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Periyar ignored? Dravidian anti-Brahminical polity 'failed to uphold' women's rights

By Rajiv Shah* 

Can “annihilation of caste” also break the oppressive shackles of women? A recent lecture by V Geetha, eminent feminist writer and social historian, has suggested there is no such one-to-one relationship between the two. Belonging to Chennai, Geetha was in Ahmedabad to deliver a lecture “Dravidan and Different? What Women Writers Have to Say”, where she suggested that the powerful Dravidian anti-Brahminical movement in Tamil Nadu hasn’t led to simultaneous liberation of women.
In Ahmedabad for the Umashankar Joshi memorial lecture, organised by the Gangotri Trust, Geetha told the audience that the farthest the Dravidian polity went, even as engaging with caste and Brahminism, was under the AIADMK’s chief ministership of J Jayalalitha, who confined herself to “productive welfarism of women.”
Answering a query from Counterview, she said, the present DMK government is pursuing the same polity – of “protecting” women and offering welfare measures for them, instead of standing up for their rights. She hastened to add, however, the current DMK leadership is “under pressure” to take a more radical view, as after a long lull of several decades, feminists are visible on the scene asserting gender issues which seemed to have been pushed under the carpet.
Author of several books, including “Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar” and the Question of Socialism in India”, “Undoing Impunity: Speech after Sexual Violence”, and (with S V Rajadurai) “Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar”, Geetha, during her presentation at the lecture, indicated that the Dravidian view never went beyond the need to protect women, pointing out how CN Annadurai, founder of DMK, criticised “seductive women”.
The presentation quotes Annadurai, who sharply attacked “Brahminism’s snare”, but in an apparent reference to Ramayana, points towards how Sita was sought to be portrayed by a poet. “This king (Ravan) saw an Aryan woman, got impassioned, lost his head, and fell from grace...” By doing this, Annadurai says, “this poet has sought to soil the pride of the Dravidian race”, wondering, “Would we, Dravidians, thus be tempted and lose ourselves to an Aryan woman?”
Stating how moral-ethical view of women took shape with the formation of DMK, Geetha quotes from a popular short story of the 1950s, which describes how a woman saw her “husband trapped in poverty, walked her mincing walk, found a rich man, lured him, just so she could live with him, and earned herself a waist band, a mango-shaped necklace, diamond earrings, a ring, ten acres of fertile land and a bungalow.”
Calling the woman “seductress”, the story goes on to say, “Even the chap who drives her car to make his meagre living would not grant her a quarter. Instead he would lament his fate and rue the fact that he has to work for such a one, flawed sinner that she is. Let those fallen women play host to the foreigner. We will work to cut free the chains that bind our motherland.”
Annadurai’s and DMK’s political views on women do not reflect that of EV Ramasamy Periyar (1879-1973), social reformer, anti-caste crusader, atheist and champion of women’s rights, and founding father of the Dravidian movement. In fact, Periyar has been assessed as having vehemently opposed patriarchy, actively fighting for women’s right to education, property, sexual freedom and contraception, insisting on complete destruction of masculinity.
In the presentation, Geetha extensively quotes from social and political activists, especially women, had to say in several publications founded by Periyar. Thus, wrote S Ramanathan in Kudi Arasu (Republic) weekly: “To control their women Aryans-Brahmins … devised a system which would characterise their enemies as untouchable and which ensured that [their women] do not get anywhere near these other men …Because our ancestors held women as property they had to create the phenomenon of untouchability to safeguard this property...”
Annadurai, Periyar
Exhorting “sisters”, Minakshi wrote in Kudi Arasu, they should “reflect for a moment on the horrors they endure in their day-today life ... You borrow money -- because you wish to observe a custom, practise a ritual, you borrow for a funeral, a pilgrimage... Consequently, poverty, humiliation, debt, police warrant, mortgage, the misery that visits your children, unbearable sadness and the rebuke of others: one follows the other.”
She asks sisters to “boycott the homes of those who oppose any and every move to a reform of women's lives; whether these have to do with the abolition of the devadasi system or the rights to education and mobility of adi dravida (Dalit) women.”
Then, Indrani Balasubramanium is quoted as criticising “comrades” in Kudi Arasu: “Our comrades are happy to speak of Brahmanism, self-respect, socialism, and if, after speaking all of this, they have some time, they condescend to speak of women’s rights. But many are careful to leave such rights talk behind when they go home – just as you leave your slippers outside the front door, our comrades are careful to drop all reference to women’s equality before they enter their homes.”
Neelavathi, who wrote in “Puratchi” (Revolution), is quoted stating that working women in “offices, courts, universities, hotels, factories, at tailoring, weaving, construction, in the fields and at home” are “the first proletariat”, regretting, they are “denied the dignity of their work, and worse, work is considered a mark of masculinity…”
And, Miss Gnanam wrote in “Revolt” that marriage “is not a thing of arrangement” or a “question of haggling and bargaining”, nor is it “a business transaction to be settled by others who are no parties to it”; it is “a contract ... culmination of the bond of love existing between two parties”, is “purely personal, and never complementary. It is solely and wholly left to the liberty of the individual, and wherever that liberty is tampered with, the result is an unhappy union.”
Analysing five Tamil women fiction writers (1950s and 2000s), Geetha says, Krithika wrote of the elite world of the Indian civil service in the context of nation building without engaging with the caste question; Rajam Krishnan wrote of “women’s intimate lives and in the context of ‘modern development’ beset with social unease and restlessness”; Hepsibah Jesudasan wrote of the travails of women in the times of modernizing Nadars; P Sivakami wrote of “the pretensions of the Dalit patriarchs”; and Su Tamizhselvi wrote of women in “subaltern caste world.”
*Editor, Counterview


Santhi NS said…
Good one as it reflects the context and history of political situation in Tamilnadu, which is a familiar ground to me.
Though I agree the speaker's many views as she has been a prolific writer for past three decades on Dravidian politics and well known Periarist.
I still have a point to disagree with her.
It is the DMK government who brought equal property rights for women in 2005.
Also DMK has introduced a seperate ministry for transgenders.
Broad and very progressive measures were introduced during DMK regime and in literacy and education, there has been tremendous improvement among women and particularly this is very obvious in implementing women's reservation in Panchayat rule.
TN is doing better compared to other states. Of course if one compares with Kerala, it still lagging behind in very many aspects.
Longitudinal development definitely had happened but it was not upto the expectations raised during Periyar period.
Electoral politics has its own disadvantages..
But I get disappointed when I see TN figures for Death of sanitation workers and the ever increasing 'honour killings' and the issues of untouchability and so on.
Strong movements demanding Justice for equality and dignity there, still the road seems to be long.
However, atleast the activism prevails and space there for them to express their opinion which is never there in many states.
Everybody talks of women's rights but in practice only women's duties are stressed.


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