The Women's Wall in Kerala, India, and Brahmanical Patriarchy

Feminist Studies 45 (1):253-261 (2019)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Feminist Studies 45, no. 1. © 2019 by Feminist Studies, Inc. 253 Sonja Thomas The Women’s Wall in Kerala, India, and Brahmanical Patriarchy On January 1, 2019, a human chain of women, between three and five million strong and 385 miles long, gathered to protest the barring of menstruating women from entering Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India. The so-called Women’s Wall received widespread news coverage; in the United States, NPR, the BBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all had stories on it. Debra Messing, Kerry Washington, and Rose McGowan tweeted about it. As a scholar of caste, gender, and religion in Kerala, India, I watched the news and international attention with a good deal of interest and a bit of unease about how the intersections of casteism and patriarchy (brahmanical patriarchy) were glossed over in the reporting. The issues surrounding the Women’s Wall reveal the ways in which certain groups invest in the protection of brahmanical patriarchal power; a power that is reflected in political tensions between the Kerala state and the Indian central government that may come to a head in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Casteism and religious divides in Kerala are rarely discussed in depth because Kerala is largely seen as a progressive state, with a 94 percent literacy rate. Other development indicators also point to the assumption that Kerala is exceptional: low infant mortality rates, low maternal mortality rates, low fertility rates, and a population where there are more women than men. Kerala is seen as secular because there is a large number of both Christian and Muslim religious minorities. In 1957, 254 News and Views Kerala made history by democratically electing a communist government and initiating a set of far-reaching (although not all-encompassing) land distribution policies. The state is seen as transgender friendly with a transgender beauty pageant and support for trans surgery. The “feminist ” Women’s Wall protest fits in quite neatly within the dominant narrative that Kerala is exceptional, progressive, and thus a model for other Indian states and for countries in the Global South to follow. However, even as “progressive” Kerala is celebrated today, it is not clear that women in the state are necessarily as empowered as commonly believed. The state has some of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation and violence against women is widespread.1 Kerala’s suicide rates are two times the national average, and Kerala leads all other states in India in the number of family murder/suicides.2 Women are vastly underrepresented in politics.3 Although women are educated, the female workforce participation rate is one of the lowest in India.4 There is evidence to suggest that educated, nonworking women are using their education toward securing a better marriage match rather than for employment or empowerment.5 Kerala has a history of extremely repressive caste practices. This area of India once not only practiced untouchability, but what is known as “distance pollution.” A Dalit (the most oppressed caste in the caste hierarchy) was not allowed within sixty feet of a Brahmin (the most privileged caste), and the mere shadow of a Dalit falling upon a dominant-caste person could result in a Dalit’s death.6 Dalit Bahujans were prohibited 1. See Swapna Mukhopadhyay, ed., The Enigma of the Kerala Woman: A Failed Promise of Literacy (New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2007). 2. Jocelyn Lim Chua, In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). 3. J. Devika and Binitha V. Thampi, New Lamps for Old? Gender Paradoxes of Political Decentralisation in Kerala (New Delhi: Zubaan: 2012). 4. Praveena Kodoth and Mridul Eapen, “Looking Beyond Gender Parity: Gender Inequities of Some Dimensions of Well-Being in Kerala,” Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 30 (2005): 3278. 5. Sonja Thomas, “Education as Empowerment? Gender and the Human Right to Education in Postcolonial India,” in Human Rights in Postcolonial India, ed. Om Prakash Dwivedi and V. G. Julie Rajan (New York: Routledge, 2016), 82; Ritty A. Lukose, Liberalization’s Children: Gender, Youth, and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 104. 6...

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