Engl 277b
Spring '00

 

Gender and Religion in Kerala

Report by Josh Andrix

 

The state of Kerala in Southwestern India stands apart from other states in India and nations in South Asia for its rather unusual development. This development, according to Brenda Maddox, includes a fertility rate at replacement level, India's lowest birthrate, lowest infant mortality, highest age of marriage and longest lifespan. Furthermore, Kerala's literacy rate is over 90%. These factors, among others, point to a unique development that has been studied by economists, environmentalists, political scientists and the like as "The Kerala Model" (Kerala was cited by Al Gore in a recent book as an example of environment-friendly development).

As in much of South Asia, Keralites are divided into social groups and subgroups known as castes. Castes are divisions based on religion and labor and are inherited through birth and marriage. They serve social divisions that are often used to pick marriage partners and form social groups. According to Gita Krishnankutty in her introduction to Cast Me Out If You Will the Namboodiris were an upper caste of Brahmins in Kerala adhering to strict practices. Lalithambika Antherjanam belonged to this caste of Brahmins that was Hindu. Under this caste were a caste Ezhavas were peasant and artisan castes (untouchables) such as Pulaya and Paraya (xiv-xv). These were Hindu castes. Kerala's population includes large numbers of Muslims, which is not unusual in India, but also large numbers of Christians (about 20%). Krishnankutty also mentions Syrian Christians and Mapilla Muslims as important castes in Kerala (xv). All of these castes are not isolated from each other. For example, students at universities who study together come from different castes and religious backgrounds.

Caste is probably more often than not something known but not spoken. There are programs that might be likened to affirmative action plans in the United States for the lowest castes to get an education. Lower castes are often in the lowest paying jobs. Despite many reform efforts to abolish the untouchable castes and strip a kind of caste authority, the position in a high caste still holds some degree of power. For example, one female law professor at Cochin University told me that she would invoke her Brahmin status when trying to convince students of a particularly controversial point in class. Indian students I interacted with knew each other's caste and religious background. Under the caste system a person in Kerala is linked to a group (a caste) that denotes a religion and a family labor history. While the caste system functions on some levels as codes of interaction in the world, there are many exceptions to every rule in contemporary Kerala. For example, while an arranged marriage within caste is often expected by family, some young people have "love marriages" that are neither arranged nor within the same caste. These may or may not be accepted by family and community.

What Kerala's unusual development means for women is a heavily debated topic. Women are largely educated and daughters are thought to be as prized as sons. Kerala has been praised for its treatment of women because of characteristics such as these. However, Lalithambika Antherjanam's writing speaks to some of the problems for Malayali women. Gita Krishnankutty says in the introduction that unlike other castes, the namboodiri's were resistant to Western influences and reform movements in Kerala (xiv). Women were often forced into seclusion in their homes, especially during adolescence. If they went out they would have to cover themselves. Even among other castes, the place of women in Kerala society is questioned. While women have had the opportunity to be educated for many years in Kerala, this education has not necessarily meant an elevated position in society Kerala society. Robin Jeffrey uses this account told by Janamma to describe women and education in Kerala:
"'One day,' she would say, 'I was going to school with my friends. I was only 14 then. A couple of boys came from the opposite direction and pointing to me, said, 'This girl has magnificent breasts.' They thought I would not understand, but I did. I knew then just a few words of English...My temper flared up and I used an abusive Malayalam expression, the politest translation of which is, "Your mother's coconut!' Somehow my father came to know of this incident and he decreed, 'Janamma shall not go to school any longer.' That was the end of my education, and that's why I'm such an ignoramus.'" (462).
While this is only one example (and the event Janamma is speaking took place in the 1870's), the story highlights forces controlling women despite education.

Brenda Maddox mentions a number of explanations for the position of women in Kerala. One is the rise of Communist governing bodies in Kerala. These governments helped to distribute land in implement education reforms. Another explanation is a tradition of matrilineal inheritance in Kerala. This was common among certain influential castes and is a factor in the value placed on daughters. Christian missionaries also influenced Malayali women in that they started schools available to girls from poor families. Maddox also uses population density to explain women's education. Kerala has a high population density and therefore it is relatively safe and easy to send girls off to school.

Women in Kerala are able to be educated and have the opportunities that education affords them such as participating in politics, keeping up to date on news, reading religious texts, etc. These tools have not translated into full, equal rights however. At Cochin University women must be in their hostels by dark while men are free to roam at any hour. There is a general atmosphere and attitude that women must be protected and therefore restrictions such as this one are for their benefit. Of course there are women who break the rules, but they are often looked down on. One student from Kerala expressed to me his anger at women in Cochin who wore jeans short skirts and were "flaunting their sexuality."

Kerala may be a model, but it is a model in flux. Caste and gender in Kerala are still assessed, praised and criticized in equal measure.

 

 

Bibliography:

Antherjanam, Lalithambika. Cast Me Out If You Will. New York: The Feminist Press,
1997.
Jeffrey, Robin. "Governments and Culture: How Women Made Kerala Literate." Pacific
Affairs.
Volume 60, Issue 3 (Autumn, 1987), 447-472.
Maddox, Brenda. "A Marxist Paradise For Women?" New Statesman. (London, England: 1996) 128 no4440 30 Jan. 14 1999.