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Pluck Egos, Not Just Tea

Lingering misogyny prompts Kerala women to keep fighting for basic rights

Pluck Egos, Not Just Tea
Tea pluckers in Idukki’s Munnar stage protest
Pluck Egos, Not Just Tea

Kerala’s protest landscape has in the recent past seen numerous women’s collectives asserting themselves to demand their rights. Historically, the state has witnessed leftist as well as renaissance movements, where women resisted and agitated shoulder to shoulder with men. That legacy has made the landscape fertile for such women’s movements to sprout and grow. Today’s crop of women’s collectives, which seems to have shunned political ideologies to carve a space for themselves, are but a natural corollary to those early movements. True, some of these recent collectives have been torpedoed by muscular patriarchal forces, but these assertions show newer ways for emulation.

Perhaps, the most significant of these women’s protests came from Munnar’s poor women tea-pluckers, who called themselves the Pembila Orumai (women’s unity). On September 5, 2015, an unorganised group of those labourers in hilly Idukki district rejected the diktat of various trade UNI­ons to accept lesser bonus and wages offered by the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company. The small group simply plonked in protest right in the middle of the road, blocking vehicular traffic to the busy touristy hill-town. More and more women tea-pluckers from other tea companies joined in. Finally, then chief minister Oommen Chandy had to intervene to arrive at a settlement.

Says writer-activist Sarah Joseph: “It is important that more women’s groups are being formed in every sector for women to demand their basic rights.  Usually, women’s voices are sil­enced because the organised movements are male-dominated. The reason Pembila Orumai emerged victorious is because the trade unions, which had both men and women, failed to understand the basic problems of plantation workers.”

Prior to Pembila Orumai, smaller groups outside the organised mainstream trade UNI­ons fought for the rights of women workers in malls and textile showrooms, asserting for their right to sit down, among others. These workers fell. Early 2017 saw the emergence of few young girls in the Kerala Law Academy (KLA) taking control of a strike that seemed to fizzle out. Their protest was against an autocratic KLA principal Lekshmi Nair. The media, political parties and pol­ice were uninterested in their issues. Undaunted, the girls continued their stir for a month. forcing politicians to support. It ended only after the principal was removed.

This June, more than 20 women in Malayalam cinema joined together to form the Women in Cinema Collective to fight for the rights of women actors and technicians in the Malayalam film industry. The collective was formed soon after a popular Malayalam actress was abducted and raped by a gang of six men in a moving vehicle. Such was the misogyny even later that the rape survivor had to, more than once, herself write open letters to the media in an attempt to correct fabricated lies against her.

If the first government in Kerala went for the historic land reform, minister K.R. Gowriamma played a lead role in its execution.

Likewise, when transport minister A.K. Saseendran was forced to quit in March this year , The Network of Women In Media came out against typecasting all women journalists as those with low morals. The senior leader’s alleged phone sex conversation with a journalist was aired on nascent Mangalam channel.

The women in Kerala, according to Sarah Joseph, are educated and politically aware too. The state also has an impressive list of women as lawmakers and judges. Nona­genarian K.R. Gowriamma, a lawyer, was politically active when women rarely ente­red that arena. She took part in peasant movements in the 1950s and was elected to the Travancore council of Kerala Legislative Assembly and later elected in the first communist government of E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Her initiative to introduce the revolutionary Land Reforms Act changed the landscape of Kerala, giving at once land rights to the landless.

Feminist activist K. Ajitha has penned in her book, Ormakkurippukal, that during her Naxalite years when she was imprisoned during the Left period, it was Gowriamma who ensured that she was not raped or molested. Gowri­amma, in her early years, was herself subjected to terrible torture when she was jailed for her political activities.

India’s first women judges Anna Chandy and Fatima Beevi to both the High Court and the Supreme Court came from Kerala. Communism and the introduction of printing press by the missionaries gave the people education and political literacy. Before that, under Sethu Lakshmi Bayi as the queen of Travancore, Kerala saw rapid reformation in society. Though partially empowering was Kerala’s matriliny, the system gave women the impetus to be bolder: Mary Roy fought the case for equal property rights for Christian women and won the case.

There has to be course corrections in these new women’s collectives as they negotiate the space they are trying to occupy. Says political activist K.M. Shahjahan: “Many a time, these organisations are formed out of Leftist thinking, and are not independent-minded. Even Pembila Orumai was later suppressed.” That said, more and more women’s collectives can ideally bring in certain guidelines, lest they are unwittin­gly subverted by patriarchy-governed political ideologies.

By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi

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