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Young Women in Kerala : Between Empowerment and Death? — Part II

May 17, 2011

[With inputs from Sudeep K S]

Are there honour killings in Kerala? No, perhaps. However, like in everything else, Kerala has a way of telling the world that things can be done differently. Well, it appears that we can continue to claim another kind of exceptionalism — in national evils. Kerala has its own special way of ‘doing’ caste and patriarchy as well, which researchers and activists have forcefully argued recently. It is possible that the deadly consequences of stepping out of community-ordained boundaries in love and marriage can visit Kerala in  ways that we cannot really detect with our usual instruments.

This is what the message seems to be, when one reflects on the sordid and utterly frightening turn of events following the death of a young woman, O.K. Indu, whowent missing off a train from Trivandrum to Kozhikode, on the night of 24 April. Two days later, her body was recovered from the Aluva river. Initially, the police called it a suicide, and from a ‘love triangle’. She was to be married very soon; her  family had been making preparations for the marriage. The young woman was, apparently, torn between marriage and love, and she committed suicide. However, very soon, the suspicion fell on her friend, with whom she was apparently intimate, who travelled with her in the train — a young SC teacher at NIT, Kozhikode, where she was a research scholar.

All of a sudden, the debate changed.Though some of the newspapers began with mentioning the young woman’s dilemma, soon the media pounced upon her co-traveler,who was also her intimate friend, and declared him her murderer. After over seven days of investigation, the railways SP closed the case saying that it is a suicide and there is no reason to suspect Subhash. But the case was transfered to the Crime Branch. The media then launched an all-out attack on this young man, and fabricating more and more sensational tales of his friendship with Indu. There have been few efforts to counter this in the mainstream media — but for the efforts of Sudeep K S, a social commentator who works at the NIT, the picture would have been too easy and too perfect. Sudeep’s writing  [] gives us a clue on why this young man has been such a consistent target: he points out how the reports have stressed the young man’s ‘poor social status’, his job in NIT as due to ‘SC reservation alone’, his ‘short, dark-skinned looks’, which ‘could not have possibly attracted a ‘high-born’ daughter of an ‘aristocratic’, influential, upper middle class Nair family! He points out how vicious and motivated this campaign has been — Kalakaumudi Flash remarks that the support for this young man is from other teachers at NIT, who are also ‘beneficiaries of SC reservation’. Sudeep himself is not safe — as he mentioned to me, there was news in the Malayalam Manorama that the young man’s colleagues from NIT who have been campaigning for him on the Internet will be questioned by the crime branch.

Now, it is interesting that the Malayalam media should read things this way. For what may possibly be smelt most foully in all this is an ‘honour suicide’. I have of course no proof that Indu’s family may have pushed her directly or indirectly towards suicide, or whether it is an honour killing . My question is why the mainstream media does not highlight this possibility despite enough indirect evidence. If the young man’s caste status is good enough evidence for the mainstream media to declare him a killer, why does not the caste status of Indu’s family, which has been baying for this young man’s blood with a fervour that borders on the uncanny, implicate them? For, Indu’s relatives have insisted in public that she would not even think of marrying a man of another caste; the general horror at the thought of ‘miscegenation’ has been expressed in a completely unselfconscious way by her relatives. Why does the media, then, not suspect an ‘honour suicide’ in which the family could have played a considerable role? Why does it simply echo the xenophobic sentiments of the family? As Sudeep points out, the game would have been very different had the young man been an aristocratic Nair from an influential family in Trivandrum, and Indu, a dalit woman with no claims to an aristocratic famiy background.

In other words, there has been little reflection in the media about how how the occasion of marriage, which is socially forced, can be so upsetting of a woman’s life. It could well have been a situation in which this young woman had feelings for both men, and never really had the option of sorting out her feelings or that of becoming comfortable, in some way, with both. Both these would be private decisions, of course, something that a young woman in her mid-twenties had every right to make. However, young women in Kerala have no right to a ‘private’ — as distinguished from the ‘domestic’ which is open to community, family, and state surveillance. And women’s social membership does depend on their induction into the ‘domestic’. Indu, apparently, did have a ‘private’ — and she paid a tragic price.  It is not as if young men of her class have open access to a ‘private’ either, but they do have the option of keeping away from marriage, or to a large extent, they can still maintain a private while lording over the domestic — an open secret to most of us Malayalees.

I do revise the claim that I made in my earlier post; it is clear that we need not only feminism but perhaps more than that — we need counter-communities that are feminist and open. It strikes me that Indu does not belong to the social class to which the young woman I mentioned in my last post belongs; she was highly educated and could have easily migrated to escape from whatever social trap that was set for her.  In that sense she was ’empowered’. If she indeed committed suicide, that means that even her highly marketable skills did not save here — and perhaps because she was still expected to resist by herself, because there was no counter- community that could help her resist. In a society which is ‘casteist and patriarchal by other means’ we do need more and more counter-caste and counter-patriarchal communities — that are not just yet another round of caste-based interest-groups (these have their unique political significance in our context but do not suffice to be the base of resistance to community-patriarchal pressures), that will not demand ontological passports of caste or gender. Precisely because secularised brahmanical patriarchy ensures that all those who are born upper-caste do not enjoy power available to those in its upper echelons, and because heteronormativity involves, equally, the fear of miscegenation.

The grief and rage that I feel when I realize that a young woman may have had to throw herself away just because she could not bear such pressure is not translatable readily into words. We do need feminism, I’d say, to create an enabling atmosphere in which women faced with such pressures could step out easily from situations of oppression, and connect with other women, and counter-communities through which the pressures of caste and community may be resisted. I despair, equally, that no such feminism is in sight over here, that which will not give itself up to the games politicians play, that will not lend itself to governmentalizing feminism — and in the process,downplay,perhaps inadvertently, its mandate of radicalizing civil society.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Yojimbo permalink
    May 21, 2011 11:11 AM

    Well, most people are not willing to face the fact that casteism is nothing but ossified racism. The sooner the lower castes get out of the caste system, the better for them and their children !
    To me, this is far less brutal than the publicly physically violent patriarchy that you are threatened with towards the North of India. But then, Keralites always had a peculiar style of their own.

  2. May 21, 2011 1:09 PM

    Most of the Malayalam dailies seem to be hell bent on selling and popularizing a pet theme of ‘anasasyam’ (literal meaning- undesirable activity, but in popular parlance love/sex relations outside matrimony) . Many of the eveningers having multiple editions around small towns and cities have virtually made this into a permanent item hitting the headlines of the front pages, so much so that they nearly qualify to be called ‘anasasya patrangal’ (undesirable newspapers)!.
    Out of each unfortunate suicide or death, they seem to make a parable with the theme ‘anasasyam’ appearing as leitmotif . The focus is more on the social imperative to control personal intimacies between men and women than on extreme forms of cultural policing on adults’ choices in love and partnerships.
    Let the institutions of caste, gender and family together be seen as reinforcing each other, rather than be seen as separate entities that interfere with individuals’ completely legal freedom of choices in relationship with other humans.

    • Joe permalink
      June 3, 2011 3:19 PM

      Even the media , when they report on some brutal recent killings, resort to addressing the culprits, as blind /handicapped(ottakkayya….etc),showing their blatant insensibility

  3. Tommy Schmitz permalink
    May 22, 2011 6:42 AM

    Powerful, beautiful, authentic, convincing and courageous. My deep thanks. – Tommy

  4. Smriti permalink
    May 22, 2011 9:58 PM

    Its so interesting to read the post, considering the questions it raises are very relevant. Its not economic empowerment that helps niether does training at “liberal” educational institutions help..but why? what is the nature of this bondage that women feel despite having an objective, possible, “theoretical and conceptual” way out of the binds of patriarchy. Despite everything else why do women feel so trapped in this imagery that is constructed for them and how does it overpower their sense of choice, freedom and happiness…
    Its so important for e to understand this, as a young woman and a feminist…to know how can we break this clutching social cuffing, or work around it…

  5. May 23, 2011 1:45 PM

    Sorry for reappearing..
    Can’t help a streak thought occurring to mind – If culture gets to be so meticulously defined and understood in patriarchal terms, why should feminists bother to conform to it, rather than challenge it by all means taking recourse to the laws of equality? Apart from gender itself, Caste-Gender combine seems to preside over the social life in India which obviously has more far reaching consequences than meets the eye. Khap Panchayats (both in their visible and invisible forms) getting virtual sanctity above the sovereign law is a case in point; Manu and his smriti being venerated these days through cultural discourses (if not on other pretexts) even by those who would not totally surrender to Hindutwa is another ominous sign.
    [How can one believe that a person can write a fairly informative book on the history of feminism and yet argue that Manu’s legal dictum about women was indeed to protect women and not to abuse their freedom, and further, all the abuse later came out of ‘bad interpretation’ by men?-
    Reference: Prof M Leelavathi, Feminism Charithraparamaya Oru Anweshanam, page 10 Tiruvanantapuram (2002) Prabath Book House.]

    • Joe permalink
      June 3, 2011 3:16 PM

      KMVenugopalan@ Leelavathi and the likes , are ideologically, an extension of the mainstream outlook, and their embracing of feminism is to hollow it out

  6. notrelevantnow permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:02 PM

    Thank you Devika for bringing out the tragic consequences of the paradoxical lives Mal. women lead. I wanted to respond to this question Smriti raised above:

    “what is the nature of this bondage that women feel despite having an objective, possible, “theoretical and conceptual” way out of the binds of patriarchy?”

    This is something I have also wondered about. Mal. women in seemingly empowered situations take decisions that are not only anti-feminist but are also against their own self-interest. Mal. women esp. in progressive-but-not-so-much families (I am of course speculating, but perhaps Indu’s was one such?) find themselves conflicted, on the one hand they are ‘given’ similar material opportunities and emotional support as male members, but then there are invisible lines which they dare not cross. Is it the ties (of love and duty) that bind us to our families and friends that we ourselves do not want to unbind?

  7. Joe permalink
    June 3, 2011 3:12 PM

    Thankyou Devika. It was superb. Malyali mainstream and their media is, to the core racist, anti black, anti dalit, though sophisticated. Amidst the process of undersstanding European white man’s blatant racism, I daily listen to N.R.I malayali’s absolute insult on intercaste marriages and blackskin.

  8. Nidhin Shobhana permalink
    December 1, 2011 5:11 PM

    Well written!! The post underlines the reinforcement of caste -class and gender stereotypes in Mainstream Malayalee media.
    Though many Keralites claim to have transcended caste identities,they practise discrimination through means ‘exceptionally’ different and more venomous.
    I would like to add that we need , not one , but different genres of Feminism in Kerala. There is no question of irrelevance!!
    The co-option of ’empowerment’ in government documents and policies have detoriated the subversive potentials of the term. We need to move beyond governmentalization of empowerment discourse.

  9. Deepti permalink
    March 14, 2012 3:44 PM

    I am a Malayali woman, born in a Nair family. I was given similar opportunities for studies as my brother. That I did not choose engineering, that I kept reasserting my individuality through my choices have been disturbing, to say the least, for my parents. They have told me to my face that they wish for a “normal” daughter.
    What is this so called normal? A gilr who studies well in school, does not talk to other boys “too much” in college, gets a job to show the world that is she able to and then quits her job by the time she is 22/23 to facilitate her arranged marriage to someone of her parents’ choice. And when the time comes, (I am turning 24 and have warded off marriage through migration to another city), they unleash a barrage of pressures on you – from emotional blackmail to threats of suicide.
    As an observer of my surroundings, I have noticed that Malayalees, especially unmarried women, lead dual lives. One that they create at home, the semblance of dutiful daughters, smiling at relatives and wearing jewellery at her mother’s command, and the other, that they create in school/college/workplace/another city where they may have lovers, dress and talk the way they want and live “freely”. But when these two lives collide, as they inevitably must (like I suspect was the case with Indu), the ensuing depression or fear often turns tragic and leads to suicide. It is easier for those who escape to other cities but for those who stay back, it is a daily, hourly struggle.
    I do not presume to say this is the case with all Malayali women, but an observation…

  10. Guest permalink
    January 1, 2013 1:11 AM

    The point on women’s honour is certainly true. But what is not addressed is this: the right of a woman to reject a lover (mostly men). The denial of the latter (by the man) can be dangerous and often leads to vengeful attacks.If she was in love with this NIT professor, would she have wanted to reject him and move? Couldn’t there have been such a possibility? As in most cases, couldn’t he have reacted badly and blackmailed her?

    The whole argument in this post is based on conjecture; therefore, such a situation also could have been explored.

    The writing here is entirely one-sided. What is the basis on which the writer is exonerating this guy? Anyway wily nily, he is involved and let him prove his innocence in a court of law – if he is framed. Interestingly, there is this whole battery of counter-argument against the media report on this case. Media hasn’t done anything exceptional in this case other than what they do regularly – publish what their sources tell them. Why suddenly an outcry only on this case? Let it run its full course before you jump into conclusions and drag caste and other factors into this. If this guy had a relationship with her and he had recorded conversations and pictures, as the police today claimed, he certainly is not straight.

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