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, please refer the book]
[ ‘Streekalum Swatantryavum (Bhagam- 1)’, The Mahila 1 (3), March 1921: 108-13]
[This seems to be a pseudonym, probably used by B Bhageerathy Amma]
Good heavens! Many eyes will redden, many faces will be etched with deep frowns, upon seeing these two words written together! Many may decide to reject the article without reading it or indeed, fling down the magazine in a huff. I would like humbly request such readers to resort to such imprudent acts only after reading the whole article.
The present-day inhabitants of Kerala are of different sorts. There is one group that hangs on obstinately to the injunction ‘Woman deserve no freedom’ (Na Stree Swatantryamarhati ) and keep muttering under their breath that “all of today’s women are hankering after freedom. This is the sign of the Age of Kali. This is the beginning of the end..” and so on. Another group claims that “women already possess virtuous freedom”. They should not be allowed any more. Today’s poisonous education makes them averse to marital ties. The world is beginning to decay. So goes their argument. There are also some cultivated minds, which cherish pride in the their nation and their community, and maintain that women should be granted their just measure of liberty. Of these, the first two are not very different. Reckoning that an outright and obstinate rejection of women’s liberty may impoverish their ‘modern’ credentials, they (the members of the second group) merely refurbish their conservatism in different terms. Leave this as it is. What position did the wise Indians of ancient times grant women? Will women be allowed freedom? If yes, let us carefully consider the matters in which it may be permitted.
It is surely an unblemished truth that the ancient Indians were wiser. It may be readily proved that they allowed women rightful freedom, and worshipped them appropriately. Marriage is a rite of equal importance for Woman and Man. Merely ponder what freedom our ancestors granted women in this matter. Gandharva Vivaham (secret marriage of lovers) and Swayamvaram (marriage of choice) were permitted in those times. This was not because our ancestors were ignorant; rather, it stemmed from their superior intelligence. They understood well that in marriage, the mutual compatibility, and the consent of the bride and the groom matters most. The secret of the durability of marital ties in those times lies precisely in this. The women of those days had the right to divorce their husbands. Their advice was considered valuable. Their freedom of opinion was not curtailed. Many even volunteered to fight in battles. Sriparameshwaran’s androgynous form as Ardhanariswara, and the eminence he granted to Ganga Devi are, of course, excellent illustrations of the high status enjoyed by women in those times. But what about the condition of women in modern times? Describing it as despicable a thousand times over will not suffice. Women are not even allowed to express their opinions even in the weighty matter of marriage. In this affair, they are little above lifeless objects of exchange. How pathetic! More than three-fourths of one’s life is to be spent in matrimony. It is claimed, indeed, that women should not realise this, that they should not seek to make matrimony comfortable! In most communities in Kerala (no, really, in all communities) custom dictates that women must have no recourse but to wed the men chosen by their guardians. Even if the prospective husband is an ignorant boor, a leper, a drunkard, or a philanderer, a Malayalee woman has no right to alter even an inch the decision taken by her parents or elders. Worse, she cannot even voice her grievance (it may be admitted that there are refined persons who would rebel against such control. But an opinion can be formed only through considering the state of the majority). What further example will one need to make evident the lack of liberty of women in the present? Smt. Bhageeraty Amma’s declaration in the first issue of the Mahila that wives do not possess even the minimal right to inquire about their husbands’ destinations when they go out, is not an exaggeration at all. Among a hundred persons, at least ninety-five or more insist that women have been created for kitchen-work and reproduction, and conduct their lives in the light of this notion, even in this 20th century, nay, even in this month of March 1921, when the Sun of Progress is believed to have reached its apogee. Given this, if the call for the right to liberty rings aloud within the world of the women of Kerala, they have certainly not striven for it. Why be astonished at this? Why be envious? Why be angry?
Men alone do not make a community. Only both women and men can form it. Thus it is definite that when we speak of the prosperity of the community, we refer to the prosperity of both sexes. How can the community prosper if men alone secure education and culture, and women carry on like poultry promised to the oven, or, alternately, like Yogis tending the Sacred Fire in sacrifices, or like cats that skulk around kitchens?
If the Westerners had hung fast to this particular mulishness characteristic of the people of Kerala, where would be they now? Who took up most of the responsibilities left behind by men fighting the war? Women. If Kerala faces such an exigency – God forbid—will our women be useful in any way? What will be their plight, when the guns start booming? Why should this be so? If their cowardice makes good-for-nothings out of them, who is responsible for that? Men, of course. If women have become sluggish, it is because they have been shut up in kitchens…. To cut it short, a fair share of liberty must be bequeathed to womenfolk.
Now I have something to say about the term swaatantryam. In the earlier issue, Vatakkumkur Rajaraja Varma, a respected friend, wrote: “ It is quite improper that women are interpreting the idea of swaatantryam in an unacceptable way and yearning for it.” Indeed, it would be most improper if someone sought to misinterpret the concept and pursue distorted goals. Indeed, I would go as far as to condemn such effort as a heinous act that must be averted at once. But my firm belief is that not even one of my educated Keralite sisters has taken, or will take, such a direction. The respected Raja continues: “ Women have already gained enough of virtuous freedom by now. It is far better not to have the freedom to wander alone in parks, visit theatres, dance, and become slaves to wage labour and paid employment, like the white females”. Here I am assailed by several doubts. First, I do not understand the meaning he ascribes to ‘virtuous freedom’ (satvika swaatantryam). I also do not see what may constitute the lack of freedom. To collapse the demand for liberty advanced by the women of Kerala into the ‘dancing’, the strolling-in-parks and the theatre-attendance of Western women, whose ideals of life are entirely unlike (ours), is definitely a foolhardy thing to do. I do not think that any Keralite sister who asks for liberty will desire all that. There are many able ladies in Kerala today who have passed the higher examinations and struggle for the freedom of women. I have also come to know with pride that many of them hail from my community. We also know of the lifestyles of many such women. Yet none of them desire the above-mentioned abandon. Do desist from assessing women by the same standards of change that seem to have guided today’s men.
According to the respected Raja’s designs, women ought to appease themselves with what he believes to exist, that is, ‘virtuous freedom’, which is nothing other than the modern condition I described earlier. God alone knows how many will consent to this.
Asking us to be wary of wage labour is certainly a bit of salutary advice. This only means that women should not remain subject to status quo. More so because women today are slaves of wage labour; but in ordinary wage labour, the wages are fixed. Here, the only difference is that this is not the case. Our sisters are mainly occupied with kitchen-centred work. The wages are set by the husband’s munificence—no, indeed—by his benevolence. Another statement made by the Raja appears quite opaque. “The poisonous education prevalent today makes women abhor the ties of marriage, just like the men”. One does not know whether this statement is true. I am willing to concede that the current system of education is utterly defective. However, I do not that it makes women apathetic to wedlock. If they do indeed display inhibition, some other reason must be sought. He (i.e. the Raja) states that marriage, once sublime and exalted in our lives, has become a bouncing ball providing ample entertainment for lawyers and judges in courts – he must be referring to the rare samari cases, or suits for divorce. Actually, the Raja’s statement is evidence that upholds the necessity of giving women freedom and making men more responsible and moral. For, women file for maintenance because their husbands have not been caring, because their husbands have heartlessly abandoned them. If women are filing for divorce, that is because they were given no say in their marriages, and because the grooms’ eligibility was never seriously assessed. Therefore if marriage has become the bouncing ball of the judiciary, the fault does not lie with women. All that has been said here about the Raja’s article is merely incidental; my article is not a rejoinder to it.