Young Women in Kerala : Between Empowerment and Death? — Part I
[This was a note titled ‘We Still Need Feminism’ which I wrote on March 31 on my Facebook page; I thought it relevant to re-post it here as it appears that an ‘honour killing’, of a sort — an ‘honour suicide’ — may have actually surfaced in Kerala. More on that in the next post]
In JNU, last week, some of us were noticing how there seemed to be a notable increase in the numbers of students, both women and men, from the Hindi heartland. It is interesting, said one of my friends, that the deterritorialised university spaces in Delhi can no longer back off from directly confronting the tensions through which these societies now live through. “Look at that girl,” she said, pointing to a sprightly young woman, a bright student who I’d briefly met earlier,”she comes from a family that’d kill her if she married out of her gotra. And she is involved with a young man who’d not even of her region. We must fear the worst and prepare to confront evil.” For a brief moment, in my fright, I thought, well, at least we don’t have honour killings in Kerala. Honour kidnappings, yes, but I haven’t heard of too many honour killings. Maybe honour killings are still on their way here (like dowry deaths were, in the 1980s, when I was growing up into a young woman). We have some time to rally against them.
As I walked back to my room that night, I thought about my reaction with discomfort. Somehow, my horror about ‘north India’ seemed to echo, in some way, with a strain of Malayalee exceptionalism. Everywhere in Kerala, there is talk of women’s ‘empowerment’ in the mainstream political discourse. Champions of governmentalized women’s empowerment (of the Kudumbasree variety) tell us that women are getting out there, working in self-help groups, are full of confidence. They don’t need feminism, these folks claim, they are empowered. They have pulled themselves out of narrow domestic lives, they are ready to fight the panchayat elections! Yes, women are murdered in ‘uncivilized’ ‘north India'; down here they are being empowered to escape patriarchy. And they add: feminism may be relevant there, but here it is redundant.
What bothered me, I sensed, was not just my implicit assent to such ethnocentric hubris, but also my failure to interrogate the consequences of individualized ‘empowerment’.
I was assailed by a particularly painful memory, from a year back or so. This was of the suicide of a young female self-help-group organizer in a village in the outskirts of Trivandrum who I had interviewed as part of my research . Her death was a huge shock to me; it made me feel tremendously guilty that despite our long conversations I could not even sense the crisis that she’d been trying to negotiate. The news that she had committed suicide made me desperately search through my memory of my interactions with her for what I may have missed. All I could remember was how empowered she had appeared; young, confident, cheerful, despite the fact that she was the major support of her below-poverty-line family which was clearly bidding for upward mobility through education. She had left off after a BA, doing all kinds of work to support her family: giving math tuition, did part-time cashier duty at a local supermarket. She had reached that level braving her father’s drunkenness and her mother’s poor resources (she was a domestic worker) through paying for her schooling from the income she earned packing jaggery at a local godown on weekends and evenings. The self-help-group formation was a chance for her to step out and acquire a public life, and I still remember how heartening it was to see her sheer pleasure from just getting out of the house! However, I also noted uneasily how she worked an impossible triple shift: doing more than her share of housework at home to escape her mother’s censure of her ‘free’ lifestyle; working for an income; performing the labour of government for the panchayat expecting or receiving meagre remuneration, simply for the pleasure of staying in the public. It was apparent to me that she faced an uphill climb: her mother was imploring me to advise her not to “run around so much and earn a bad name”, but she still went to her daughter when she needed cash. But I was under the illusion that this young woman was strong enough to weather all of this: she looked as if she were bursting with energy, she was so ‘empowered’.
This is why when she called me three days before her suicide, I did not really get the signals too well. I did sense something wrong in her tone; I repeatedly asked her if something was wrong, and she kept saying no. I disbelieved my own instincts only because the image of her that I had was that of a capable young woman who had surmounted her difficult circumstances on her own — a heroic image. All my reading about the flimsiness of individualized agency was disarmed, I think, when I actually witnessed the performance of such agency. Three days after the phone call she killed herself. I got to know of it after I returned from a trip. Groping inconsolable in dark helpless anguish, I saw, in stark nakedness, how hollow ‘empowerment’ could be, especially when young women from economically and socially disadvantaged circumstances seek it. Her relatives told me that she had killed herself because the man she had loved (a cousin, apparently), and who had promised marriage, had decided to marry her sister, who she had educated, who had just then got a steady job. The whole family had known about this decision, except her. When she stumbled on this information, it was too much to bear.
Well, that may sound like a silly sentimental story to many, especially to women like me who may consider themselves somewhat more liberated. But even so, I could see what her despair might have been. In a non-urban, if utterly fragmented community like the one in which she lived, a woman’s only chance to experience warmth, affect, is through marriage. And a woman who can’t pay dowry or at least generate a steady income, has few chances of finding a suitable mate from her own community and acceptable to her family. At the same time she would be totally prohibited from making friends with men, from exploring the possibilities of finding a mate outside family and community circles. Indeed, in many of our conversations, she had told me, proudly, how she’d never given anyone a chance to talk bad of her.
I can perhaps never forget the stinging sorrow that hit me when I realized that for all her bubbly demeanour, she simply did not have the emotional resources to tide over the betrayal — and none of us close to her even saw it. Unlike women like me who do enjoy more economic and social privilege, she could not escape her narrow and stifling world. Migration would have been an option — widely chosen by many economically disadvantaged women in Kerala. But that would have only integrated her into the disempowering, even dehumanising world of informal sector labour. Instead she dared to dream of full citizenship and integration into the public, staying back in this hostile society and trying to be an active organizer of local women for the panchayat. I believe she was punished for that daring. To me, it reveals that limits of individualized empowerment. Individualized empowerment is certainly not impossible. But it is more possible for women with sufficient resources of all sorts — economic, social, emotional, intellectual, cultural. For others, it may weave a tragic story: of simply running out of steam, left all alone in a difficult climb. And even if successful, the scars might remain, in deep insecurity, destructive competitiveness, abiding distrust of others, the inability to make alliances and connections. I have seen that too many times in women who have braved much, all by themselves, on lonely paths.
That convinces me that we do need feminism — antipatriarchal struggles that address woman as a collective. So that women can live full human lives without necessarily treading the heroic path.So that they do not have to murder themselves unable to cope with a society that places impossible demands on them. So that they stop thinking that their journeys are on unconnected, precarious, individual paths that they MUST tread all alone. So that sharing and connection is still possible. That alone will save young Malayalee women who are not of the elite from teetering on the brink between suicide and mental illness. Contrary to what our smug intellectuals have to say, it is not the upper-class young women in Kerala who need feminism anymore. They have their escape routes, and these are widening, it seems. It is the disadvantaged but educated, individuated, young Malayalee woman who desperately needs feminism. Individualized empowerment, routinely dished out by our governmental machinery,cannot be a substitute.