Mahila Samajams Must Belong to Ordinary People: G Vasumathi

Translated by J Devika

[This essay which appeared in 1960, is an echo from the 1930s, The voice may well be that of the woman shaped by the Malayali ‘Renaissance’ — that of the Navoddhana Mahila, so prized by the Kerala Model enthusiasts later, for being the moderniser of family life. The Navoddhana Mahila was one who identified herself as an active domestic subject, the bearer of the new values of her modernised community, such as modesty, thrift, efficiency, and committed to the duties of the modern wife and the mother. ]

The Navoddhana Mahila was structurally separated from working-class women who could not afford the public/domestic divide, who were mostly from the oppressed castes and generally, the writings of the Navoddhana Mahila on the latter tended to be philanthropic and reformist — mostly condescending. This essay is particularly striking because the power differential is exposed in all its virulence here — not surprisingly, at a time (the 1950s) when working class women entered Kerala’s public spaces — the roads — as a militant force, and not just as communists alone (even in the so-called ‘Liberation Struggle’ led by the Congress and the conservative community organisations, these women were conspicuous by their militant participation). The despair at the complication in feminine values introduced by many new discourses of gender — for instance, probably, cinema — which affected the way modern women viewed their bodies is also evident in the author’s denunciation of the bra!

This essay is similar to the essay by Kumari Saraswathi on women’s organisations in post-independence Malayali society (in the section Critique) in which she argues that the women’s organisations of political parties do not serve the needs of women; yet the differences are striking too. That is, possibly, is the distance between the Navodhana Mahila and the Swatantryavaadini. But then, both were equally divided from women of the oppressed communities and the working class, and even the Swatantyavaadini resorted to condescension when speaking of these women, as was evident, for example, in some of K Saraswathi Amma’s stories. ]

[G Vasumathy, ‘Mahila Samajangal Sadhaaranakkaarudethaakanam’, Kaumudi Weekly vol 10, 48, Women’s Column, 22 February 1960]

Today there are many women’s organisations all over Kerala. And not just that, women have split into two factions and there are women’s organisations of each in the same place. Both have the aim of uplifting women in many ways; that is, develop Women, who are presently backward in the sports and arts, in culture, the economy, and access to technology. There are tens of thousands families in our country today whose lives are in a mess because of the mounting unemployment and rising numbers of births. There are many women we may meet in such families who are unable to find a solution to life’s challenges and who live with seething hearts seared by eternal disappointment. The number of women who go astray because they have no other means to overcome the difficulties of life is also not small. If we inquire whether the Mahila Samajams have been able to offer some comfort at least to such women, the answer is that nothing has been done, but much could have been done.

If you take the case of the highly-disadvantaged area of the Ambalappuzha-Cherthala taluks, most of the ordinary women make fibre from coconut husk for a living. There are also some women who are agricultural workers. In both these taluks, there are gigantic women’s organisations of the communist party and the Congress’ union, the INTUC. Those who occupy official positions in each are not backward economically, educationally, politically, or in any other way. What have these organisations done for the betterment of women who overwhelmingly ordinary people, middle-class, and the starving poor? What all have they tried to do? What all could they have done?

These women’s organisations could have played such a huge role in the coastal and lakeside areas in instructing and encouraging women in such skills as spinning the ratts and so on, setting up libraries for women and holding classes to improve their general knowledge, giving soothing advise to housewives who struggle meet their daily needs, and counselling them to lead simple lives within their means — and through this they could helped ordinary people so much. These are not very expensive things. And even if they do need some, if tens of thousands can be collected from women for election expenses, can’t a trifling sum be collected for these purposes? Though Kerala leads in literacy, in the homes in these communities of fish-workers and workers who live in crowded conditions near the lake and the sea, there are thousands of women who lack literacy, and even basic social skills to interact with [different] human beings, out of their lack of exposure. We may also see in these areas many families that are broken because of family revolts and quarrels, all from ignorance. So many are the women who fall into the wrong paths because of their inability to consider their future carefully, whose lives turn sorrowful, and who have to live in isolation from the community? What has the Mahila Samajam people done for such women? I will not say that they have not done anything at all effectively. Let me speak of their activism as I know it.

It is just before the Vimochana Samaram [this refers to the massive agitation led by the Congress and conservative elite community organisations against the first communist government in Kerala in the late 1950s. This violent street agitation saw the huge participation of both elite and working class women, mobilised by the conservatives.] that the Congress-led women’s organisations appeared here, just like elsewhere. The women’s samajam organisers were able to get these impoverished women to get out on the streets in large numbers to join the jathas and meetings held for Vimochanam, in the name of their progress. Women who ought to be growing in their families under guardians such as the father, brother, and husband were driven to the streets and made to shout the most shocking obscenities. I don’t think it is necessary to recount the slogans that were shouted and the ones they were urged to shout. Even the little children in this land can recite them Those who have no clue who M N is or what his place is in this land [MN is MN Govindan Nair, a famous revolutionary and communist leader] shouted, “We’ll get you, MN!”(MNe njangal edutholaam). They [the mahilasamajam organisers] were able to make those who know nothing of EMS [Nambutiripad, the communist leader and the first Chief Minister of Kerala] or his history shout ‘EMSe ba-bba-bba’ [mocking his fluency disorder] and to get them on the streets to ‘make an ointment for the stutters’ [again, jeering at EMS] and to spill blood and so on. I can’t help remembering the slogan that women in a jatha opposing the communist candidate Kannan in the Kannur -1 constituency — two groups shouting parts of it — ‘Kannan wants it’ [shouts one group] ‘Ayyayye! Shame, Shame!’ [responds the other]. Unmarried girls of eighteen and twenty, girls who ought to be growing up obedient, disciplined, moral, and modest, running about like this on the streets in gangs shouting vulgarities and indulging themselves as mob attacking leaders who have a history of committing their lives to the country and the people — not a single intellectual who takes pride in the history, tradition and culture of our little Kerala can hear them without feeling pain in the heart. Just the other day, at a meeting at Eravipuram where Sri Mannam [Mannathu Padmanabhan, the conservative Nair leader] opined that communist men should not be accepted as husbands, the repartee that girls who are merely past high-school flung at his face — just think about it! How painful, even little children have begun to spit out vulgarities in public and organisations that welcome it and encourage it are growing — what will be the plight of our women tomorrow? Where will be “the pure sensibilities of the women of Bharatham?” People who abused Mannam for merely politics should remember that there are many who are ready to listen to and obey every word of his. The defeat of the communists in places like Thiruvalla-Chengannur and Aranmula is evidence for this.

We have seen examples of the modesty and obedience of these women. Women are an integral part of human social life. If women alone focused on moral activities and engaged in such work diligently, how the culture of our social life would have improved? If only these women decided to live on an income earned with endurance and patience, lead a life of simplicity and satisfaction; if only they desisted from being fashion-lovers trapped in dirty, ridiculous styles of dressing, how many more families would have known serenity and peace? How come no mahila samajam steps forward to secure these ends? These mahila samajams do not even discourage dressing-styles which, in the upswing of new-fangled fashions, set aside half-nakedness to embrace full-nakedness at the movement of a gentle breeze. Or why blame these organisations? Things have become such that if you want to be an activist in the mahila sangham, you must dress in such a way that your fellow-passengers should be able to count exactly the number of hooks on the brassiere you are wearing. After setting up organisations for the poorest, the half-starved, if the activists live a life that is radically different from the former, how are ordinary women to interact and work closely with them! If things are such, how is the organisation to succeed! Even today there are many community precepts, social rules, and customs that prevent women from living a dignified life in society. It is impossible to ask why these women’s organisations are not working constantly and animatedly to end them. Yes, they are indeed active. Only that it not apparent that this is for the majority, the ordinary womenfolk. The women’s organisations have indeed played a decisive role in getting the communist ministry dismissed and in assuring a majority [in the legislature] in these elections for the United front. Maybe that will bring gains in the future.Nevertheless, the joint front of the women’s organisations [with political parties] from the Vimochana Samaram work to the elections has added to the credit of the leaders of the women’s organisations, but the fact that a section of the ordinary women [who supported these] live in tears and penury cannot be hidden away. Will the mahila samajams themselves try to inquire about this? Will they find solutions?

The strings of the mahila samajams of today are controlled by a group of political parties and their [male] leaders and under the supervision of their wives. If you examine the situation all over Kerala, you will agree. In my view, this is why these parties turn into opposing factions, get on the streets and indulge is rowdyism. An instance from our experience is that whenever the din of politics is not to heard in our atmosphere, the voices of the women’s organisations are also absent. This must change completely. They [the women’s organisations]must withdraw completely from politics. Their official posts must be taken away from the coquettes who wear them like ornaments, from the nylon and the brassier, and handed over to a group of ordinary, modest women desirous of the simple life. Only such women will be able to work for ordinary people, moulding their emotions and thoughts, knowing their ideas and desires. Only they will be able to desist from cavorting and revelling in the name of art, resorting to coquetry in the name of progress, and making themselves ridiculous show-pieces in the name of fashion. I pray that our mahila samajam organisers must subject themselves to self-criticism, withdraw from politics, and carry on activities in way that satisfy all sections.

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