Nafeesath Beevi (1924-2015)

[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]

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A Conversion at the Deathbed: From the Memoirs of Miss Augusta Blandford

[Ever since I read this account in the 1990s, I have often thought of this young woman and her tragedy. Married to a prince of the Travancore royal family who was the oldest – and so the heir – yet unfit to occupy the throne because of mental challenges, the emotional agony she bore must have been terrible. Even as she was surely expected to bow to the restrictions imposed by traditional respectability and too isolated from her peers and others for human comfort, it is quite possible that she was almost a non-entity. The matrilineal succession that the Travancore royal family followed meant that she was just that: even having a child would not secure her a place in the community of royals without her husband. Her family would have secured honours and resources, sacrificing her.

I contemplated often of what Miss Blandford would have meant to this unhappy young woman who saw no future ahead of her, and of the agency that she tried to grasp on her deathbed. It must have not just been the teachings of Christ, but also the strength that friendships give. Clearly, this woman was at the edge of a modern self, and in her death, embraced an interiority through her independent profession of faith. The tragedy seems to just grow bigger each time I think of it.]

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From Princesses to Lace-Makers: Women in Travancore through Mrs Murray Mitchell’s Eyes

[Mrs Murray Mitchell, a missionary, visited the south Indian Christian missions in the 1880s and published a memoir of this journey in 1885 called In Southern India: A Visit to Some of the Chief Mission Stations in the Madras Presidency in which she made observations on women she met in Travancore, from princesses to the skilled lace makers of south Travancore who are probably among the first groups of skilled wage worker women in this region. Much of it, sadly, is less of observation and more of condescending approbation; however, there are some valuable passages. For example, her incomprehension of matrilineal marital and family norms which seemed to pose disadvantages to the husband is coupled with her observations about the extent to which caste practices were rampant among the apparently-cultured and well-off sudras (Nairs). She makes the former observation as a pure outsider, but the latter observation comes also from her own direct experience of being treated as a possible source of pollution by the upper caste people she met here! Some of her account is slightly mistaken too — for example, the princesses of Travancore did not marry men simply chosen for them. They were asked to chose from three young men who were found suitable for them (which actually put them somewhat close to marriage practices in 19th century Britain!)

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The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued

I was given charge of the Criminal Bench in recognition of my experience of conducting criminal cases as a lawyer and a Sessions Judge. In that area, my principle was of justice tempered with mercy. If a mother’s heart did make itself present in the judgments of the woman judge that is neither surprising nor a cause of complaint. Modern thinking about punishment and the aims of punishment stress the need to convince the wrongdoer of the seriousness of his crime. And that also means, offering a chance to live a life without repeating the crime, of course.

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Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi: Kerala’s First Female Playwright and Carnatic Music Composer

In the nineteenth century, there was a generation of privileged women contributing to the traditional genres of Malayalam literature. Among them, Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi leads the list as the first dramatist and first-known female music composer from Kerala. While early historians may have tried to undermine her contributions as a capable homemaker and virtuous woman who managed to write poetry tolerable well, there is no denying her astonishing range of compositions in Carnatic music.

Read more at: https://www.sahapedia.org/kuttykkunhu-thangkachi-keralas-first-female-playwright-and-carnatic-musics-composer

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – Part 3 Continued

[The next part of this chapter is of the many congratulatory letters that senior lawyers — the Advocate General K V Surianarayana Iyer and Taikad N Subramonia Iyer- published, and felicitatory reports in the Kerala Law Times]

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The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 Continued

A High Court Judge

I was the District Judge at Kozhikode when I was appointed High Court Judge. The appointment came when I was 54; with just one more year for retirement as District Judge. By then, my desire to enter the High Court had more or less died down. But Mr Chandy’s scolding began. Because he was now retired and living with me in Kozhikode, he had ample opportunity too. “Do you know see what happened from jumping to take the Munsiff’s post, not paying attention to my warning that you will end up old and grey and won’t be able to enter the High Court?” He kept pestering me thus.

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The Labour of the Matrilineal Woman: From the Memoirs of P Kesavadev

[The well-known progressive writer of the early 20th century, P Kesavadev (1904-83) wrote his memoir titled Ethirppu in the late 1950s, when he was at the height of his fame. Born in a declining matrilineal Nair joint family from Kedamangalam in North Paravur, his memoir contains interesting recollections of women’s labour in his family, especially in the challenging circumstances which included those from internal dissensions in the family as well as external pressures such as those from the First World War. Below are translations of some relevant passages, about his mother Karthyayani Amma, who labored very hard to support her large joint family and steer it through excruciatingly difficult times – battling the senior men of the matrilineal families who no longer cared much for their sisters and their children, and the near-poverty of war times.

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Elizabeth Kuruvila: from the biography of K K Kuruvila

[Elizabeth Kuruvila was a vocal champion of women’s rights in the Travancore Legislative Council in the late 1920s as a nominated member representing Women. The part that these women members played in extending women’s rights in Travancore is enormous, but they are among the most forgotten of those who strove to advance democracy in early twentieth century Malayali society. A few, like Anna Chandy or Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma (in Kochi) may be remembered, but no biographies, not even simple biographical notes, are available of these women. Elizabeth Kuruvila is not an exception.

When I first began to seek out women writers in early 20th century who seemed to have disappeared except for the sparse writings they left behind, I often discovered that they were wives or sisters or mothers of very famous men. The same applies, it seems, for Elizabeth Kuruvila. The little information I was able to find out about her was from a biography of her husband, Mr K K Kuruvila who was a noted Syrian Christian educationist, legislator, social reformer, theologian, freedom fighter, and leader of the Mar Thoma Church (T Chandy, K K Kuruvila, Manushyasnehiyaaya Oru Karmayogi, Thiruvalla: Kraistava Sahitya Samiti, 2010, pp. 60-3). Below is the translation of the short section.

Not surprisingly, very little is devoted to her own work; she is projected as an exemplary wife who worked to further her husband’s ideals. There are but fleeting references to her intellectual prowess and causes – for example the admission that she even helped him write his speeches. ]

He [K K Kuruvila] chose as his life-partner Ms Elizabeth Zachariah M A who was the daughter of the famous Maaruthottathil Rao Bahadur George Zachariah of Vennikkulam, and the sister of the famous educationist Kuruvila Zachariah. The wedding took place when our hero [K K Kuruvila] was the headmaster of the M T High School — on 1924 May 15.

They were married at the Thiruvalla C S Seminary Church. … Elizabeth Kuruvila was a noble lady who adhered to our hero’s ideals of life perfectly. Her education began in Kozhikode where Rao Bahadur Zacharia was posted. She showed extraordinary talent for learning, attaining such a command over English literature that left even westerners dazzled. She passed the Literature Hons exam from the Presidency College, Madras, in flying colours and later, joined the YWCA as Students’ Secretary. She travelled in many parts of India to study the problems faced by students and also took part in the Students Conference that was held in China around that time. After working five years as the Students’ Secretary of the YWCA, she moved to Calcutta in 1922 to join the national council of the YWCA. She got married to K K Kuruvila in 1924.

Mrs Kuruvila was a highly educated, idealistic woman, endowed with unusual efficiency. She strove tirelessly to lead a fruitful family life and cooperate actively with our hero in his many fields of service.

There were many who readily exploited his tender heart. He was unable to bear the tears of others, and so some undeserving people took advantage of this ‘weakness’ and approached him, and he was made a fool of many a time. But once Mrs Kuruvila began to take over family affairs, this lack came to be remedied and unnecessary expenditure was curtailed. The management of income and expenditure became better organized. .. she stayed in the backstage of many of his public activities offering very useful support. Even in the drafting of his speeches, this noble woman helped her husband amply.

… On the strength of her higher education, considerable talent, the experience accrued from her work and travel associated with the YWCA, and sensible disposition, Mrs Kuruvila was able to do much along with her husband in public forums.

In 1928, this noble lady was nominated to the Travancore Legislative Assembly as a nominated member. This was public recognition of her ability and leadership qualities. The role she played in managing the kindergarten at M T School and the boarding were praiseworthy indeed. She was the president of a great women’s conference that was organized in Thiruvalla by the Kraistava Seva Samiti. Thus this great lady was able to gain a position of considerable dignity in society.

But how unfortunate! This couple could not spend the dusk of their lives together. In the high-noon of her life, she bid goodbye to her beloved husband and darling daughter. She developed a reaction when a medicine was injected to treat her rheumatoid arthritis and passed away quite unexpectedly.

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 3 – Continued

The District Judge is the Defendant!

When I was the Ernakulam District Judge, there was an incident and I had to climb the witness box and suffer a sentence. Except for the few months when my son stayed with me, I was a resident of the Ernakulam YWCA hostel. The YWCA president was the Chief Justice K T Koshy’s wife. That was the time when  subscriptions were being raised to build a new wing of the YWCA hostel. It was decided that a performance should be organized to raise money for the new building. I suggested that women in the legal field should stage a court room scene. And so a play was written. The matron of the YWCA (chedathy) was the real inspiration behind it. She knew a handful of English words, just a fistful, like enough mustard to temper. She would use them correctly or otherwise whenever she could, without much grasp of their meaning.

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