My Not-So-Progressive Upbringing in a Malayali Family

I believe the first thing a privileged person can do to make a change is to acknowledge their own privilege. Everything else is secondary. But many who belong to affluent, traditional, Hindu, Malayali families would disagree with this notion.

With this piece, I aim to debunk the theory that “matrilineal” Malayali households are always progressive. They are not unequivocal champions for women’s rights over property, let alone equality in all cases. It has become clear to me that the principle of matrilineal inheritance came for the sake of retaining property within the household and not for the upliftment of women.

Fast forward to the 21st century, do the perceptions associated with progress in Kerala hold true? As a person growing up in a similar sort of Malayali family, it has been a herculean task to unlearn specific ideas, more tedious than the process of learning. Misogyny is entrenched in Kerala, despite the staggering female male sex ratio and the pretentious 100% literacy rate that Malayali society uses as a façade for concealing the deep-rooted gendered practices.

An occasional visit to the comment sections of female artists would easily substantiate the point. Women are largely denigrated, looked down on, and defamed if they don’t meet the ‘sati savitri’ construct. A woman must adhere to the standards of a society which forego men’s deeds. The Times of India reported that “Kerala is no God’s Own Country for women” as the NCRB recorded 4029 molestation cases against women in 2018.

As a teenager, living in Kerala was not easy. In addition to the internalised misogyny fed to me from a very young age, the travails I faced outside the comfort of my home were despicable.

As a 16-year-old, on a bus journey back from school, I saw monsters reveal themselves. It was hard to discern what a touch meant, as I had been oblivious to monsters till then. But the incident remained in my head, the inexplicable rage towards the self for not reacting, for not fending off the alien touch. It did not stop there. Four years later, on a journey in a “safe” state transport bus, came another, a “gentleman”, so suave that my family failed to warn me about such predators.

Also read: How My Family Changed the Way I Saw Myself and My Body

From then on, whenever I was travelling alone, I could not sleep and had to stay alert of male passengers near me, at times even switching seats because I was afraid of misbehaviour. This might be pervasive across the country, but Kerala’s charade of progressiveness overshadows this narrative.

From adhering to every order from uncles and grandparents hurled my way, getting admonished for coming home late at night, to being asked to change out of ‘short’ clothes when guests arrived, I could no longer be silent. The pathetic innuendos, restrictions on choice, misogynist jokes and sexist slurs at home decreased in intensity after I began to call them out, and I constantly made an effort to desist from feeding my own prejudices.

The degradation of the society is manifested by rapes in ambulances, moral policing, casteism, continuous depreciation of Malayalam media portraying women as “promiscuous”, like the depiction of Swapna Suresh. The identity of the accused in the recent gold smuggling scam was tarnished. Her personal life was dragged to the mainstream for a misogynist audience to devour, while the first accused, on the liberty of being a male, makes very occasional appearances in the news. Films and TV soaps are even more at fault with their male chauvinism forced down the throat of the audience, who relishes it unquestioningly. The protests precipitated by the Sabarimala verdict were a revelation of the double standards and institutional misogyny.

Growing up in this environment, indoctrinated by stereotypes of how women should abstain from wearing short clothes, drinking, smoking, and even from wearing lipstick, branding autonomy over one’s body and sexuality as “unwomanly” was not easy. Feminism was painted as an evil movement of misandrists. This remained unchanged till I left for higher studies to a city which became more home than home itself. There, I befriended women who deconstructed all these stereotypes. They stood up for their rights, freedom, stated opinions, were assertive, unapologetically owned their sexuality, were ambitious and a lot more. I began to unlearn and relearn.

A good friend shared her experience of being abused in Class 4 by a relative, which she had buried deep for ten years. For the first time in my life, I found women allies, fighting for a common goal. I found pleasure in talking about emancipation, understood the deep-rooted misogyny in me and the world around, read, discussed, lost friends, gained many and explored my sexuality. I made a lot of changes, so much so that by my final year at college, I bore little to no resemblance to the prejudiced girl that had walked into college three years earlier. And that growth has been my best achievement of them all.

But the state is still deeply in a quagmire of regressive ideas. So, the next time some Malayali brags about the 100% literacy rate, ask them about their take on women’s issues. I’m sure it would be an eye opener of a conversation.

Aiswarya Raj is pursuing a diploma in journalism at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty