[In the 2021 elections, the disappointingly few women candidates fielded by the leading political parties became a hot topic. The candidature of the IUML’s Noorbina Rasheed, a first in that party in twenty-five years, has also been of much interest.
Noorbina’s candidature, however, must be placed in a longer history of Malayali Muslim women’s struggles to enter politics, which actually dates back to the late 1950s. It is here that Nafeesath Beevi’s name should be remembered. Along with K O Aysha Bai, she was prominent as an educated Muslim woman who entered politics. Nafeesath Beevi was born in Alappuzha, the daughter of a textile-dealer, Abdul Kareem, and Hawwa Umma. Her father died when she twelve but she overcame many obstacles, being a good student, to join the Government Women’s College for a graduate degree and subsequently, training as a lawyer. The following excerpts and discussion are from a short biography of hers by Anilkumar PY, titled Aankaalathe Penthaarakam [The Female Star in Male Times], Trivandrum: The New Media Space Books, 2017]
Her biography gives a glimpse of those immense hurdles. She was married into a progressive family of communist sympathisers, and her husband was a graduate. She set the condition that she would continue her education after marriage, and they agreed to let her continue her education as much as she wished. Now, this was surely a great piece of good luck. However:
“… she turned toward medical education, as she had wished. When she applied for medical studies, she had already been pregnant with her first daughter (Dr Arifa, later). She had applied to the Velloor Christian Medical College. In those days, without studying Physics, you could not be admitted to a medical college. So she completed the two-year course in Government Women’s College in a single year and passed the exam. By then, she had given birth to her first daughter.
Seven hundred applicants, twenty-five seats. A week of several kinds of examinations and interviews — at the end of which the authorities of the college told her — “You have a child. Go and raise it. People like you will drop out!” Denied admission thus, Nafeesath Beevi was very downcast — and she made up for it by sending her oldest daughter Arifa to a medical college.
Burying her disappointment at not gaining admission to medical studies, she joined the SD College at Alappuzha and passed the degree exam in second class. Then joined the Ernakulam Law College. This was a new institution. She was pregnant with her second child, a boy, then. In those days, marriage and pregnancy and childbirth, all were part of education. There was no shame about it then…” (pp.28-29)
As a young woman lawyer, the public life offered by independent India must have appeared appealing indeed. Families at that time were not yet fully nuclear; the availability of support at home (her niece Subaida, mentioned in the biography) took over her childcare responsibilities.
Nafeesath Beevi is most remembered as the Congress candidate who defeated the formidable communist leader T V Thomas in what was considered a fortress of the communists, Alappuzha, in 1960, but she had actually fought an election earlier, and lost. Her active role in the election campaign in the Tiru-Kochi election of 1954 helped her gain candidature in 1957. She lost the election for 4325 votes against T V Thomas. But in 1960, she fought him again, to win by 3793 votes. Her biographer notes, “More than the Communists, it was the Congress circles that were more startled.” (p. 36) One wonders if the tactic of fielding women in constituencies perceived to be ‘weak’ had backfired here — but definitely, the fact that the last battle had been a closely-fought one must have also entered the consideration of the Congress leadership.
As a star winner, Beevi was expected to become a minister, but she was relegated to the role of the Deputy Speaker. She was just 36 then. She was the Deputy Speaker of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly from March 1960 to September 1964; in between, she also had to take over as Speaker a couple of times, during crises. However, in each crisis, a man, a powerful politician, continued to be elevated to the Speaker’s Chair. About this, her biographer writes:
“As the woman who defeated T V Thomas, the acceptability that she gained inside and outside of politics made her more well-known. She was first considered for the post of Health Minister but soon the Party’s decision was changed and she was made Deputy Speaker. When the Speaker Seethi Sahib could not attend the Assembly for some times because of illness, she had the chance to conduct a 45-day Budget Session all by herself… Though she did not become Health Minister in 1964, her intervention was crucial in making the Alappuzha Medical College a reality …” (p. 45)
The Congress seems to have done her no justice at all. In 1965, she was not given candidature — the sheen of the spectacular victory of 1960 seems to have worn off. In 1967, however, the Congress deployed her against an IUML candidate, in the IUML fortress of Manjeri. “She went from Alappuzha to Manjeri knowing that it was almost certain that she would be defeated. But she managed to amass a sizeable number of votes in Manjeri where opponents of the IUML did not usually get back even their deposits. Anyway, she did not lose her deposit. It was very hard to cross 1 lakh votes in those days but she won 91.238 votes. Ismail [the IUML candidate] got 1,98,732 votes. … party workers of the IUML had unleashed an unsavoury campaign. They said that she was a naadan beevi, a woman who gallivanted everywhere without her husband. In the end, in the Malappuram election campaign meeting, she shared the dais with her husband Abdullakkutty…” (pp. 46-7)
But the observations of intra-party power struggles are even more telling: “In 196Congress formed the government under the leadership of Pattom Thanu Pillai. Nehru was very keen to make Nafeesath Beevi a minister. But despite his recommendation, the Congress leadership of Kerala removed her name from the list. Beevi says that it was actually cut off. Mannath Padmanabhan [the Nair supremo] has said that if a woman was going to me made a minister, then that is going to be Nafeesath. But she felt later that this would not be so. This was confirmed to her by the AICC President Dhebar who stayed at the Mascot Hotel in the capital for talks related to the formation of the Ministry. Apparently, two Muslim leaders went to him and demanded that a Muslim woman should not be made a minister. Apparently these were the ex-minister Abdulla and Sherif (both are now deceased). Their arguments were about how Islam did not allow women to step out. But her husband Abdullakkutty did not think that way.
Congress was no community organization, but these men stayed within the Congress and acted against her. Instead of her name, Kusumam Joseph’s and Alexander Parambithara’s names were added to the list of ministers. In the end, their names were cut off, too. Instead, Kunhambu became minister. The history is that Dhebar returned after pleading that a woman must be made at least a Deputy Speaker.
In the Congress Party Meeting, the name of Kusumam Joseph was raised for the Deputy Speaker’s post in a move to refrain from opposing the suggestion made by the Congress High Command’s representative. But she insisted that since she was not given a ministerial berth, she did not want the Deputy Speaker’s post. That is how Nafeesath Beevi reached that position … In those days, the Deputy Speaker had no power. The post had no relevance except some greater consideration among the elected members. No car, no official residence, no secretaries. Today, the Deputy Speaker enjoys Cabinet Status along with the Speaker in the House…” (pp. 51-30
Later, after the Speakers of the House changed – after C H Muhammed Koya’s resignation, “…Naturally, the general impression was that Nafeesath Beevi would become the Speaker. But some political equations that had formed in the Parliamentary elections of 1962 became a barrier to it. The KPCC President then, C K Govindan Nair, called at her in the MLA quarters and took her to the Shanghumugham beach for a private political conversation. Kerala had no minister in the Union government. Panamballi [Govinda Menon] had to win and become minister, this time. To get the Latin Catholic votes, Parambithara master had to be made Speaker, suggested C K Govindan Nair, appealing to Beevi. Nafeesath Beevi later said that she had to obey because the movement was above everything else.
She stood firm in the patriarchal field of public activism only from sheer mental courage. … when it comes to shoving women out, all the men in the Party are together. When one of them does it, the others won’t even oppose it. For a long time, not even her name was mentioned anywhere. She was not invited anywhere. In meetings, she was given no consideration except that of an ordinary member of the audience. …All this, she spoke of openly in the organisation. Once she was promised a Rajya Sabha seat. But it was given to Bharathi Udayabhanu. Then she was nominated again and again, for two more terms. Apparently that was because A P Udayabhanu, who was the Regional Committee President of the KPCC, did not win the elections.
All patriarchal political movements have the mindset in which they field women where they are bound to lose and make them lose again and again. In Nafeesath Beevi’s case, Muslim men always thought that a Muslim woman should simply not rise up and gain prominence. That was not a matter of pride to them. It was a kind of intolerance. Beevi used to mention an instance of this. The Speaker [then] Seethi Sahib was given a reception in the house of a leading figure in Alappuzha, Abdukka Master. Beevi’s house was barely a stone’s throw from there. Even if they didn’t consider the position of the Deputy Speaker, she was, after all, the sitting MLA in the area. But she was not invited. ..” (pp. 54-6)