On Womanly Duty: Parvaty Ayyappan

Translated by J Devika


[this is an earlier version of a translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, from Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]

Parvaty Ayyappan (1902- 98) was born in Kurkanchery in Thrissur as the daughter of Judge E. K. Ayyakkutty. She was educated at Queen Mary’s College and Lady Wellington’s College, Madras, and later became a teacher at the Vivekodayam School, Thrissur. She also worked in Sri Lanka as a teacher for a year and later at the Government Training School at Thrissur. In 1930, she married the well-known rationalist and reformer, ‘Sahodaran’ K. Ayyappan, and they were active in reformist endeavours She brought out the women’s magazine Stree in 1933. During the Second World War, she worked in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. In 1956, she retired from government service to form the Sree Narayana Sevika Samajam, and the Sree Narayana Giri at Aluva along with Ayyappan. She was active in public life until 1988.

( ‘Streedharmatte Patti’, Shrimati Annual Number 1938: 44 )

I happened to see a lot of news about the lifestyle of Mussolini’s wife in the papers recently1. She takes no role in public affairs. She spends her time fully preoccupied in the affairs of her own household, maintaining it to be her sole duty. This information is presented as though Mussolini’s wife ought to serve as a model for women in general and homemakers in particular. It is possible that she lacks the talent to help Mussolini in his political and administrative work, or participate in other public matters. If that is so, then her decision to adopt a lifestyle that makes her useful within a manageable and circumscribed field is indeed laudable.

However, this need not be upheld as a model for women. The misconception that the capability and the duty of women lie mainly in wifely tasks and home management is what makes this lifestyle appear worthy of imitation. The capabilities and duties of women and men do not lie in their becoming good wives and husbands. Nature has nurtured in individuals certain instincts for the preservation of the race. Particular sorts of male-female relationships have been shaped through the stirrings of such instincts. The Husband-Wife relationship and modern domestic life are the cultured versions of these. Women and men have many duties to fulfill that go well beyond them. Women and men must labour alike for the progress of humanity.

For this, the intellect, and other qualities intrinsic to both men and women must be developed. There is no male–female difference in this matter. Gender distinctions do not apply in humility or intelligence. It applies only to lower qualities. Since Nature has assigned Woman the duty of bringing forth offspring, women had to devote all their energy and attention to tasks like childbirth, childcare and domestic management. Consequently, unlike men, women were unable to express their mental and other abilities. Therefore, if women gain the time and the facilities to develop intellectual or other faculties with the adoption of birth control and other excellent inventions of modernity, they will be able to make a mark upon all the areas of life which men enter and secure success in. If that is to become reality, then the foolish notion that the home and the kitchen are the sites of Womanly Duty must be obliterated from the minds of people. Indeed, if women who have the capacity to emulate the wifehood of Marie Curie, whose partnership in Pierre Curie’s scientific research caused the world to be blessed with Radium, imitate Mussolini’s wife, society and the world would stand to lose. Those women of ancient India, who engaged Yajnavalkya in debate, they too would not be like Madame Mussolini. How marvelous is the example of Nadezhda Krupskaya, who accompanied Lenin all through his trials and difficulties, through the periods of his incarceration and exile, experiencing destitution and the rigours of underground life, serving as a secretary in his heavy labours. India would have lost a great social worker if Pandit Jawaharlal’s wife had contented herself with the management of Anand Bhavan. Ideal marriages are those in which husbands and wives co-operate in each other’s duties as far as possible. Such a relationship ought to be upheld as an ideal model for the people.


1 Such articles were quite frequent in the late 1920s and 30s: see, for instance, ‘Streedharmam’, Deepam 1(4), M. E. 1106 Vrischikam  (November- December) 1930: 126; ‘Mussoliniyute Patni’ in ‘Vanitalokam’, The Mahila 17 (3) 1937: 99-100; V. C. Kuruvila, ‘Mussoliniyute Patni’, Vanitakusumam 1 (12) 1927-28: 444- 48.Indeed, this was an important topic debated in the 1930s, and not only in magazines. The students of the Maharajah’s College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, for instance, were debating on the motion “Hitler’s exhortation to women to stay in the interiors of homes is unfit for modern times” in 1939. See, The Women’s College Magazine 2, June 1940: 70-1. The motion was carried.

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