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Last Updated Monday November 20 2017 12:55 AM IST

An inconvenient but undeniable truth

Shalini Anna Dominic
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Justice for Jisha

I've always been proud to call myself a Malayali and extolling the virtues of my home state is second nature to me. Its unparalleled beauty, its literate population,its high human development indices, its culture and traditions, particularly the matriarchal system that was unique to it are all sprung upon any unsuspecting soul who asks about my home.

So it was immensely satisfying to spend my summer reading about the history of Kerala and its erstwhile rulers. I basked in the reflected glory of not only the strong and accomplished women rulers who charted the course of a large part of our state over the last few centuries, but also of the ordinary women who held sway over their own lives and that of their families and their fiefdoms ....bold, brave and capable.

And though aware that this tradition of matriarchy was not universally practised in Kerala I believed that some essence of it had permeated all sections of our literate and educated society. That women in our state enjoyed a more exalted position than those in other parts of our country.....our high gender ratio a testament to that fact or so I thought.

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But the tragic story of Jisha has put paid to that illusion of mine. It was not just the barbarism that the young woman was put through on that fateful day - unspeakable horrible tragedy though it was - but the ordeal that her mother has undergone that should make us ashamed of ourselves. A single mother, struggling to bring up her daughters with barely a roof over their heads, running from pillar to post seeking some measure of safety and security for herself and her family was met with apathy and even hostility by the very people who were in a position to help. The police, the local officials and even her neighbours disregarded her very legitimate concerns as that of "a high-strung and difficult woman."

According to some reports Kerala has a high number of single-woman led households... women who have either been abandoned by their husbands or who have chosen to live apart for a variety of reasons. And if the voices and concerns of these vulnerable women are left unheard or dismissed and scoffed at as irrelevant then we have to ask ourselves whether we are truly as educated and socially aware as we claim to be.

Even within the structure of the "traditional " family, it appears many women and girls lead lives of quiet desperation... harassed and abused by their own and then coerced into silence by the fear of public opinion which condemns the victims rather than the perpetrators.

During a long running interaction with young girls who were attending a course in spoken English I could sense the frustration that lay bottled up inside these clever and ambitious girls. The topics chosen by them to speak on were almost always about the lack of freedom they experience and the desire to make their own choices and be in charge of their own lives. Though understanding of their parents' apprehensions about their safety in this time of increasing violence against women, they nevertheless resented the restrictions placed upon them by a misogynistic society.

While lip service is paid to equal rights for women and token gestures made to the same by the modern Malayali, a trawl through social media reveals our hypocrisy on this issue and the contempt that many hold women in.

Quite clearly despite our vaunted claims of social justice and gender equality we are failing at both in Kerala. What equality and justice can we boast of when more than half of our population do not enjoy the freedom that the other take for granted. We desperately need to replace our existing system of education and the social conditioning that follows with one that makes a real difference in the lives of all the people of our state. We need an education system that creates empathetic and enlightened people who see women as individuals and not as "objects" -- as individuals with hopes and dreams and the desire to see them come true, as individuals who have the right to be seen and heard without judgement and as individuals with the ability to lead and achieve greatness... following in the footsteps of the assertive and powerful women who were a force to be reckoned within Kerala's not so distant past.

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