Kerala’s antisocial network

Illustration: satwik gade  

The war over misogynist obscenity has been a long one, at least in Kerala. It dates back at least to the early twentieth century, and no woman author of note has escaped it — from Lalithambika Antharjanam to Madhavikutty to K.R. Meera. To an obscene poem that compared her acting of writing poetry to the sexual act, Kadathanattu Madhavi Amma, a poet from Malabar, hit back with a ‘counter-obscenity’, ordering her interlocutor to stop prattling and get on with the act!

Using Facebook

The war has intensified today, particularly with Facebook becoming a major platform on which Malayali women now write. We have seen controversy after controversy, with hordes of hostile men — of different political persuasions and social affiliations — ganging up to report and silence assertive women on Facebook. So much so that women active on Facebook — not surprisingly, led by a core group of Malayali women — began a powerful campaign called ‘For a better FB’ against Internet slandering, misogyny, and blocking of women’s profiles through mass reporting.

However, the most recent of such episodes — the blocking of the Facebook profile of a young journalist from Kozhikode, V.P. Rajeena, through mass reporting by hostile men — stands out for several reasons. Ms. Rajeena’s post on Facebook, which reflected on paedophilia in the Sunni madrasa she attended as a child, went viral. Responses ranged from those who made horrifying threats, to those who mocked her as “Kerala’s own Malala (Yousafzai)”. Such attacks are certainly not unknown, especially against non-conformist Muslim women and women identified as “liberal”, but Ms. Rajeena does not belong to these groups. In response to the vicious attacks, she apparently said, “Death threats, uproars, venom spitting, verbal diarrhoea, curses... let all these continue, I am not even a bit scared. I have truth and Allah on my side.”

Her supporters, in turn, were often vague in their identification of her oppressors. To many, it was the “Muslim community” or the faith itself; too many, implicitly or otherwise, saw evidence in it of the inherent violence of “Muslim men”.

The Rajeena episode comes close on the heels of similar incidents of Internet trolling and conservative assertion. The recent arrest of Rahul Pasupalan, formerly associated with the ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign, over suspected involvement in the sex trade was followed by mud-slinging by Right-leaning males and Muslim zealots against women activists of the campaign. In late October, authorities at Farook College in Kozhikode suspended and censured students who flouted their directive that boys and girls sit separately in class, a move that led to protests by civil society.

Deeply segregationist society

Not surprisingly, Ms. Rajeena’s experience has been widely read as evidence of the depravity of all men irrespective of religious and community affiliations. This is a partial truth, perhaps more dangerous than outright falsehood. Categories such as ‘Muslim men’ are analytically useless catch-alls. Equally, this partial truth misses the history of community movements in Kerala, which are all, and equally, rooted in a deeply segregationist and gender-unequal vision of family, community, and society. While there can be no doubt that it is predominantly men who unleash this violence, it is their moorings in an outdated vision of community and the familial ideals that needs to be critiqued seriously. The division of the world into gendered domains, and the construct of ‘feminine women’, is shared by all communities here. Segregationism and knee-jerk hostility to women who transgress gender boundaries are a shared feature of all powerful communities in Kerala, and is reflected in the structures of their organisations. The sad part is that the newer forms of identity politics at play here since the 1990s have failed to generate a truly inclusive alternative vision of community and family. They have made identities more rigid instead of reflecting the dynamism of social change in contemporary Kerala.

Therefore, the massive pressures and consequences of demographic change, the emphatic entry of Malayali women into higher education, the transformation of the public sphere, the rise of intense trans-regional-national connections and cosmopolitan communities, and other developments remain unacknowledged by the community leadership, a space reserved for ageing males for most of Kerala’s history.

Meanwhile, male intellectuals interrogating the newer identity politics remain stuck to forms of social analysis that freeze the identities. This crude sociological determinism reduces the complexity of social life to a certain predictable sociological puppet show, and urges the abandonment of careful empirical investigation and attention to the complexity and dynamism of social relations. The result, hardly surprising, is that male ‘elders’ remain entrenched at the heart of all communities, including the ones which have seen attempts at renewed politicisation in the 1990s. No wonder, then, that the attack on Ms. Rajeena was perpetrated by supporters of all these factions.

It therefore becomes imperative to avoid rendering Ms. Rajeena’s struggle to democratise the community into a familiar story of victimisation of Muslim women by Muslim men. At the same time, one should desist from denying the inertia within community organisations — old and new — towards contemporary democratic pressures instead of resorting to comforting and familiar binaries that are empirically non-existent. Democratisation needs social analysis that is able to do justice to social complexity.

(J. Devika is a feminist scholar and Associate Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiuruvananthapuram .)

Segregationism and knee-jerk hostility to women who transgress gender boundaries are a shared feature of all powerful communities in Kerala