‘Ladies Still not Empowered in Kerala?’ Questions Raised by the Solar Scam
How does one respond critically and effectively when non-politics, non-government, and non-sense, all rolled together, assail the political public? I have been thinking about this recently — surely, this is a question that troubles all those who would wish to keep the focus of public life on politics and power. We witness, in present-day Kerala,politics being reduced to the internal bickerings over power indulged in by the powerful elite interest-groups that constitute the ruling UDF. Or, reduced to ‘sex scandals’ or ‘domestic squabbles’ when gender politics surfaces. Simultaneously, we are witnessing the era of non-government and the severing of the link between public politics and government. While the bickerings between the coalition partners of the UDF continues unabated, news of infant deaths and severe malnutrition continue to flow from tribal hamlets in Attappady; the problems of mounting waste in both towns and rural areas continues to be criminally neglected; dengue and other dangerous fevers continue to exact daily, rising tolls all over the state. And even as the consequences of widening social inequalities become more and more visible, this government’s discourse of welfare remains pegged insistently on human mercy and charity. It continues to be dismissive of concerns of social justice and power — even as these harrowing tales continue to appear in the press, there is no dearth of advertisement of the goverment’s kaarunyam. And in the midst of all this, the Chief Minister being projected as the exemplar of human goodness and chairty! Or, the UN, ever-interested in ‘innovation’, conferring an award on his Mass Contact Programme at a time when his government has been least innovative or imaginative in solving problems that now stare us in the face. the This of course is the non-sense — the absurdity of it all.
Watching this drama is what appears to me to be utterly distanced and hyper-individualized collection of private individuals — no longer a public — whose most prominent response has been cynical smirking at the troubles of the powerful. Thanks to the media, this is now a society where problems of individual lives, including sexual problems, are discussed in public, especially through television shows. They continue to be reaffirmed as private ones — to be resolved in individual ways, in private — even if they are discussed publicly. Clearly, we are in a scene described aptly by sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman: politics, understood as the process by which private problems are translated into political issues, seems to be under steady dissipation. Not too long ago, feminists in Kerala had attempted to redraw the boundaries of the private and public in their attack on sexual violence by prominent politicians. True, the feminist critical discourse on the sexual violence by prominent politicians in Kerala was ambiguous in that it contained to work within moral, rather than political, terms. However ,in parts at least it did try to affirm the question of sexual power exercised by male politicians as an issue for the political-public. However, this did not really attack an assumption that has endured in the Malayalam media since the 1960s: if a woman who is not a party big-wig is found interacting closely with a senior male politician, then definitely sex must be involved. This has been the case even when the sex part is not substantial, as in the present Solar scam case. And most of the public responses have been at best to indulge in black humor or bewail the lack of sexual self-discipline among politicians. However, neither sneering at sex troubles of politicians nor bemoaning their moral lacks, I feel, is critical enough a response.
The other important thread of debate initiated during the feminist struggles against sexual violence by male politicians, the one about the agency of the women involved in those cases, seems to be either forgotten or caricatured. Part of the smirking has been indeed about the agency of Malayalee women. Just the other day, a Facebook friend uploaded an image of me speaking on a TV show on the limits to women’s agency in Kerala beneath which a news-scroll about one of the women in the eye of the present controversy was progressing. She asked me, ‘ladies are not still empowered in Kerala?’ If the question during the debates around the infamous cases in which Kunhalikkutty, P J Kurien, or Neelalohitadasan Nair were accused was about the agency of the alleged victims, this time it is about the agency of women who have allegedly been major players in the scam .
I think that instead of stopping here, we ought to reflect precisely on what the Solar scam teaches us about gender politics in Kerala.Here I want to think aloud — these are not well-thought-out reflections but hopefully we can use them to open a deeper and more critical debate on the issue.
First of all, it is important to recognize that what the women involved in the scam have done is not earthshaking-new. Frauds and scams are not at all uncommon in Kerala and both men and women have been implicated in them. If too many women have not been in the news until recently for cheating, that is precisely because they were unable to function at a level that could have caught the state-wide media’s attention — otherwise everyone has heard of the neighborhood chechi who made off with the chitty cash. Therefore it is not clear to me why women who cheat must be treated as a new phenomenon.
Nor should this earn women any special condemnation because cheating is widespread among men as well — breaking rules and promises is not particularly gendered behavior. However, those who find this an occasion to bewail the ‘fall of values’ among women go deeper — women who cheat are treated not just as a new phenomenon but as evidence for another new phenomenon, of the distortion of women’s agency. Now, here,the question is about the spaces and agency in them which women in Kerala putatively enjoyed in the past, which are now ‘distorted’. As far as I can see, it wasn’t and isn’t much. Women in Kerala have caught up with and in some fields, surpassed men in higher education. Yet unemployment among women in still very high. There are spaces in which minimal gains made earlier, which have now waned. For example, the field of politics. Despite the fifty percent reservation for women in local government, their numbers have steadily declined in the field of high politics — where substantial political power resides. Indeed, we do not have women politicians who have risen by the dint of their own political work, like we used to in the mid-20th century decades. Women politicians now are promoted by male mentors and it is an open secret that women politicians with larger ambitions cannot hope to succeed now without such mentors. In the economy, among entrepreneurs, women’s presence is limited largely to those who have inherited a family business or work with/within the husband’s business concern — the exceptions are few and far between. In short the argument that the cheating women are distorting Malayalee women’s agency is flawed in that it assumes either that Malayalee women’s agency is essentially in the family or at best in public altruism, or that they enjoyed unrestricted access to the political and economic fields. The first is an outright patriarchal misunderstanding; the latter is empirically incorrect. As far as politics and the economy are concerned,the space offered to women or occupied by them was strictly limited. Secondly, even this limited space cannot be occupied without the right family connections or powerful male mentors.For those who lack these, the options are limited: either stay less ambitious or exercise ‘infra-agency’.
These women involved in the Solar scam appear to be more ambitions, eager to access circles wider than their immediate neighborhoods to which their financial operations used to be limited in the past . But what catches my attention is not their cheating (as mentioned earlier, that is not new at all) but the fact that they have chosen to be ‘infra-agents’. ‘Infra-agents’ do exercise agency — but are limited in that they have to constantly pose as non-agents.In the present case the women in question undoubtedly used their caste-capital, education, and their familiarity with the sartorial codes of the new rich in Kerala and a pretended married/engaged status, all of which represent feminine docility, to project themselves as’ properly gendered’, hence trust-worthy, and were able to dupe a large number of highly educated and highly-placed people. One doesn’t know what strategies they deployed to enter the circles of highly-placed politicians and bureaucrats and gain a number of important favors, but they cannot be all sexual, as the Malayalam media seems to be constantly implying. Indeed, the sexual angle seems to be introduced precisely to strip these women’s claims to be obedient wives and trusting fiancees. It is therefore not surprising to me that the women in the Solar scam case identify themselves as independent entrepreneurs on the one hand, but, on the other, make powerful use of the norms of good Malayalee femininity. They protest their innocence by precisely claiming that they were not the boss. The boss, they claim, is a man who is their husband/fiance. Good Malayalee women can of course only blindly trust the husband and the man with who they desire romantic union, and it is only becoming on the part of the womanly woman to obey his orders. Thus the infra-agent, in this case, poses as a non-agent precisely to play the game — infra-agency is not passivity at all.
But to answer my Facebook friend’s question: exercising infra-agency may not be powerlessness but it is not the same as being empowered. In fact, it is perhaps the exact opposite of being empowered. There are indeed many empowered women in Kerala, though the media does not care about them. Just the other day, a woman leader in one of Thiruvananthapuram’s most needly slum areas spoke to me of her experience of being empowered.She told me how proximity with power — working with authorities — can make a difference to the life of a poor woman. She was an active leader of the Urban Basic Services for the Poor Programme of the 1990s in her area. She recalled proudly an incident, when she once had to stay in a lodge run by the Corporation authorities in Thrissur with her husband when she was attending a meeting on local governance convened by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration.The bellboy who took her for a sex worker tried to extract some money from them, telling that a police raid was on for sex-workers. She recalls how she gave him the scare of his life simply by revealing her ‘connections’. As an active leader from the UBSP, she was well-known to the civic authorities in Thrissur and much respected too. Not only did she ward off the threat, she attended the official meeting only after filing a complaint against the offender with the local authorities! Here the woman leader did not resort to the norms of femininity; rather, she asserted her rights as a citizen using precisely her access to civic authorities. Her connections with them were not secured privately and/or through husbands or family, but through her work in the public. It is important for us to see this difference and not let cynicism over take us.
I do think that this is time when we ought to be asking controversial, counter-intuitive questions that complicate the media’s discourse. I would, for example, like to reflect on the question whether infra-agency among Malayalee women is limited to women who are marked as undesirable, who have cheated, or is it more widespread among women, especially of the elite, in Kerala? Is it not recognized as the acceptable form of agency for the Malayalee woman and a powerful one too, through which rules are routinely bent for the docile-looking — the paavam-looking — woman? I would also like to reflect about how rules and trust are routinely broken in Kerala today. How come we all pretend that this is something new? Has not this been rampant especially after the new predatory capital began to assert itself in Kerala in the post-liberalization scenario. Are all the people cheated by the Team Solar innocent law-abiders in other, more crucial facets of their life? In fact, the individuals duped were not the poor but the very rich, and many of them part of new forms of capitalist extraction which thrives on people’s lack of information and options — for instance, many of the cheated are wealthy doctors, and it is common knowledge that private sector health care is one of the aggressively-expanding profit-generating capitalist machines in Kerala; public sector health care too is now routinely held to ransom by doctors who demand astronomical salaries and opportunities for private practice. There is no dearth of reports about the unnecessary use of diagnostics and medicines. Stories of cheating, exploitation, and malpractices in private hospitals are rife but the media is too loath to let go of the ample revenue from advertising. I am sure that the present scamsters are not Robin Hood, but if this scam has provided us an opportunity to bring into public attention such malpractices, why not broaden the discussion and examine the sources of the stolen wealth as well?
And thirdly, I would like to ask about the ways in which many of us who profess social and political awareness lead double lives. In my own experience, I have seen how it is easier now to be a free-rider feminist, live within the space opened up by feminism but turn against it as and when convenient. I have seen recently how a young woman about to make a career for herself out of researching Dalit-OBC women turn viciously against them when an opportunity to bask in the limelight demanded that from her! Or, in a recent TV show on women’s empowerment, I chanced to meet a young college student with a strong desire to please everyone, and for that reason, clearly wary of supporting women’s empowerment, who walked up to me after the show and requested my help with her thesis on women’s empowerment! I’d think that such double lives involve self-cheating of a not insubstantial sort — but we do tolerate feminist free-riding. As long as this situation persists, I think, the socially-aware set has no moral right to point accusing fingers at the women accused in the present scam.
Perhaps by asking such questions that complicate the issue, we can get past the media’s persistent reduction of the politics of the Solar scam to a case in which the powerful and the guilty cheated the powerless and the innocent, and its reduction of its gender politics to a sex scandal.