The Women of Kerala and their Freedom: Devaki Narikkattiri

[‘Keraleeya Streekalum Swatantryavum’, Vanithamithram 2 (1), August 1945, pp. 17-19]


[Devaki Narikkattiri was a pioneer woman among the reformers of the Nambutiri community in the 1930s and after]

There is a belief among us that the sartorial habits and freedom of the women of Kerala are held in high regard elsewhere in the world. They wear only clean, white-coloured clothes; they enjoy freedoms in marriage in their social life — these are the foundations of this opinion. I have heard many women raise it from podiums and newspaper columns. It echoed even in the speeches made by many respected women leaders at the All-India Women’s Conference meeting held at Thalassery recently. I feel that if the world of women in Kerala is grasped for its heart, such an opinion will be invalid. When they talk about women in Kerala, they [the speakers at the Conference meeting] see only a few women who occupy the higher levels of education and sophistication. They do not see the Muslim and Malayala brahmin women who are suffocated by the highly restrictive customs of their communities. Surely one cannot say that these women do not belong to Kerala, as much as women of other communities? No, surely not. Kerala women cannot take an inch anymore without taking along these weaker groups. On one side, Malayali women celebrate their freedom. On the other side, at the same time, these very Kerala women are exchanged like mere things, lower than animals. This is the sight that we see today.

In the Nambutiri community, the extreme seclusion (ghosha), polygamy, and compulsory widowhood deny women even basic rights. The suffering these women have to bear because of these is not trivial. Though the Nambutiris who occupy the highest level in Kerala’s caste system are not numerous, they play an important role in shaping Kerala’s culture. The Nairs and other communities imitate them. The Nambutiri, too, has learned many things from others. In any country, no community can strive to advance solely by itself. If all the unfreedoms are retained upon the Nambutiri and their women, how is it that the Nair woman or community will be liberated? It cannot also be that the Muslim woman is alone left behind beneath her veil and other progress. Either we need to reach out to them, go to them. Or we will have to take them with us.

It is evident that all the customs observed by different communities in a country are connected to each other. The customs of the Nairs have a role in the extreme seclusion of the Brahmin woman and in confining them inside [the home and community]. Though the practice of Muslim women’s veiling is not present in other communities, the principle of it, the theory of it, is accepted in Kerala’s society as a whole, everywhere. This shows that a community cannot remove all its undesirable customs just by itself. And even if that happens, this does not mean that we cannot claim by any means that all the women of that country are therefore liberated. This cannot happen unless a majority of the women in the country are independent and well-educated.

Then there is the argument that people of other countries have spoken about the freedom of women in Kerala. That is true, they must have spoken. It is not surprising that visitors from other parts of the country have remarked about the freedom of women in Kerala. Compared with women in other parts of the country, the Nair women of Kerala do enjoy much freedom in certain aspects. In the right to family property and marriage, no other women in the country enjoy so much freedom. It is not surprising that visitors who come to know of it think mistakenly that all women in Kerala enjoy such freedoms. We must correct this error. Instead, if we cover up the negative aspects of life here and project only the positives, that will not  serve the best interests of our land or the women here.

Finally, one may reflect again on the condition of freedom of the women of the community who, it is claimed, enjoy much freedom. It is the Nair community that stands in the forefront of such freedoms. Though the Christian women of Kerala are not at all backward in education, in matters of marriage and rights on the family property, they have many unfreedoms, and this is but a truth. But be that as it may; here we are discussing women’s freedoms among the Nair community. Nair women are free to divorce. They have more rights on the family property than men. They do not suffer seclusion. They do not suffer from the dowry system. But even though they enjoy all these advantages, anyone would agree that most women in this community are unfree. A young girl in an aristocratic Nair tarawad has less freedom than even the Nambutiri woman. She does not have an individuality of her own or opinion no matter how well-educated she is. No one actually desires that, either. Some may say, this is because today’s education is problematic. That may true, for sure. But that is not the only reason. Because men and women today receive the same education. Why is that despite this, the mentalities of these two groups differ so much? The reason really lies in the fault of our general social attitude. Women’s progress and individuality are impeded, in truth by the wrong attitude that women do not need a separate and free individuality and that women need to only lead lives dependent on men’s labours and lives. Many claim that women and men are the two wheels of the community. The same people will not accept women’s individuality. What is that individuality? That she be responsible for her own life, like men. That she realize, to be human one must live by one’s own labour. If other than this anyone is under the illusion that women’s economic independence lies in gaining a share of the family property along with the man, that is pure idiocy. A good example of this is the Nair community. They can study, if they want to. Work on their own, if they so wish. But no one encourages women to take these paths. On the contrary, the idea is that the job of becoming the wife of  higher officials is more respectable than accepting a job for oneself after higher education. Aristocratic families do not even send their daughters to work. The dowry system and the difficulty in finding bridegrooms are rife among the women of this community too. Is this the freedom of the women of Kerala?














Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.