Continuing struggle

Gender Studies

Continuing struggle

`From the elaborate petition, it is clear that the plaintiff's immediate demand is to ban all efforts by women to gain employment, on the grounds that they are a bunch of creatures created for the domestic pleasures of men, and that their lives outside the hallowed kitchen-temples will harm familial happiness," said Anna Chandy at the Vidyabhivardhini Sabha in Thiruvananthapuram in response to a speech made by Sadasyatilakam T.K. Velu Pillai who opposed the government giving jobs to women.

An article titled "Streevidyabhyasam" signed N.R.V. appeared in the Vidyavinodhini. The author divided education into three types: to be obtained verbally through advice and sermons; through learning letters; and by practical training in crafts and other activity. The author argued that only the first and third suited the women, and that learning letters was not only useless, but also actually the source of much harm to them. N.A. Amma in her essay titled "The Demerits of Female Education: A Refutation", mounts a scathing attack on N.R.V., meticulously pointing out the errors in each of his arguments. In conclusion she says, "Though God has differentiated women and men into two distinct groups, they have been granted equal levels of intelligence. Education is unavoidable if that intelligence is to evolve. An education that seeks to broaden the mind cannot do without literacy."

Eighteen-year-old Haleema Beevi, organised a conference for Muslim women. It was estimated that about 200 women attended the conference and resolutions were passed requesting concessions for the education of Muslim girls and demanding government employment. Haleema Beevi gave the welcome address. "It is a terrible realisation for us that if histories sought to describe groups of people who have not even been touched by civilization in this twentieth century, in which enlightenment has reached its zenith, the first place would be occupied by Muslim women."

These and many more essays appear in Her Self: Early Writings on Gender by Malayalee Women 1898-1938 translated from Malayalam and edited by J. Devika. At that time there was a need for reform, a need for the voice of women to be a heard and a need for women to act. And this is what forward thinking women of Kerala thought and fought for.

The authors are educated women from different communities. Some of the essays are rejoinders to articles written by very distinguished male intellectuals. They cover a wide range of topics from "Literature and Womankind" by K.M. Kunhulakshmy Kettilamma and "Malaylee Marriage Modified" by K. Padmavathy Amma to "Women Should Not Abandon the Kitchen" by Narikkatiri Devaki Antarjanam and "Woman's Independence" by K. Mary Thomas.

Reading through these translations one is aware of the immense struggle that these women have had to go through to have achieved what they did and gain acceptance in a society that laid down so many strictures and rules for women. But one cannot resist the temptation to question whether society in Kerala has really changed since 1938. The translations have maintained the reason, the humour, the sarcasm and even the rhetoric, bringing together a wholly cognitive argument for the betterment for women — then and now.

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