International Women's Day 2017: Kerala and the myth of matriarchy

Editor's note: This is among a series of stories we're publishing in the run-up to International Women's Day in 2017

First let’s get one myth out of the way: Kerala is not, and never was, a matriarchal society. Matriarchy implies power in the hands of a woman who is the head of the household.  Some communities in Kerala did have a matrilineal system. This meant that the property passed from mother to daughter. In patrilineal societies it passed from father to son. But in the matrilineal joint families of Kerala, patriarchs — not matriarchs — actually ruled the roost.

Actually the matrilineal Nair tharawad which has been romanticised in many a film has its roots in patriarchy. The Nair men were warriors who led dangerous and uncertain lives. The idea of having all the women in the family living under a single roof and ensuring the property passed from mother to daughter was designed to keep the property and the women safe. There were no disputes over property from outsiders entering the family as the women stayed in their own homes not out of choice, but because that was what they were expected to do.

The traditional sambandam system of marriage they followed also meant they were not bound to one man for life but could change partners.  Again did they have a choice?  Not really. The Karanavan decided on when a relationship had to end and who the next partner would be. The children belonged to the mother and her tharawad.

Nair women circa 1914. Wikimedia Commons

Nair women circa 1914. Wikimedia Commons

The upper caste Nambudiris who followed a patriarchal system exploited this situation in their own way. According to their tradition, only the eldest son of the family could marry within his own caste and only his children had rights over the family property. The other sons therefore would go in for a sambandam marriage with Nair women, comfortable in the knowledge that they would have no responsibility towards the children born out of such unions as they would be brought up in their mothers’ families. As a result of this, many Nambudiri women remained unmarried and locked in their homes.  Also many times the lower caste women were forced to leave their existing partners and enter into a sambandam with an upper caste man.

Some other communities including Moppalas and even the royal families followed a matrilineal system of inheritance. But there were others like the rich and powerful Syrian Christians, who were Nambudiri converts, followed the usual patrilineal system complete with heavy dowries and women being denied any share in the property.

When I first landed in Kerala in 1970, I expected to find a society where women enjoyed much more freedom than in my own home state of Karnataka or even the land of my ancestors, Tamil Nadu. The ground reality however, was very different.

Of course by 1970, the Marumakathayam or matrilineal system was slowly fading into oblivion, though the final death knell was only sounded in 1976 with the abolition of joint families in Kerala. But most of the women I met were already ultra conservative and adhering to the norms of behaviour dictated by a patriarchal society. The tharawads were dying, small families had branched out on their own and most of the women were reluctant to talk about their rather unique past.

There were many paradoxes. I found it very strange that in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala where I lived, not a single woman rode a cycle or drove a car. Many women were educated and held jobs, but they were very specific “acceptable” jobs like teacher, doctor, nurse or at best engineer. They dressed conservatively, mostly in white clothes.

I met women in politics like the fiery Gowri Amma (the indomitable LDF leader) and the graceful Lakshmi Menon who among other things was a Rajya Sabha member, a minister and Padma Bhushan awardee. I interviewed iconic sportswomen like PT Usha and Valsamma. I talked to women circus artistes from Kerala who wore skimpy clothes and performed under big tents across the country. And the nurses who came from Kerala villages and went out to work in the most remote regions across the world.

As a journalist, I got to meet women from every walk of life. I realised that the matrilineal system had strengthened some, especially those who were brave or strong enough to use the wealth in their possession to get educated and free themselves from traditional shackles. But there was also the flip side of the coin. Like in any other patriarchal society of that era, husbands and fathers would tell me smugly that they “allowed” their women to work but only in ”safe” and “acceptable” jobs.

I wrote about Mary Roy, the mother of the fiery free-spirited Arundhati Roy. Mary was then fighting her family to get a share of their huge ancestral property. The Syrian Christian community to which she belonged was governed by an archaic British law which stated that a woman could get one fourth the share of her father’s property of Rs 4000, whichever was less! Mary who had married a Bengali man of her own choice had been cut off without any dowry which was considered to be the girl’s share of the ancestral property. When her marriage failed, and she returned to her parental home with two small children, her brothers cited the archaic law to deny her her share. When I met her, she had already independently established the well-known Corpus Christy school in Kottayam but was still fighting a fierce battle to win Syrian Christian women their right to get an equal share. Indira Jaisingh offered her help and finally, many years later, Mary won the case. During that time, I met many Syrian Christian women… unmarried, divorced or widowed… who had been denied any share in their family’ property and did not have the means or courage o fight their families.

I also met women who had once lived in matrilineal tharawads. Many of them spoke of oppression, of strict norms of behaviour and no personal freedom within the joint family. I remember in particular one old woman who told me of how she was forced by the Karanavan to separate from the man who had been her loving partner for several years. She was made to enter into a relationship with a Namboodiri who was so particular about “pollution” that he would live in a separate house in the compound, cook his own food and bathe after sleeping with her. He went away after a couple of years leaving her with two children who had never seen their father.

This was also the period when the “Gulf Migration” was at its peak. In Varkala, I met many poor Muslim women who had pledged their jewels and taken huge loans to help their husbands get visas and passports to go to the fabled lands where the streets were presumably lined with petro dollars. While the husbands were away, these women toiled alone to pay back loans, educate children sometimes build houses with money their husband brought. Hard though it was this life gave them a certain amount of independence. And when the husband returned it was back to the kitchen for them with no acknowledgement for the stellar roles they had played. Many slid into depression as they were forced to return to a life of repression and abuse.

This piece cannot be complete without talking about women in the Malayalam films. As a film critic, I have watched and analysed Malayalam films now for more than four decades. Many of them are outstanding and far superior to other mainstream cinema in terms of production values, thematic content as well as controlled narration.

But the underlying sexism is always present.  Even in so-called women oriented films, in the name of giving a realistic picture of a woman’s plight, women are abused physically, called names and bullied into subservience. Most top directors, heroes and script writers have at one time or another been guilty of this. And sexism when packed into an otherwise gripping and realistic narrative is far more insidious than the crude sexism of “comedy” characters or melodramatic villains.

And then there were the “soft porn” films of the 1980s which under the guise of exploring women’s sexuality or exploitation packed the script with crude sex scenes and vulgar dialogue. To add masala to such films, extra “hot” scenes were shot often using body doubles of famous actors and interpolated after the film was passed by the censors. A point was reached when Malayalam films became synonymous with porn as these films made their way into cheap theaters across the country.

Everyday sexism on the streets, misogynistic portrayal of women in the media, abusive behavior within families…these are not restricted to Kerala alone. They are national and international problems. And they will continue to plague us until society learns to stop objectifying women and give them the respect they deserve.


Published Date: Mar 05, 2017 09:37 am | Updated Date: Mar 14, 2017 07:43 am