Our Women: Nidheerikkal Mariam (Mrs I C Chacko)

Translated by J Devika

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

 

Nidheerikkal Mariam, later Mrs. I. C. Chacko, (1892-1966) was born in a distinguished Syrian Christian family in Alappuzha, as the daughter of a well-known lawyer, Nidheerikkal Cyriac. She was educated in Thiruvananthapuram, passing the F. A examination from the Maharajah’s College for Women. However, unlike two of her younger sisters Teresa Nidhiry and Anna Nidhiry, who both had careers in education, she did not pursue her studies. At seventeen, she was married off to I.C. Chacko, who was to be known as a brilliant scholar and intellectual in Tiruvitamkoor. She was known to be an outspoken and uncompromising champion of women’s rights. The article below is the speech she made at the women’s meeting held as part of the All-Kerala Catholic Conference at Pala in Tiruvitamkoor in 1924-25. I. C. Chacko’s biographer notes that the speech created a veritable storm within the community, and that she and her husband received threatening letters after that. She is also said to have published a volume of stories titled Sanmargakathakal.

The meetings chaired by Mrs. I. C. Chacko at the All-Kerala Catholic Conferences seem to have been quite exciting and turbulent affairs. At the women’s meeting, attended by some 500 women at the Catholic Congress at Pala (1927), which she chaired, one of the speakers, A. T. Mary, who had spoken about the necessity to serve one’ s husband, and keep quiet at times, was sharply attacked. Participants pointed out that this was not at all necessary, and women’s right to a secure life and home was asserted.  They argued that violence was not to be tolerated, and recommended that women who were beaten by drunken husbands should seek legal redress. Report, Malayala Manorama 7May 1927.

 (‘Nammude Streekal’, Vanitakusumam 1 (6) M. E. 1102 Karkatakam ( July-August 1924-25): 193-99)

Respected ladies,

Several important events have occurred after our last Conference. One of these is the birth of a princess in the Tiruvitamkoor royal family, under the asterism of Kartika. For the people of Tiruvitamkoor, who have in former times worried over the paucity of ladies in the royal house, the fact that it is now adorned by three ladies, including the Senior Maharani, the Junior Maharani and the newly-born Princess, is one that gives much gratification. I congratulate the people of Tiruvitamkoor, and pray that the little Princess and the other members of the royal family be blessed with long life, health and prosperity.

Another happening that has attracted our attention is that a decision has been taken to set up a statue of V. K. Parukutty Amma, the wife of the Maharajah of Kochi, who has done much for the well being of women and for public activities, on behalf of the public of Kochi. I hereby record our happiness, as women, about their decision, and express our willingness to extend co-operation.

The news that the governments of Madras and Kochi have nominated a woman each as unofficial members to their legislative bodies is, indeed, one that brings us great honour. I congratulate these two governments, but also express regret at the impropriety of the Tiruvitamkoor government in its not appointing a woman among the non-official members, despite the fact that it is ahead of these two countries in women’s education. I do believe that at least in the next election, this will be remedied.

I heartily congratulate all the young women of our community who have earned University degrees after our last conference. Among them, Margaret Paulose, who has passed the Literature Honours examination with very high marks, and won three University medals, deserves special mention. These young women have become our trailblazers, our guiding lights. We may justly hope that our womenfolk will steadily march ahead with these young women, and others like them, who have gained higher education. Anyway, the fact that women’s education is spreading, albeit slowly, in our midst, is a sign of its promising future – the progress or regress of a community depends upon its women. There is no doubt that citizens raised by educated and cultured women will become refined, responsible and moral subjects.

Our Education

Many seem to be of the opinion that the education that we gain from schools and colleges today is inappropriate for women, and that they need to be trained in sewing, cooking and so on. However, I do not agree with this view. Women who are constrained to spend all their time in the home with little children and ignorant servants definitely need higher education. Only through higher education are we able to interact with brilliant and learned scholars – who were admired by the world in different times. It is through the knowledge in the sciences, literature and history that we obtain from the Universities that we are enabled to connect our lives with those of the people of the past. We must remember that the ultimate goal of education is the widening of the intellect and the culturing of character. This, surely, is necessary for everyone. Men, who ought to be more alert in the matter of wealth-creation, may probably require more of education to suit their professions. Besides, because they are engaged in activities that need them to get out of the home and travel afar, they are more likely to attain refinement through close interaction with great personalities and seers, even without higher education. For women, the only way to acquire knowledge is through books. It is improper to close down that path also. It will be advantageous to train married women in childcare, nursing, cooking, sewing etc. after higher education, in the same way men are trained in professions of their choice like the law, engineering and medicine after passing the Intermediate examination or securing a B.A.

Our Marriage

Through Christianity has been established in India since many centuries, the customs and practices of marriage among us are seen to be not at all different from our neighbours, the Hindus. Since their religion permits polygamy, the Hindus insist that their girls are married of in their childhood (here the editor has inserted a clarification: “among the Hindus of Keralam, child marriage is not insisted upon; nor is it the usual practice”). But I do consider it a great misdeed that we, who value life as nuns over matrimony, should display total negligence about marriage and related matters, and marry off girls aged twelve or fourteen. Where there is a law that stipulates that persons who have not reached the age of eighteen must not be permitted to alienate a property, parents who induce their twelve- and fourteen-year-old children to alienate themselves surely deserve punishment. This early marriage will always prove a blemish upon the sense of morality of these young women and men. No one thinks of the deleterious effects of child marriage. Married at an age at which they ought to be amassing strength of the body and intellect through games and study, these young girls are denied a chance to fortify themselves. Pregnancy and childbirth at a tender age foists unbearable burdens on them, and they soon become stunted, and wane in health. Doctors are of the opinion that women ought to bear children only after their bodies have attained full maturity and vigour. Otherwise, childbirth becomes a threat to both mother and child. Human beings do not become fully mature before the age of twenty-five. Therefore the marriage of women before the age of twenty-four is inadvisable.

Our Infants

The health of infants depends upon the health of their parents. Compared to England and Wales, in India, a far higher number of infants die before they reach the age of five. Among the rest, three-fourths turn sickly in their infancy itself, and spend the rest of their lives as burdens to everyone else. Child marriage is one important reason why this happens. How will healthy infants be born to mothers who have not gained their full strength! The second reason for high infant deaths is the parents’ ignorance of the proper way to raise children. A Baby Week is being celebrated once a year all over India as a means of alleviating this. In this period, expert doctors try to enlighten parents through speeches, leaflets etc. But uneducated parents do not co-operate with this. They continue to raise their children in the old established ways. A third reason for high deaths among infants is the poverty of the Indian people. One solution to this is women and men who do not have the capacity to support at least six children should refrain from marrying. To be born healthy, to have healthy food, to be educated well, these three are the birthrights of all infants. To defend these rights, under Indian conditions, the government must regulate marriage. I recently read in the papers that in a rule has been framed in Germany, by which everyone who gets married should necessarily obtain a license. We, who are scrupulous in our adherence to entrenched practices, too need to have such a rule.

Dowry

After the debate on dowry, it has become a topic of concern for everyone. As long as dowry stays in the woman’s hands and she uses it freely, any degree of increase in dowry will only be salutary. In England, it was customary for the father of a woman, or her husband, or her husband’s father, or all of them together, to put together some wealth in her name, because her progeny depend on her in their childhood, and because she is not enabled to go out and enter a profession, like men, and earn money. There is no one more concerned about the welfare of children than their own mother. She is forever and fully ready to spend all her money and time for their well-being. Besides, it is indeed a great relief to perceive, in children’s affairs, that the mother and her wealth will be at hand, even if some mishap befalls the father and his wealth. However, the dowry system among us is a great shame. Though usually referred to as Stridhanam (Woman’s Wealth), it is, in actuality, Purushadhanam (Man’s Wealth). In the same manner as a person buys a bullock or a horse for a sum of money, a father purchases a bridegroom for his daughter, paying a higher or lower sum commensurate to his qualifications. Our Stridhanam is that price. That money is used up by the bridegroom’s father as if it was his own, and the woman does not even catch a glimpse of it. This system cannot be deplored enough. The remedy to this, I feel, is the one suggested by Mr. Anthappayi, scholar and lover of the community, that the names of such parents who live by selling off their sons, and men who demand bribes from their brides’ fathers in the name of Stridhanam, should be published in the newspapers, and all social contact with them should be suspended. As far as a woman’s wealth is concerned, daughters must be granted a share equal to that of the sons as a right. Yet, in the Christian Right of Inheritance Bill of Tiruvitamkoor, Syrian Christian women do not have the right to inherit more than 5000 rupees from their parents’ wealth. I condemn the government that has passed this Bill that affects women’s wealth too without knowing their inclination. I do believe that you will permit me to express here, as women, our protest against this Bill, and proclaim our desire that at least in women’s wealth, equal shares must be assigned to both female and male descendants. The absence of landed property among Syrian Christian women of Tiruvitamkoor is a handicap in their attainment of voting rights to the Legislative Council and Praja Sabha, and this leaves them bereft of all rights in matters of ruling the land.

Women and Independence

Though slavery has been abolished since long in India, as far as Indian women are concerned, they are still slaves. They remain under the tutelage of the father in childhood, husband in youth, and the son in old age. Everyone ought to stay under the father’s protection in his or her childhood. However, it does not seem that any woman will desire to carry on like a mere animal in submission to her husband, with whom she is on equal ground, and her sons, whom she brought up. Our indigence is the chief reason why our slavery persists. Pregnancy and childcare will not permit a married woman to take up a profession and make wealth, like men. As a solution to this, the women of England have begun to demand a right over a share of husbands’ earnings for wives. We must agitate to pressurise our government to make a similar law.

First, we must embark upon home-based industries like spinning, weaving, making ornaments of gold and silver, painting, sewing and so on, and improve our financial condition. Even if the incomes from these trades are negligible, they are sufficient to rouse our enthusiasm for work. There is the old adage that many drops make an ocean; everyone will be happy to find a livelihood by self-means. Thirdly, our ancestral wealth—that is, Stridhanam – must remain in our own hands. No woman must accept husbands bought with that wealth. In this way, our slavery will gradually fade away, and we will be respected by other women. The situation being such that married women need to have professions that generate income, the policy of the Tiruvitamkoor government to dismiss women employees when they get married on those grounds alone is most reproachable.

Reading

Though most of our women are literate, they are not found to be using that skill in practical life. The English author and poet Dr. Johnson recommended that a human being must spend at least five hours in reading. The heavy load of domestic work, it seems, will not allow women to spend so much time in reading books. Nevertheless, we must devote at least one hour a day to reading the newspapers, magazines and other worthy books. Women should subscribe to at least one newspaper and follow it regularly. Our knowledge will increase only through reading.

Women and Gatherings

Another thing is that we must pay attention to visiting; all the women of a locality should visit and get to know each other. Though women are said to love talk, Indian women do lead extremely lonely lives. There is no doubt that women, who are confined the whole day long with children and ignorant and lowly paid servants, will love to get together with their peers. European women consider visiting one of their primary duties. But, in order to see that the visits do not disrupt domestic duties, the time and days of visiting in the week are fixed. In those hours, they ready themselves to accept visitors in their parlours in neat clothing. This habit of theirs is worth imitating. As the familiarity between people grows, so will their desire to get together. Besides this, women should organise a club for themselves in all places. These should not be like schools, all women of the community should be granted entrance. Girls’ schools may be used as clubs at least for an hour each day. In the club, besides friendly interaction, many sorts of exercise and games may be organised to strengthen their bodies and delight their minds. A club also helps us to read good magazines, newspapers etc. Such an institution can be easily run by a group of educated women in a locality. In places where women would find it impossible to take independent initiative, this could be done at least with the help and under their supervision of local notables, respected vicars and others.

A few words about clean air and exercise are due in connection with this. Lack of fresh air and exercise count highly among the reasons for the ill health of women. A noted doctor has remarked that simple physical exertion cannot be equated with exercise. Exercise rejuvenates the mind besides exerting the body. And again, it must be performed in the open, in ample sunlight. Doctors consider walking to be a good form of exercise. Walking exercises all parts of the body, and does not need much effort. Therefore it is suits women perfectly. It is very healthy to walk at least for an hour everyday in the evening, taking in fresh air and enjoying the pleasant sights of Nature. Since women spend most of their time in inner-quarters, they should spend some time in the open to take in fresh air. And besides, bedrooms must be spacious and airy. The windows must not be shut in winter. It is enough to wear warm clothes.

Clothes and Ornaments

When Mahatma Gandhi visited Malabar, he was all praise for the white-coloured, short saris and mundus of the women of Malabar. As far as the Christian women of Malabar are concerned, they do not deserve any such praise. Their waist-cloths are so long that they are difficult to wash; though of white colour, they are so dirty that they appear black. At least our everyday clothes must be short and light enough to be washed everyday. It is very healthy to bathe everyday and wear fresh garments. White clothes let in sunlight, which is very necessary for health, much better than clothes of other hues. Therefore it is not good for women, and especially children, to wear such clothes everyday.

Many seem to hold the opinion that it is unnecessary to wear expensive ornaments and fabric like brocade and silk. Compared to Western women, we spend only a trifling amount on clothes and jewellery. As long as everyone wears clothes and ornaments in a way that suits their pockets, no one will have reason to complain. Moreover, we must remember that in these times in which unemployment is growing, if we cease to use brocades and ornaments, the workers who live by manufacturing them will lose their livelihoods. It is not possible to say that we have no use for expensive clothes and ornaments at all. Being ornamental objects, they please the eye.

 

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