Kerala’s reputation as a society that has evolved to an exceptional degree may have taken a bit of a beating. The reputation itself has been built on the strides made in the sphere of development, by now internationally recognised to be human development as reflected in the health and education status of a people.
When it was first noticed over four decades ago, Kerala’s perceived uniqueness had stemmed from the realisation that it was among India’s poorest States. To have achieved fairly high human development despite relative poverty was considered noteworthy. What was not apparent in the usual indicators, however, was something even more unique, the ending of social hierarchy. The caste system, which was at the centre of Kerala’s social arrangements, disintegrated virtually overnight. This was fuelled by the enactment of a land reform programme that ended feudalism. With feudalism went the equivalence between caste dominance and economic power. If evidence ever was needed for the Marxian view that it was the economic base of a society that undergirded its ‘superstructure’ this was it. What is significant is that the transition had been smooth, without recrimination for loss or retribution for injustice. Social distance in terms of caste distinctions just died.
Given the experience of the ending of a feudalism that had persisted for centuries in Kerala, the reception to the Supreme Court’s verdict on the practice of excluding women of menstruating age from the shrine at Sabarimala is disappointing. It is not as if the ruling has been received with sullen acceptance alone. It has been followed by vigilantes actually preventing the very few women who have attempted to enter the shrine since from doing so. Reports of heckling and intimidation that have led to disheartened women returning without darshan is likely to have left many a Malayali patriot ashamed.
To understand the reaction to one of the last bastions of male privilege being thrown open to women, we may turn to the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault.
Foucault had observed that while Marxism, a powerful tool for social analysis, emphasises the relations of production, it ignores the relations of power. Power for Foucault is ubiquitous and ramifies into every dimension of human association. Patriarchy or the idea of rule by men would be one of the sources of power.
Heteronormativity and the claim of the racial superiority of certain ethnic groups have also served as sources of power. Power for Foucault can draw its force from sources that are entirely unrelated to economic class. Thus in Kerala, for instance, patriarchy is entrenched across all classes and social groups. It did not vanish with the land reforms, even if its architects had wanted it to happen. From the recent events at Sabarimala we can see that some sections do not want it to lose its stranglehold even today.
The opposition to women’s entry at Sabarimala is at times met with an appeal to history, that the temples of Kerala have witnessed far greater transformation in the past, having been thrown open to all sections of Hindus over 75 years ago. While this history is correctly recounted, the issue of women’s entry into temples is not a matter of accepting the inevitability of change, it is a matter of recognising what living in a democracy implies for its members. Even as democracy guarantees rights to the individual, it requires him to acknowledge the rights of others. It is easily overlooked that it is democracy that grants the freedom to practise a religion.
The Church was discouraged in the former Soviet Union, China frowns upon the faith of the Uighurs, and the Saudi Arabian state is not exactly tolerant of religious plurality.
However, while democracy assures freedom to practise religion, citizens are expected to practise it in a way that is consistent with democracy. So the traditionalists on the Sabarimala issue must recognise that by excluding women, they are not keeping their side of the social contract as it were. In a democracy, the social contract is not between the state and the people, it is one entered into by citizens among themselves. As B.R. Ambedkar is believed to have advised Jawaharlal Nehru, you cannot have a republic within a republic. In the Indian context, the implication of this principle is that religion must be practised in a way consistent with constitutional values; at a minimum the practices cannot be discriminatory. Legal provisions against domestic violence and the ill-treatment of children point to the reach of democracy even into our homes. Religion cannot claim special dispensation. It need hardly be emphasised that the principle that religion be practised in accordance with the norms of democracy extends to all religions. Indian secularism would be tested on this idea.
In a way, the opposition to the entry of women to Sabarimala is reflective of a wider inequality between men and women that may be observed in Malayali society. Two indicators point to this, despite the very high literacy levels registered by women and a significant presence of women with higher education. First, female labour force participation is low in Kerala in comparison with other States. Surely the equality of women must be visible in their participation in the workforce. In Kerala, women were once a major presence in agriculture but this declined when paddy cultivation atrophied. The low female labour force participation in Kerala affects their ability to influence social norms, especially social attitudes towards female agency.
Second, the presence of women in governance roles is very low in Kerala. Three indicators may be noted, namely, the percentage of women legislators, judges in the High Court and leaders of political parties. It may come as a surprise to note that for the former two indicators the number is lower for the State than it is for Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. This despite the fact that Malayali women participate in elections at least to the same extent as men. Political parties of Kerala have made little effort to induct women into leadership positions. How much of this is due to male chauvinism and how much to inadequate women’s agency is a question to be debated.
However, a recent incident does help us see through the thicket. The union of Malayalam film actors, a highly feted body, was in the news for trying to protect an actor accused of abetting assault against a co-star despite the fact that he had been jailed. They held out till its leadership was publicly dragged over the coals by four determined women, some of them quite young. Such endings are few and far between but give rise to hope that women will eventually receive their due in Kerala.
It is hoped that the Sabarimala shrine, a site of popular worship with a long history and of great beauty, will henceforth be open to women of all ages. But for Kerala ending exclusion at this one site can only be the beginning of the much longer journey to gender equality in its society. The present situation bears comparison with what Nirad Chaudhuri had said of the British Empire, that it “extended subjecthood but denied citizenship”. In the case of Kerala’s women, its society may have extended education but withheld empowerment. So long as women are not represented in the upper echelons of decision-making it will be difficult to break this mould.