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14 June 1999

A Marxist paradise for women?

Kerala, the Indian state famed for sex equality, is not everything it seems.Brenda Maddox reports

By Brenda Maddox

Last month at Nottingham Crown Court a Muslim mother (along with her son) was jailed for life for murdering her married daughter. During an adulterous love affair, the girl had become pregant in Derby while her husband waited in Pakistan for a visa. The same week, in a landmark ruling, a high court judge declared that parents who take their daughters abroad to marry them off against their will are guilty of abduction.

But English law can nothing to help the millions of women in India, as well as in Pakistan, who suffer, from before birth through to widowhood, from the effects of numerous customs, ancient and modern.

Yet one place in India is different: the south-western state of Kerala on the Arabian Sea coast. Its reputation for prizing girls as highly as boys is part of its legendary charm. And when I visited Kerala recently the legend was instantly confirmed. There they were in the crowded street scene: confident little Kerala girls walking to school, the books and notebooks under their arms giving visual evidence of the highest female literacy rate in India.

Conspicuous by their absence in Kerala were the doctors’ signs that elsewhere in urban India advertise “ultra-sound” – the scanning that helps families eliminate the unwanted female sex before birth.

To visit this low-lying, palm-laden tropical paradise is to be deluged with statistics. By almost any demographic desirable, Kerala is top of the charts. Already it has surpassed the goal the rest of India is aiming at – fertility reduced to replacement level. Kerala has the lowest birth rate, the lowest infant mortality, highest age of marriage and longest lifespan in the whole of the country. The Keralite female literacy rate (in 1991, 86 per cent, compared with 49 per cent in Goa and 20 per cent in Rajastan) almost gives women parity with men.

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From all over the world, not to mention other parts of India, experts in population, development and the new growth area of gender studies descend on Kerala to learn the secret. Why is the place so good for women? The dusty red hammer-and-sickle flags flying everywhere suggest an easy answer. Kerala has now, and has had sporadically since it ceased to be a princely state in 1940, a communist government.

But Indian demographers (a breed not in short supply) dismiss cosy notions that Marxist centralist planning is responsible for Kerala’s “demographic transition”: the reduction in birth rate that occurs as traditional families recognise the value of having a small number of children and educating them. Two other Ms are offered in explanation: matriarchy and missionaries.

Kerala has a history of matrilineal inheritance, which makes the birth of a daughter as welcome as that of a son. In this custom, upon marriage the son-in-law moved to his mother-in-law’s household, sired his children and left them there.

Historically Kerala has had a high respect for education. Its schools are free – many of them were founded by Christian missionaries. These are much sought after by parents of other religions for their good discipline and English-language teaching. “Convent-educated” is a good attribute for families to include in an advertisement for a husband for one of their daughters.

In Trivandrum, the demographer S Irudaya Rajan offers a different explanation for educating females in Kerala: population density. With 800 people packed into each square kilometre, villages are close together and schools within easy reach of most homes. Rajan expands: “I don’t want my daughter to walk several kilometres to school. Families know that if a girl is in school, she is safe.”

This remark from a sophisticated social scientist hints at what the casual female visitor swiftly begins to detect: that Kerala is no paradise for women. The hard appraising stares given women in public places are not flirtatious in the Mediterranean manner, but menacing. Young women are unusually vulnerable here, as an almost incredible story in the New Indian Express brought home to me. Three years ago a schoolgirl was raped by 41 men. The accused, whose names have long been known, have not yet been brought to trial. Meanwhile the victim and her family are objects of derision. A woman police constable sent to guard the girl threw water over the disgraced family’s dry firewood. When the mother complained, the policewoman asked why, if she was so particular about guarding her firewood, she had failed to guard her daughter.

In Madras, Mina Swaminathan of the MSS Swaminathan Research Institute almost spat when I mentioned the superior status of Keralite women. “The Kerala woman is a complete myth!” she exploded. “Gender equality”, she claimed, was worse in Kerala than elsewhere in India. She recited a list of sorry social trends in the state: the rise of wife-battery, stillbirths and a “high-class” sex trade.

Socially, it seems, the women of Kerala are more restricted than in many more cosmopolitan areas of India. A handsome young woman graduate, returned from Bangalore, found living with her Keralite high-caste family a sobering experience. “Jeans are a no-no,” she said. So is a motor-bike. Her father threatens that if she, a Hindu, tries to marry the Christian man she fancies, he will break both her legs.

Still, what the women of Kerala enjoy is no myth. Not to be despised at birth; not to see your own children die in infancy; to expect to live to a ripe old age; and to be educated are goals towards which the rest of the developing world is striving.

Male dominance and economic stagnation may be depriving the women of Kerala of what westerners would call a good life. But, unlike their counterparts in much of south Asia, they have been at least prepared to have one.