For me, feminism is opposing patriarchal violence: J Devika

In a freewheeling chat with TNIE, the activist talks about her views on feminist politics, niqab, casteism, Kerala women, and also why she criticises the CPM more. Excerpts:
Social critic and social science professor with the Centre for Development Studies, J Devika.
Social critic and social science professor with the Centre for Development Studies, J Devika.Express photo

An eternal rebel known for her non-conforming feminist positions that are usually in conflict with those of established feminist activists, J Devika often invites the wrath of many. A social critic and social science professor with the Centre for Development Studies, Devika is also a well-known creative writer and translator.

How do you perceive the current Kerala society in a historical context?

Kerala is a society with growing inequalities. The vulnerable lower-middle class is protected by the state through welfare measures, but the ‘abject’ class finds itself out of the purview of such schemes. Ironically, a major illness, or even climate change, can land the vulnerable-lower middle class too in the ‘abject’ category. Ecologically, Kerala is very fragile. If we don’t address climate change, it will worsen. On the social front, threats to caste-community entities tend to take a violent turn, possibly due to endogamy practised by communities. Community leaders have become power and resource-hungry. M K Muneer was a progressive minister who piloted many measures for transgenders, but when out of power and trapped in the space of his community, he took a transphobic stance.

But is this a Kerala-specific phenomenon?

Inequality is much less in Kerala than in other states, but it is growing.

Inequality is proportional to denied opportunities, but haven’t opportunities increased in the 21st century?

In Kerala, there has been a net job-loss for women, as per a study by K P Kannan. There is a huge gap in terms of opportunities. Traditional industries and the primary sector that employed women are in a shambles. The women who lose jobs there, enter the informal sector. Access to opportunities have also not increased among tribals, Dalits and coastal folks.

Aren’t caste and class divides coming down in the 21st century?

No. Consumerism prompts one to constantly improve one’s economic state. If poverty was the major issue in the 20th century, it’s vulnerability in the 21st century, with an ‘abject’ class even below the vulnerable section. Class divide is hence not a binary divide. The ‘vulnerable’ group can at any time fall into the ‘abject’ category. The government’s claim that it can eradicate poverty by uplifting a few families is juvenile thinking. When you uplift the abject, the vulnerable land in the category.

Industrialisation did lead to loss of many jobs in the traditional sector, with men too having to bear the brunt…

Earlier, women dominated the workforce in traditional sectors. So, women lost more jobs. After the mid-90s, the state faced a financial crisis. Men had good wages, but income was erratic. Kudumbashree came as a blessing, in the form of cheap loans and self-help ventures.

How do you look at the role of Kudumbashree in Kerala’s social life?

A large number of women did get access to public life, and became aware of the various benefits offered by the government. This has created some sort of insecurity among men. Loans offered by Kudumbashree have saved many women from falling victims to private financiers. But there are also complaints that poor women who lack ‘repayment’ means are not given membership by self-help groups. My grouse is that several Kudumbashree workers are compelled to do underpaid work for local-self-governments. They do surveys, collect data for the government at cheap rates. On one hand, Kudumbashree empowers women, but on the other hand, the government exploits them for its own needs.

During the Lok Sabha poll campaigning, a woman who participated in a Muslim League march said they were not “Kudumbashree members”...

It happened because of the perception that Kudumbashree women are the government’s slaves. It holds true only in some places, but not everywhere.

Is the condition of Kerala women worse compared to their counterparts in other states?

Women in Kerala are individuated, yet they remain subject to a much gender-iniquitous system. Hence, suicide-rate is higher among women. Even if the girl is a rocket scientist, her family has to worry about dowry. But distress among women is higher, because they are literate and healthy. Though women in Kerala are educated, domestic violence, dowry violence and child abuse are high.

As a historian, why do you think caste discrimination was so severe in Kerala in the past?

Kerala is one place where the Brahminic dominance model was practised intelligently. The Parasurama myth terms Kerala as a ‘dreamland’ for Brahmins, the supreme caste, with others like Nairs as their servants. Even among the oppressed, there were two classes – Pathitha, like the Ezhavas, and Neecha, who were the Dalits.

How do you look at the role of the Left in annihilating caste?

Casteism was already weak when communism gained a foothold in Kerala. Communism helped in defeating casteism but the efforts to undermine casteism had begun much earlier. There were economic, cultural and political activities that helped in weakening casteism, much before the intervention of communism. Communism helped in liberating women, especially female labourers to a great extent. The movement helped save women from sexual violence by feudal lords. It also helped improve the condition of the poor.

There is a view that CPM failed to flourish in India because it could not adapt to the casteist system in the country…

Could be true in other states but in Kerala it has adapted well, and hence, came to power. But for the very same reason, they could not launch a social revolution. Communism has adapted many elements from upper-caste culture. A good majority of the leaders are from upper castes.

Do you mean to say the communist movement appropriated upper-caste values and traditions?

They did not appropriate the whole thing but took what they could. If not, how could you imagine the ‘viplava thiruvathira’!

Was it because many leaders belonged to the upper-caste?

Could be. Many anti-caste movements and persons were closely connected with the communists. These currents later converged with the communist movement, but they did not take it forward. The Communist Party wielded a huge influence over Kerala society at one point of time. At the time, they could have brought in more women and leaders from lower castes to the party’s upper strata. They, however, chose to abide by an outdated ‘Stalinist’ system.

But the CPM has been incorporating more women and people from lower castes into the leadership.

I don’t think so. K K Shailaja is not part of the top leadership. Though she won with a record majority, she was put in a space with no visibility. There may be more women in local committees, but that doesn’t mean anything. They wield no power.

But two CPM chief ministers belonged to lower castes. The same is the case with CPM state secretaries...

In Kerala, Ezhavas, though OBC, are powerful. You cannot say so in the case of Dalits, who constitute a majority of CPM’s support base. You should view it in this context.

The Left is always analysed through a microscopic lens, but what about other parties?

Others are extreme conservatives. You can only fight them. I won’t ask the BJP to promote women. Even if the BJP says that they would implement 100% women reservation, I wouldn’t want to side with the BJP.

What about the Congress?

I would be very sceptical. They have never projected women empowerment as an achievement like the CPM, so they are less answerable.

Kerala’s socio-economic indicators are much ahead of other states. Some attribute this to the ‘‘progressive ideals’’ of the Travancore royal family, while attribute this to successive democratic governments. What’s your take?

In the 19th century, the Travancore state was going through a lot. There were talks to merge it with the Madras presidency. To avoid this, Travancore implemented a series of things to project itself as a model state. The modern attitude shown by the Travancore royal family was also part of their survival tactics. If not, their state would have been snatched away from them. The pressure exerted by the masses also called for public action to ensure rights and democratisation. And it is not due to the largeheartedness of the royal family.

In the 21st century, when women take up ‘ready-to-wait’ campaigns, does it mean that they are ready to be confined to a space like this?

There is a complicated history behind the ‘ready-to-wait’ campaign. Rituals have not disappeared from Kerala, rather it is increasing.

But such moves to protect traditions can be seen in other communities too...

Yes. Many Muslim friends have told me that earlier there was never any hostility towards dogs, but it creeped in after the return of the neo-rich elite class from the Gulf countries.

Wasn’t such so-called preservation of traditions that saw the arrival of the niqab, which even a feminist like Devika is seemingly in favour of?

That’s a totally unjustified statement. Only some imperialist feminists view niqab as anti-women. A ritual refers to an act in a pre-defined space and time, failing which a divine power would apparently cause an unforeseen danger to befall you. Niqab or applying sandalwood paste on the forehead are not related to rituals. It is more of an identity-display. According to Islam, it is necessary to hide the body, and this applies to both males and females.

But you have spoken critically about the practice of Namboodiri women covering themselves completely… If that’s regressive, how can you support Muslim women doing the same?

Namboodiri women ensured nobody saw them. However, Muslim women want others to see them wearing niqabs. There is a difference.

Are you saying that discussions about the Muslim identity should take place only within the community?

In the present-day Indian scenario, if you try to force reforms upon women, it would only boomerang.

You criticise women who are ‘ready-to-wait’ but you insist hijab/niqab/purdah is progressive…

These two cannot be compared. ‘Ready-to-wait’ is about staying away from a space they believe they cannot enter now; whereas what Muslim women are saying is that their face is not their identity.

As a feminist, how can you say that?

Please do not define feminism for me. You are nobody to tell me what feminism is. And I am nobody to tell you what feminism is.

You used the term ‘restorative justice’ during discussions on Civic Chandran’s molestation case. It was alleged that only when your friend became an accused such a concept was introduced...

What a foolish argument. This is something we adhere to, in our internal complaints’ committee. It is not some kind of an out-of-court settlement. This is done in court and it is justice; the only difference is that in the other system it’s the state that stands up for the survivor.

How practical is ‘restorative justice’ for a victim?

At least it should be theoretically agreed to. Only after that the practicality needs to be addressed.

Devika has always been quarrelling with the state…

I have criticised many, but not quarrelled with them. How can criticism be termed as quarrelling? My policy is to criticise when my loved ones do something wrong. It shows care.

Is that why you criticise the CPM constantly ?

Of course. The CPM now exists only in a few places in India. We know the plight of the CPM in West Bengal. I fight with them because I want to see them around in the long term.

Recently, Kani Kusruthi won accolades at Cannes. A couple of years ago, you had criticised her for acting in the movie ‘Biriyaani.’

As an actor, she has every right to act in any film. None can blame her for that. In future, when she looks back, she should never regret acting in a film for a fascist. Kani may have done ‘Biriyaani’ without much thought. If I can remain an actor only by acting in a fascist movie, I would rather not be one. If I can have an academic life only with a fascist, I would rather not be an academic.

There’s a discourse about disappearing women actors in Malayalam cinema...

True. It’s not just women actors who disappear, they are missing from the technical side too. In the credits, we hardly see any woman technicians.

There’s an argument that women are not being given chances as men are scared after the ‘me too’ controversy.

What can you say if people start getting scared of such issues? (smiles). Fear comes when there is a lack of trust. Lack of interest comes when there is lack of equal interaction. They should provide respect and dignity.

Some Dalit organisations have termed you a ‘Savarna feminist’...

This allegation has been going on for long. I would never say I’m anti-caste or caste-free. In the Indian scenario, if someone claims so, it’s untrue. I’m someone who carries my caste environment, even in my body language. The term Savarna is like having diabetes. We can manage it but can never be cured. At times, our body language reflects the privileges of caste. It doesn’t mean that there’s no scope for criticising caste. I don’t believe only a chosen few can speak for the Dalit community. If you respect somebody, your actions should not be condescending. Only when you express your true opinion, do you accept them as equals.

You are a creative writer who has translated many prominent writers… What are the key challenges?

It’s a difficult job but a pleasant experience. When you translate a literary work, you need to transcreate the affective privileges in the original work. It won’t be a word-by-word translation. That’s why K R Meera’s ‘Mohamanja’ was translated as ‘Yellow is the Colour of Longing.’ The affective power should be transformed into the other language. It’s a major challenge.

There are different narratives about ‘marumakkathaayam’. While one says it was empowering for Malayali women, another rejects this narrative. What’s your take?

Matriliny has no software. It’s different in different places in Kerala. Its dynamics and nature change. Practices in each family differ. The axis of power for the elderly man and woman in the house too are different. When the Britishers arrived, they found it difficult to process all these. So they introduced the European concept of a patriarch, where the elderly man in the family is bestowed with financial powers. The elderly woman has powers while the youngest is more or less powerless.

Feminists have some established models in Kerala society. Some think it’s about looking/being like men…

Feminists, being assertive women, are able to create some fear among others now. I think it’s a good thing. Earlier, feminism and feminists used to be mocked at.

What’s your definition of a feminist?

More than politics, it’s life ethics for me. I believe, feminist life is acquiring the moral courage to oppose patriarchal violence, wherever you come across it.

TNIE team: Cithara Paul, Anil S, K S Sreejith, Cynthia Chandran

Vincent Pulickal (photos), Pranav V P (video)

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