I am often at the receiving end of, “Oh but you are Malayalee. You come from a matriarchal society,” when I talk about anything from feminism to food preferences. I take great pains to correct that statement. I patiently start with correcting the term (matrilineal, and not matriarchal), then I gently point out it’s just one community in Kerala that was so, and Kerala has many communities, and the usual mix of religions. I then ask what that has to do with the price of fish. Because, while in some ways it might be empowering and perspective-altering to receive your mother’s name, and her property, (technically, traditionally it is the maternal uncle’s property that used to get passed down to his nephews and nieces among Nairs), for all practical purposes a household used to be run by a man, usually the maternal uncle who decided everyone’s fate. Matrilineality, therefore, in my observation helped with one aspect of independence and liberation: financial security. But it did nothing to empower Nair women with the self confidence that is so needed to get out of an oppressive relationship she might be enduring in her domestic sphere.
Laying that down as context, I zoom out a little and look at the larger Kerala with its rich, textured and varied ethnic groups, and communities. A society that’s arguably progressive, and educated, Kerala is a place where with this coexists a patriarchy that is, at an immediate glance, as surprising and confounding as it is deep rooted. In a state where communism (whatever its avatar today) thrives, where women work just as hard as men — if not harder — to sustain their families, the incongruity of the existence of male chauvinism and blatant patriarchy worries and fascinates me. If educated, financially independent women still struggle for justice, safety and equality, then what hope do those without the above-mentioned privileges have?
The evidence of a sexually repressed, frustrated people is all over Kerala. On the streets, on TV and online. Take the streets, for instance. Young women, and sometimes not-so-young-women, get flashed at regularly. I bet a whole lot of women in Erna-flasher-central-kulam have seen their first erection right in the middle of a busy street on a dreary old work day. Fathers still decide how the women in his family will behave, husbands still stay a mile away from child care, and running a home. I regularly hear women in my age bracket say if they wear a (moderately) low-cut blouse with their sari, their husbands will “pack them off”. It is said with laughter and camaraderie but it isn’t a joke at all. ‘Decent’ married women don’t do things their husbands don’t like. ‘Decent’ single women don’t do things their fathers and brothers don’t like. Anyone who decides to not be ‘decent’ has then crossed over to slut territory. I suppose this could be said for the rest of India.
Enter TV presenter and actress, Ranjini Haridas. A 30-something presenter who wildly successfully anchored a reality talent show for six years on Asianet, a Malayalam TV channel. Haridas is possibly little known outside Kerala. And so is the hate that she inspires. People of both genders criticise what they see as an inauthenticity when she speaks: heavily anglicised Malayalam is Haridas’s trademark, a chip she wears proudly on her shoulder. She is quoted as having said in an interview that the few years she spent in the U.K. as a Masters student were responsible for her forgetting her Malayalam. (I can’t verify the authenticity of this statement.) That may have been a young woman’s knee-jerk reaction, wet behind the ears as she was, to the criticism she received (in droves) when she first began hosting the show. But over time, more and more interviews quoted her as saying she didn’t care for what people said, this is the way she chose to speak and that’s the end of it.
She wasn’t spared: pilloried on mimicry shows (a still-hugely popular genre in Kerala); blatantly and publicly told off by respected senior actors; guests on her own show and other women anchors have all taken pot shots at her. She’s a classic template for poking merciless fun at girls who decided to be “modern.” Men hated her. But the women, ah, here was a fascinating story unfolding. Young women, ripe for rebellion and finding their wings, all over Kerala felt here was something they could point to in case of crisis. “If she can, I can.” Haridas wore sleeveless clothes, body-con dresses, knee-length shifts, off the shoulder blouses, see-through ensembles, stuff that no anchor had worn on Malayalam T.V. hitherto; she did her hair experimenting with high glamour; she didn’t shy away from adventurous make up; she wore exactly what her free little heart desired and she did it with confidence, not letting criticism of her clothing or her speech cramp her style in the least bit. Men kept hating, she kept working, laughing all the way to the bank in her designer high heels.
She was in stark contrast to the Malayalee TV presenter that bored the hell out of viewers till then. These women wore a look of innocence, a certain… freshness one associates with the “untouched”. Her makeup was traditional with pink (ish) lipstick, and kohl-lined eyes, made up and yet not so much that it would make an impact. Her hair was tucked away in demure braids, or a little bun at the nape of the neck, and imprisoned in jasmine. She didn’t use her hands much, and smiled idiotically a lot. She was a vision, a girl-you-gawk-at-in-a-temple vision. Beautiful, efficient and tameable; completely devoid of impact, a threat to none of the men who ogled, and aspirational for none of the women these men lived with.
If a channel was targeting a younger crowd, you’d find young women dressed in jeans and a perfectly unremarkable top, with requisite hair and make up, and personality that was even more unremarkable than the T shirt. Usually, there was a guy who co-hosted and hogged all air time.
You see, us Malayalee women look down on those who wear make up, although secretly we wished we could carry it off too. We think we are natural beauties (and I must admit some are) and to do anything with a tube of lipstick is to enter slut category. So most girls from middle class homes will wear lipstick on occasion and blot it till it very nearly disappears because good girls don’t wear lipstick. (For those of you who are going to come at me saying “but I have Keralite friends who aren’t like that,” I am going with a middle class majority here. Not those who have lived in cosmopolitan places or cities outside Kerala.) Until a few years ago, we didn’t wax our limbs; not because we believe in our feminist right to do what the hell we want with our body hair, but because salons are the dens of the devil. You could end up in a porn video on the interwebz if you went to a salon. I suspect that isn’t the case in the bigger places in Kerala, like a Cochin or Trivandrum or Trichur but most of Kerala still believes a salon will sell you off to pimps. And even those who do go to a salon and get all smooth, tend to do it very quietly. It’s not a thing we’re comfortable talking about.
It was into the households of these women that Haridas with her open hair, loud laughter, gender-irrespective hugs reached. With her beauty-contest-winner title, her U.K. masters degree and a sense of fashion that was more confidence than style. Which, I suppose, is true style. Suddenly, there were Haridas clones all over Malayalam TV. Open hair, clothes that edged away the ornate salwar kameez, or the graceful sari. Suddenly, and hilariously, perfectly ordinary girls were speaking Malayalam like it was a foreign tongue; and men were mercilessly skewering them over it; women were touching and hugging boys on screen and bantering with celebrities without the usual deferential tone. Just like Haridas. Just like normal young women do off camera. And men hated it.
Till my mother recently pointed it out to me, I didn’t realise how much. I am a Haridas non-supporter; my mother, a woman of great wisdom and gentle confidence, is pro-Haridas. My objection is simple: I don’t like that she has distanced herself from her mother tongue, but that comes only second to the fact that she does it in the most inauthentic way. My mother’s reasons are also simple: she loves the show and says no one can carry it off as engagingly as Haridas. And that she lives exactly how she pleases, no matter what the rest of the world is saying.
This conversation led my mother to direct me to Haridas’s fan page on Facebook. A regularly updated, selfie-heavy, hate-filled page. If that woman, (Ranjini Haridas I mean, not my mother) reads the comments on a regular basis and still continues to post as she does, she has all my respect and then some. Because, omg, there’s an army of perverted, hateful and angry men spewing venom there, doing what they can, from calling her slut in different ways (I had no idea how many words Malayalam had for slut) to offering her a screw so she’d ease off.
They abuse her ancestry, they call her a slut, a corpse, a cunt, a eunuch, ugly. I was repulsed by almost 700 comments collectively in the first few posts on her page. (I didn’t see any threats of rape, the favourite hate-tool of men use to intimidate women online, thankfully.) But the sheer volume of hate, and all from men, was appalling, and fascinating. Why were all these men hating on her? A middle aged man called her the South Indian Sunny Leone (because a porn star is not an actor but a whore, correct?) going on to abuse her in Hindi, English and Malayalam, so great was his objection. Another one posted a picture of a firecracker, the Malayalam word for which is apparently colloquialism for, guess what? Yep, whore. They leave no aspect of her untouched — her makeup, who she is with in the picture, her clothes, her smile, teeth, even her being single, or being raised by her mother, having lost her father early. She’s ripped apart like a carcass in a butcher’s shop would if you let a hungry mob in.
This one, for instance, has a misspelt speech bubble to make it sound like Haridas’s Malayalam. It basically says, “I know very little Malayalam.”
Or this, where the insults are heaped high, all basically tiresomely calling her a whore, (or a variation of it), or old, or ugly, including a comment with a picture of her with an African person, an intended insult I am afraid to explore.
This one below basically asks her to die, now that she’s old. (She isn’t 35 yet.) The comment below that is captioned “who is prettier?”
And this below is our firecracker guy. Under which is a private photo of Haridas that went viral a few years ago and brought her under another deluge of filth.
In reply to this, and much much more such harassment, Haridas posted this on voting day recently, telling her detractors exactly what she thought of them, in classic tongue-in-cheek Ranjini style. (The comments on this one heap more abuse, more firecracker, more I’ll fuck you, more you-ugly-whore hate.)
I decided to explore a little and checked out the pages of other presenters/actors/professional celebrities who are women in other places. I found very little abuse, very little misogyny addressed to those in the public eye. My observation is that harassment and misogyny is directed more at regular, non-celebrity folk. Posting numbers, abusive language, lewd comments, direct hate are all directed mostly at women who aren’t in the public eye. But in the fan pages of actresses/models/TV personalities, there was more empty adulation than outright misogyny. There’s the odd deviant pimping his services, or some creep posting a name and number of a girl (:/) but this kind of rampant bile, this kind of utter disrespect was rare, if not almost absent.
To me, it says many things, this hatred from men in Kerala young and old, educated and not, married or single. The insults are almost always sexual in nature, the language is highly disrespectful, (apart from being abusive itself): the use of nee, the informal word for ‘you’ in Malayalam is the only way she’s addressed. Her lack of hypocrisy is another source of anger. Unlike many women who care about their reputations, Haridas tends to live life rather candidly and if that threatens the Malayalee man, then so be it.
The way I see it, the anger these men feel is directed at her being happily single even though she’s … gasp… nearly 35! Anger at her being unfazed by the barrage of biting criticism, at her completely normal way of behaving even on screen (she hugs, touches, gesticulates and uses her body freely that way you or I do). The anger is towards her success — six years of calling her a whore and she’s still the top rated, and possibly highest-paid, anchor in Kerala. The anger is towards her completely ignoring the very men that hate her; they just can’t seem to get a rise out of her. But I think the thing that threatens them most is that she is an aspiration: she is what a lot of their daughters, sisters and wives would like to become. Glamorous, articulate, successful, confident, and assertive. Everything that these men don’t want in their women, lest they get left behind; lest they get dragged to a police station for raising a hand; lest their women leave them after finding self-worth.
If I were to say just the way Haridas dresses and talks is what’s causing the outpouring of misogyny, to anyone who looks at it superficially, I might be right. But if you look around and see another instance of hate, I’d be proved wrong. Manju Warrier, arguably one of Malayalam cinema’s best actresses, returned to acting after 14 years of staying away from the industry. She had a daughter with her actor husband, who incidentally, continued to act with women half his age, she made a home and never gave a single interview in all the years she was in the background.
This last year, she has separated from her husband and has made no public statements about her marital situation. Her husband, actor Dileep, has gone on record to say he doesn’t like women working after marriage, while all these years he has insisted it was Warrier’s choice to give up acting at the height of her successful career. Their daughter, a teenager, lives with the father.
Warrier, too, has a Facebook page that updates her fans about her news. She posts happy personal pictures, pictures of her shoots, travels and messages about causes. And yet the hate spews. As she fits better into the mould women are expected to fit in Kerala, the language is a lot more toned down. Clearly, having been married and proving to the world you are fertile is cause for people to be more respectful when they talk. And because Haridas dresses the way she does, and talks more English than Malayalam, and basically flips everyone off, she deserves to be spoken to disrespectfully.
The hate on Warrier’s page manifests itself differently; she’s called a bad mother on the basis of the interview her husband gave in a woman’s magazine. She is wished ill-luck with her come-back film; she is condemned for leaving her marriage and husband, a man that much of Kerala adores and considers a great actor. Outside of these three things, apparently, Warrier doesn’t exist or rather, shouldn’t exist. Women too join this criticism of her, openly posting judgemental comments on what they think of her decision to leave her husband, criticising her bitterly for being “negligent” of her daughter, for seemingly classifying fame, career and money higher than her daughter and husband. Mind you, all this while not knowing anything else but that the two are separated.
There’s scores of advice on the page of this 36-year-old artiste urging her to go back to her husband, to stop being selfish, to “realise” that beauty, fame and wealth won’t last forever. The denigration is endless and by the looks of it, hugely one-sided. You see, Dileep’s fan pages are full of people kowtowing to his talent, looking forward to his new films and the usual fanboy drivel. No advice to him on his personal life at all. Even newspaper reports have been inherently sexist in reporting any developments on the divorce/separation.
This duplicity emerges repeatedly in Kerala, in conversations and in mainstream media, and now internet hate: It’s okay for a woman to work, bring home money and support, either single-handedly or as a second income, her family. But the minute she decides to pursue a career, as opposed to keeping a job, and chooses to go after it ambitiously, she’s just turned into the devil. The second income (in some cases the only income) she brings in is very welcome, but not the success or the sacrifices that she has to make. Among all the different kinds of men I’ve met, no one hates a woman’s success more than a certain kind of Malayalee man.
I started this off as internet hate piece among men in Kerala, the internet as a new place to flash and wave figurative penises at women they couldn’t go anywhere close to; successful, dignified, articulate women that threaten their glaringly obvious chauvinistic attitudes. Internet hate towards women in the public eye isn’t particularly new, and takes on different forms, as Amanda Hess’s explosive essay earlier this year in the Pacific Standard illustrated. But the issues in Kerala that lead to what is clear misogyny are so much more that I had to digress a little.
The truths that this kind of internet misogyny reveals to me are scary: Malayalee young men continue to be sexually frustrated; traditionally thought to be a sexually permissive society, Kerala, in the last few decades, has seen a huge change in morality, with patriarchal attitudes towards sex becoming more prevalent, where virginity as a virtue is priced highly and sex is seen as corruption.
If these men are a sampling of most men in Kerala then it would seem Malayalee men are inherently crude, disrespectful, and have no finer sensibilities with regard to equality, individuality, racism, or sexuality. But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all, to me, is the fact that all this is juxtaposed with education, that it exists in a society that for decades has upheld socialist values of equality and respect between genders. How does one reconcile the two? What is the point of an education if it hasn’t helped you cultivate a respect for the girls you go to school with? How badly has education failed us, if men still consider sex and sexual insults the best way to attack a woman? Authors and artists, both male and female, have stood at the forefront of progressive feminist attitudes, writing, art and debate. Why has education failed to integrate their work and contribution towards building a society that is more respectful towards women?