—Poet Auvaiyar, bereaving her patron Adhiyaman, in the Sangam anthology Purananuru, circa 200 AD translated by George Hart and Hank Heifetz.
If the self-appointed guardians of 'Tamil culture' had their way, they would have the rest of the world believe that women should not wear jeans and T-shirts, they should not sing and dance in discos, should not have sex before marriage, should not drink, should not choose alternative sexual identities and they should only be bearers of what certain Tamil men define as 'honour'. The past few months have seen an unprecedented mobilisation of public opinion against women by sections of the Tamil media and polity. Last week, a leading Tamil daily, Dinamalar, splashed pictures of women drinking, dancing and kissing in The Park, a star hotel, with a poser for the Chennai police commissioner. Captioned 'Is this what equality means?' the story asked: "In a society where married couples are reluctant to hold hands in public, how can women be allowed to sing and dance with men?"
Not someone who could resist such a bait, commissioner R. Natraj warned hotels of action against such "obscene" shows. "Based on photographs published in certain newspapers, we will be sending notices to these hotels," he said. Two Park hotel managers have been arrested. Natraj has always been a zealous moral cop. Whenever there has been sexual violence against women in public places, the police has sought to crack down on hotels, discotheques and pubs, and has insisted that women dress "properly".
In its campaign against errant hotels and 'ill-clad, immoral' women, Dinamalar was merely competing with the Tamil tabloid Tamizh Murasu which the previous day had splashed similar pictures from a fashion show. V. Geetha, social historian, puts the voyeuristic media coverage in perspective: "Sexuality and sexual representations are constantly in the news, but shadowed by a sensibility that is part-fascinated and part-horrified by what it clearly accepts as the forbidden and the tabooed."
Tamizh Murasu also dragged actress Khushboo into a controversy. In an interview to a newsweekly, Khushboo, deified as a heroine in the 1990s, had said "no educated man would expect his wife to be a virgin". Tamizh Murasu, an eveninger relaunched by the Kalanidhi Maran-led Sun TV group known for its pro-DMK views, cashed in on this statement and ran a lead on how Khushboo was implying that Tamil women had no chastity. It solicited the views of the film fraternity and politicians and derided the actress who happens to be the star anchor of a game show on rival Jaya TV. Soon, leaders of the BJP, Paattali Makkal Katchi, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Dalit Panthers of India aired their views about how Khushboo was "denigrating" Tamil women and "encouraging women to be immoral." The DPI and PMK were especially shrill since they had joined hands to launch the Tamil Protection Movement earlier this year. The DPI led the street protests with slippers and brooms, demanding that Khushboo apologise or leave Tamil Nadu and "return to her Bombay".
The background for these anxieties over Khushboo's views was the altercation between actresses of Tamil filmdom and director Thangar Bachan, who in a press conference last month came close to equating all actresses with prostitutes. Khushboo and senior artist Manorama led the protests and extracted an apology from Bachan. The male artists now seem to have got an opportunity to get even with Khushboo. Despite a televised apology on Jaya TV, PMK filed a suit in a Chennai court against Khushboo for defamatory remarks against women under Sections 499 and 500 of IPC. The South Indian Film Artistes Association is also likely to initiate action against the besieged actress.
This media-orchestrated public outcry, ostensibly to defend Tamil women and their karpu (connoting chastity/ honour), is in keeping with the intimidations that women in TN have had to put up with in the recent past. Last month, when two lesbians from Erode walked out of their heterosexual marriages, the Tamil media created a frenzy and lamented "the decay of the Tamil family". A few weeks ago, Anna University imposed a dress code on 231 colleges and banned T-shirts, sleeveless tops, tight-fitting clothes and jeans. The move was supported by players across the political class—from the BJP to the Periyarist Dravidar Kazhagam, the PMK and DPI.
"The manner in which denizens of the state from vice-chancellors to policemen arrogate to themselves the role of moral authorities echoes what is going on elsewhere, in Mumbai, for example," says Geetha. She finds that a certain convenient puritanism has become part of political correctness, which explains why groups that represent subaltern concerns, such as the DPI and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), are supportive of actions that "threaten what they imagine to be sexual decorum. Especially if it is women who speak and act in a manner that is not in keeping with their notions of community honour."
Another recent incident relates to women and the consumption of alcohol. When the government-owned Tasmac opened a liquor outlet in the Spencers Plaza mall in Chennai a few months ago, it incidentally facilitated access of alcohol for women. A Tasmac official was quoted in the media saying that women were now coming forward to buy liquor from the new outlet. The PMK leader, S. Ramadoss, termed this "an insult to all womenfolk, especially since Tamil Nadu has a woman chief minister". Obviously he has not read Auvaiyar, the Sangam poet who talks of her chieftain Adhiyaman sharing toddy with her.
It is ironic that DPI leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, perceived to be a scholar-politician, had opposed the concept of karpu in the context of protests against the removal of the Kannagi (an epic charactor who epitomised chastity) statue on the Marina Beach in 2001. He had then argued that karpu was a Hindutva concept used by Brahminical forces to keep the caste system intact. Today, his party's cadre is reduced to mounting a donkey and demanding that Khushboo leave the state. "Why doesn't the DPI demand the same for hundreds of Tamil men who routinely practice untouchability and assault Dalit women?" wonders Sukirtarani, a poet. Thirumavalavan rationalises the "independent protests" by DPI's women cadre and says "it is under the impact of the Tamil Protection Movement that Khushboo has been identified as a non-Tamil". mgr was and Rajnikanth is a non-Tamil, as are most actresses in Tamil cinema. Since Khushboo is a Muslim, the TMMK, "not to be counted out", has demanded that she return to Mumbai.
Somehow, protection of Tamil culture has come to mean "protection" of Tamil women. Says Geetha: "I am afraid Tamilness has lost its liberative significance and become a mere rhetorical trope, one that is invoked soullessly from time to time by those who think it will help them construct a transcendent political consciousness." The popular understanding of Tamilness is necessarily male, premised as it is on notions of male valour and female passivity.
When women challenge such constructions of passivity, they are mocked. Since 2003, several women poets—Sukirtarani, Salma, Kutti Revathi, Malathi Maithri and Uma Maheswari—have been under attack in the Tamil literary establishment for writing about their bodies and sexuality.Snehan, a film lyricist, even said on TV that these poets should be burnt. Their crime: using words like yoni (vagina), mulaigal (breasts) and suyappunarchi (masturbation). Says Sukirtarani, "Several women poets received obscene phone calls, SMSes and threats—all from men. But no party protested such harassment and intimidation. In such 'Tamil culture,' women are either deified or vulgarised."
In 2004, classical language status was bestowed on Tamil. In 2005, the guardians of Tamil culture may well seek a ban on the classical Purananuru poetry.