. And as may be clear from the above account, this is not surprising.


Only in the 1990s did feminist non-literary social critique begin to expand considerably. Of course, there were a few individual women scholars who made valuable contributions earlier [for instance Gulati 1984, 1987], but it was only in the 1990s that the work of several scholars coalesced to form a comprehensive critique of reigning ideas such as the “Kerala Model”, or “Malayalee Renaissance”. Early writings on feminism in the 1980s were often by radical male intellectuals sympathetic to the feminist cause [Ramakrishnan and Venugopal 1989; Satchidanandan undated]. In the 1990s, more and more research-based feminist writings began to appear, and towards the late 1990s and early 2000s, they found space in mainstream Malayalam journals. A large measure of these were produced by women scholars trained in metropolitan universities and research institutions, many of whom had no direct links with the feminist movement in Kerala; some of it was produced by non-Indian scholars linked to western universities. Kerala has always been of interest to anthropologists, primarily because of the matriliny factor. In the mid-20th century decades, political scientists took deep interest in Malayalee communism. From the 1970s, with international development institutions taking interest in social development in Kerala, development studies and allied disciplines like demography became particularly vibrant. In the 1980s, social scientific research within Kerala in the 1980s was not remarkably vibrant, except in these disciplines. Thus it is hardly surprising that the early women’s studies research, in the 1980s, was focused on the concerns of these disciplines – something that continues to a sizeable extent, even today. The 1980s was also the decade in which the developmentalist ideology that had shored up political society in Kerala began to face challenges from sections excluded from the celebrated “Kerala model” of development. In the 1990s, such challenges were explicitly mounted within academic discourse, and feminist research has proved particularly effective in this, not least because of its unmistakable interdisciplinary thrust.

These inquiries, however, rarely stemmed directly from the feminist movement here. The few initiatives that did come up shrivelled quickly. The attempts of feminists to introduce a feminist critique of science and technology within Kerala’s celebrated science movement, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat, did not blossom significantly. The experience of the Stree Padhana Kendram at Kudamaloor, Kottayam, which was envisaged as a forum for critique and intellectual exchange on gender issues, is telling indeed. The significance of this group was that it was an attempt to draw women into public debates and writing. It even had a small library and reading room exclusively for women, a step that was certainly of significance in Kerala, where village libraries are overwhelmingly male spaces. This group, which organised the first women’s literary and theatre workshops in Kerala in the early 1990s soon fell into lethargy. While the individuals involved in it certainly had their personal hurdles to clear, the sheer lack of encouragement of political society created extraordinary difficulties. Most varieties of the left viewed the

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mobilisation around gender issues with considerable suspicion, and remained reluctant to concede autonomy to feminist politics. There was even the reluctance to consider the possibility that the relevance of pennezhuthu, or of feminist theatre, was not limited to the institutions of literature or drama. When the People’s Planning Campaign took off in the mid-1990s, there was the hope that the shift to local priorities in planning would bring the necessary support to revive the institution. However, the panchayat rejected the library project that the Stree Padhana Kendram had proposed, even though the village assembly approved it for five consecutive years. There were also a few attempts to present alternatives to the hugely popular women’s magazines, but with the exception of Pennu, a little magazine, they were not long-lived. Perhaps these experiences reflect the strong hostility to feminist social critique in mainstream Malayalee society. If so, the fact that women scholars who have produced such criticism were often either trained or located outside Kerala should come as no surprise.

The feminist movement in Kerala entered a period of protracted struggle with Kerala’s immensely powerful political society from around the mid-1990s [Erwer 2003]. Aided by the steady expansion of the mass media, its visibility increased dramatically. In the recent elections, the feminist attack on sexually tainted politicians seems to have yielded rich rewards to the Left Democratic Front. Yet the question remains whether this visibility can be substituted for patient, and steady cultural work, intellectual activism and opinion building in civil society. Firstly, the absence of serious theoretical reflection and empirical investigation has left us quite vulnerable when faced with the massive “governmentalisation” of the problematic of gender oppression in the 1990s. Often we have absorbed the liberal-governmental agenda on gender rather naively, in the absence of adequate intellectual resources to take a critical, if non-defensive position on it. Secondly, while it is certainly important to bring the perpetrators of sexual violence to book, there are a host of other less visible, if equally pernicious issues that the feminist movement needs to address with utmost urgency – for instance, the emerging gender differentiation of work within service sector growth, the alarming gender imbalance in population management, or the issues facing women migrant workers. Thirdly, in a society with a burgeoning media-space it becomes imperative for feminists to create alternate spaces and networks of political education and critique. This is a necessary part of a broader effort to revitalise the political in Kerala, which is not only burdened today by increasingly corrupt party politics, but also by larger global forces, such as consumerism.

In the absence of any self-reflexive and nuanced critique, feminists in Kerala may end up building inadvertent alliances with conservative forces on the sexual right-wing. Or, we may end up feeding the general eagerness of political society and conservative forces to “protect” women – which may effectively deny women agency, confer the authority of the protector to the former, and indirectly approve of the penalising of women who do not stay within the protector’s gender ideals. Or, even worse, we may fail to acknowledge the multiple axes of oppression that structure particular women’s lives.

However, this is certainly not an easy task. Here the issue of translation acquires extraordinary importance, and hence we dwell at some length with it.

The demand that feminist intellectuals should eschew “high theory” and write in “simple language” is now common enough. Yet more often than not, such demands rest upon the failure to acknowledge that feminist activism also includes strenuous effort to “mainstream” the theoretical vocabulary that feminists use (which is not the same as “simplifying” it). It also contains the doubtful assumption that feminist speech, by virtue of its sensitivity to gender oppression, will be somehow transparent. However, more than translating feminist theoretical terms is at issue here. We are also talking about translation that draws upon the insights of feminist theory and on local idiom for naming, critiquing and countering local versions of oppression and expressing local strategies of resistance and goals: a sort of “grounded” translation. We do find some instances of such translation in the efforts of the first generation Malayalee feminists to give names to gender oppression and voice to their emergent, for instance, Anna Chandy’s polemical term, “adukkalavadam” (“kitchenism”) [Chandy (1929) 2005: 123]. This however is an aspect that did not figure significantly on the political agenda of Malayalee feminism in the 1980s: a recent anthropological study on how Malayalee feminists perceive the “west” has remarked on how they still feel it difficult to describe patriarchy here, as if it were somehow in the “air” [Bygnes 2005]. While some such questioning of everyday language in Kerala did happen, more needs to be done. Indeed the work of naming has been taken over by the mass media, with ambiguous results – for instance, the concept ‘streepeedhanam’ seems to mean everything from sexist comments and gang rape. We are thus faced with the double task of being watchful of both new and existent devices of language in order to probe their political implications, and creating new terms to express adequately the whole range of presently nameless female experience in Kerala.

The possibilities of retrieval and redeployment of terms that may serve feminist political ends are certainly not weak, even if largely unexplored until lately. In genteel Malayalee society, ‘chanthapennungal’, for instance, refers pejoratively to women who get their way through loud and vociferous argument, with caste connotations as well. In the literal sense it means “market women”, women who support themselves through labour, and reject dominant norms of feminine modesty. We need to do this work as activists: without the initial impulse from activism there is little that we may expect from either teaching or research, at least as far as “political translation” is concerned.

It may be important for us at this juncture to look back at history self-critically. Like in the 1940s, we are now faced with the question of how to transform the inherent instability of the category “women” into a source of strength. The first generation of feminists in Kerala, it seems, chose to retreat from debate into narrow and negative positions, which ultimately proved fatal to the articulation of gender politics. We need to learn from their failures. The new spaces of political education that we need to promote now as feminists must be spaces of self-clarification that help us to change the terms of collective living. Further, mechanisms to watch and critique institutions like the judiciary and the media will have to be created out of such spaces. The different voices that now question the solidity of “women” need to be addressed positively. In any case, in order to address the public effectively, internal debate within the feminist movement needs to be strengthened urgently.

Thus it seems urgent to us that we inquire more fervently into the possibilities of acknowledging and promoting feminist intellectual work as an important aspect of activism. Our suspicions regarding the masculinism of social theory must not lead to a retreat; rather, it ought to work as critical armour in our efforts to use it for feminist purposes. The present, however, seems to offer greater scope for mutual energising.

The present seems to one that holds possibilities for us. On the one hand, women’s literary writing has now gained a fairly wide market. There should be no underestimation of the power of the market to tame even the most recalcitrant of literatures. However, younger women authors are managing to break stereotypes: for instance, in the humour that permeates many of the short stories of contemporary women authors like K R Meera, Sreebala K Menon and A S Priya. If many of these authors have rejected the identification of their writing as pennezhuthu, it is precisely because we have been unable to transform it into an enabling, rather than limiting category.9 Importantly, this rejection has not deterred these authors from building incisive critiques of contemporary patriarchy. On the other, feminist social critique outside literature has grown both in volume and variety: now it draws upon a wide variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, literary criticism, cultural studies and political science. Few of these retain notions of homogeneous Malayalee Womanhood; indeed, much of this work undertakes precisely to unpack the cultural shaping and the political effects of such overarching ideas [for instance, Sreekumar 2001]. There is now increased insight into the workings of gender in everyday life in Kerala and its material consequences for women at various levels [for instance, Kumar 1994; Saradamoni 1999; Lukose 2005; den Uyl 1995; Kodoth and Eapen 2005; Erwer 2003; de Jong 2004]. Anthropologists have generated fresh critical insight into the mediation of gender in the lives of Malayalee migrants [George 1999; Gallo 2005; Percot 2006]. Critical investigation into the historical shaping of gendered subjectivities and institutions in Kerala has also been considerable in the past decade [Velayudhan 1999; Devika 1999, 2005; Saradamoni 1999a; Kodoth 2001; Lindberg 2001; Arunima 2003]. Work that investigates gender in Kerala in cultural studies, especially, cinema, seem to be a growing field [for instance, Navneetha 2003; Menon 2005; Rowena 2002]. This description, however, does not do justice to the remarkable inter- and cross- disciplinary effort often made. Also, gender is now increasingly critiqued from diverse political positions: masculinity studies are clearly emergent [Kodoth 2004; Osella and Osella 2004; Radhakrishnan 2005]; gay and lesbian critiques are being articulated (for instance, Bharadwaj 2004); the ground is being cleared for a dalit feminist perspective [for instance, Yesudasan 1995]. Together, these have ensured that the feminist critique remains a powerful presence in many contemporary debates. It has also won partial recognition in some: for instance, Kerala’s Human Development Report (2005) now openly acknowledges “gender unfreedoms” to be a major lacuna in Kerala’s human development record [CDS 2005: 100-24]. At the same time, there are conspicuous absences: autobiographical writings by women, for instance, have been relatively less forthcoming, something that we should actively try to remedy.

We harbour no illusions: non-literary writings are not safe from stereotyped frameworks or exempt from the pulls of the market. Indeed, today the governmental and international agencies of development have an influence equal or superior to the market in the field of social research. Efforts to domesticate “women’s liberation” as “women’s empowerment”, to tame feminist research into knowledge useful for governmental intervention, are all on. We do not deny that interventions in and subversions of these agendas are possible. However, we do feel that the threat of being reduced into agencies churning out information for governmental and non-governmental agencies is a very real one, if we do not continuously sharpen the critical edge that feminism provides. We feel that it is necessary to foster independent initiatives in feminist knowledge generation in Kerala at this particular juncture.

The present women’s publishing venture in Malayalam, Women’s Imprint, is implicated in the last-mentioned effort in complex ways. We do not, for instance, seek to reaffirm the solidity of “women” in Kerala. Rather, our effort is to see that gender stays contested in public debate. Our aim is more accurately described as the dispersal and dissipation of gendered subjectivities, not their solidification. Besides generating the critical ideas, we also feel that this venture would help that creation of new networks of resistance. We do feel that it is necessary at this moment in Kerala’s history, to think of Malayalees as a people spread all over the world, rather than as a group limited by the geography of the sub-nationality of Kerala. Thus we hope that Women’s Imprint grows into a forum that publishes and circulates ideas that would inform and inspire anti-patriarchal struggles among Malayalees all over the world; we hope that it leads to building networks that connect Malayalee feminists all over the world to feminists within the limited geographical space of Kerala.




[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Malayalam as an introduction to a recent collection of feminist essays published by Women’s Imprint, titled

Aanarashunaattile Kazhchakal: Kerala Streepaksha Gaveshanattil

(Sights from ‘Male-dom’: Kerala in Feminist Research, 2006).]

1 No doubt these gains were at best ambiguous: the “dramatisation”of the confrontation between feminists and Kerala’s powerful political parties may also have worked as a depoliticising strategy.

2 A dalit intellectual recently pointed to the marked carelessness in references to dalit struggles in the otherwise empirically sound feminist account of the dilemmas of feminist activism in mid 1990s in Kerala (M Renu Kumar,Pacchakutira, April 2005, p 4). Also, prominent feminist positions in the acrimonious debate on sex work in Kerala have revealed the underbelly of intolerance, elitism and even casteism among them.

3 A noteworthy recent instance is the founding of the women’s studies journal Samyukta, started in January 2001 by a group of women scholars Women’s Initiatives, based in Thiruvananthapuram,

4 We are aware of the criticisms that have been advanced of the Habermasian notion of the public sphere; we however still find it useful in a descriptive sense, with significant qualifications. We agree, for instance, with GeoffEley that it was “an arena of contested meanings” from the beginning; more importantly, it did not guarantee equal access to all, and indeed, excluded many groups [Eley 1992].

5 The Malayalam speaking regions of Malabar (which was part of the Madras presidency), Cochin (Kochi) and Travancore (Tiruvitamkur), both princely states, were joined together to form the state of Kerala in 1956.

6 Many of these authors would have contested the statement of the inspector general of Travancore, Abdul Karim Suhrawady, made in 1942 in answer to a question regarding the qualities necessary for women in the police, that the police needed “manly” women (Proceedings of the TravancoreSree Mulam Assembly, Vol XX, 1942, p 34). But many of the qualities he mentioned as “manly” ones – courage, endurance, boldness, etc – wereclaimed by many earlier to be worthy qualities of the modern woman. Timidity, for instance, was thought to be forced upon women by the oppressive older order, and the contrast between the courageous woman and the timid one often defined the difference between the modern woman and her unenlightened traditional counterpart, as in the late 19th century novel, Indulekha.

7 See, Proceedings of the Cochin Legislative Council , Vol IV, 1940, p 1439.

8 For instance, the writings of Kerala’s foremost rationalist feminist of mid20th century, K Saraswati Amma, do reveal that her extremely powerful feminist critique of emergent modernity was combined with an equally

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

powerful sense of superiority and distance from poor and uneducated women.

9 However, the role of captious literary criticism that irresponsibly bundledpennezhuthu into “subjective” or “sexual” experiences in making it thuslimiting should be necessarily recognised.


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