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Kerala’s Matriarchal System: Smokescreen or Real?


Across India, people speak highly of Kerala’s highly famous ‘matriarchal’ system that enabled the daughters of the family to enjoy, own and manage their family property without any interference from the men folk. The culture of celebrating the birth of a girl child is perhaps another indication of how ‘advanced’ Kerala’s society had always been when it came to empowering the women folk. Honestly, I believe it’s ‘crap’!

People boast this about Kerala but even in the most educated families, it is the birth of a boy child that is eagerly awaited and boasted of. But a boy and a girl are not socially treated as equals even in the so-called egalitarian matriarchal system. All my life, I have heard many Keralites saying to my mother, “Oh no, you have two daughters and no sons!” with such sympathy that I'd love to whack the smiles off their faces!  So, yes, outwardly, I have come to believe that many Keralites celebrate the birth of daughters…other people’s daughters, to be more sarcastic. The social hypocrisy of this falsely, glorified system sucks! Seriously, what is the point of such hypocrisy? I don’t know. Or does being the recipient of such social hypocrisy make me less objective in my approach to this issue? Again, I don't know.

Framework of Kerala’s Matriarchal System
Having been born and brought up within this framework of this glorified, false ‘matriarchal’ system that is prevalent in Kerala, I find this label of ‘matriarchal’ system choking my conscience.

Why, I ask myself. Because I am fed up of the pretence of the so called, ridiculous ‘matriarchal’ system that has no relevance to most Menon women. The system exists on paper and in tradition but in practice, the system does not and has not existed for decades. It has been misused beyond words and no one wants to rake it up because it is timeless issue that is knotted up in the name of traditions.

Purpose of Kerala’s Glorified Matriarchal System
One obvious reason was to create a smokescreen of sorts to escape accountability.
This matriarchal system was and remains the smokescreen that helps to portray women as owners of the family property but it was always managed by the menfolk in the family. The men folk were either the uncles or older brothers who would don the role of legal guardians. By womenfolk, the traditional matriarchal system of the Menons pertains to the daughters of the family and their children.

This reduced chances of conflict or getting into legal disputes to a great extent because the conservative society always hesitates to drag women into any legal or property dispute. Also, which daughter or sister would take an uncle or brother to court alleging misuse of property or wealth? They reckoned wisely: almost none. They are right, aren’t they?

In fact, to ensure the womenfolk and their property rights are not challenged by the men who marry them, they devised a custom of marrying off the girls in the family to the male cousin. This way, the family property remains in the hands of the men who remain part of the family.

With education and the passage of time, this custom changed and it came to be understood that marriage between cousins is bad for the health of the children. But what I am saying is that the matriarchal system was never intended to safeguard the girl child or the women folk as we have been told to believe.

A Smart Social System That looks Noble From Surface
The over smart social pundits were shrewd enough to work out a system that looked very fair and just to the women in the society whereas what they were doing was to safeguard their own wealth and property related interests.

Here are some statements I have heard when it comes to implementing what the traditional matriarchal system demands

  1. Matriarchal system cannot be implemented any longer because the laws have changed.
  2. Social order has changed. Boy and girl are equal. There is no need for the matriarchal system to continue.

Equality between Boys and Girls in a Family
Then I have a question: if the law has changed then why are you still managing the  system as if it were existing? If boy and girl are equal, why do you object to a daughter’s or sister’s right to buy, sell or manage her property? Whom are you kidding in the name of matriarchal system? The boy always has the obvious, superior right. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is that you portray one thing in the name of a matriarchal system and then you do the opposite and continue to do the opposite!

So funny, it’s almost laughable. If it was real and implemented in the real spirit of the tradition, I’d say, “Hats off!” But I’ve never had an occasion to say it so I really can’t.

Truth is simple, really: You enjoy the benefits of the matriarchal system and look socially respectable to others but in effect, you are providing only for yourself and not for the actual womenfolk for whose welfare it was intended for. System sucks and no one out there has the guts to come right out and say this!

By tying up a family’s property into the ownership of its women, the smart men did themselves a favour than anyone else. They could use the woman’s property as they pleased and be accountable to none, not even the law because in name and therefore
in evidence, it is always the women who are the ‘owners.’

However, there are many families that do conform to this matriarchal system with a sense of justice but those families are very few and I admire them if they are able to do the impossible. This post in no way applies to such families.

The ‘matriarchal’ tag will continue in Kerala as long as there are vested property related interests. I also know that this one blog post will not change anything. But at least one person reading this post may think twice before praising Kerala’s matriarchal system. That’s good enough for me.

♥♥  I thank you with all my heart for reading my post. I dedicate this post with love and gratitude to all those who want to bring positive change in the Indian society. REQUEST: Please SHARE this article on your favorite social networks. Every share, like or tweet makes me reach out to more people who love and support the growth of better world. I am grateful and I appreciate you for doing so. ♥♥

Comments

Mom with a Dot said…
I have always admired the Kerala's Matriarchal system - so yes, this is huge revelation for me. Love the new layout too :)
Mélange said…
It was a very thoughtful post Swapna.In fact for what you have sometimes portrayed emotionally,I don't have words to put here.But few points on the subject:

a)Hypocrisy of our society - That we TRULY are.Really really are.Not only in this,in almost all social and individual spheres.You said it !

b)In fact the social situations prevailed,that had brought in the powers into the hands of women has changed with the passage of time.With 'Sambandham' and 'ammaveedu' making it's move.The women who were powerful had everything to look for.Power-being the part of so called 'upper ruling class'.Money-especially land ownership.It's a meticulous social evolution.The men in the family being silent partners and managers.They emerged as an upper-class slowly.

c)In a socially out bursting society like ours where people find it 'shameful' to continue with women label,they intentionally started changing.

However,I love those powerful women brigade from the past..Subhadra.Hats off !
G.sajikumar said…
I have read your observations . Matriarchal system looks noble from outside,but it is not so. rather than property related issues it caused deep social divisions among blood relatives. people from a sisters descendent refuse to treat their uncle's descendent as blood relatives as equal to their own mothers sisters descendent , It is more prominent in Ernakulam to Palghat side. But Completely absent in Central travancore nairs.And there is divisive groups working in matriarchal set up .So the relations between relatives are Not Healthy as those in Central Travavncore ,where i Belong . Kiriyath nairs are less in Central kerala than Central Travancore .The Kiriyath Nair is the True Fuedal land lord who was much respected ,idolized even today in Kerala Social milieu.
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Renjini said…
Hi!

Intriguing post. Just a quick clarification though - Kerala's glorified system isn't Matriarchal, its Matrilineal and yes, there's a difference. Both are related; the former is a system headed and run by women whereas in the latter, property devolves through the female line. That said, I can't say that some of the things you've mentioned aren't true, but I can't agree with all of them either. I've never been discriminated against for being a girl. My family is mostly composed of women, and each and every single one has been and are coveted. Does that mean there is no discrimination? Nope! But I've never thought it stemmed from Kerala's matrilineal culture, rather it is an unfortunate side-effect of India's long-standing fascination with patriarchy. In fact, I find that our culture has at least metaphorically given our women spine. Many of us carry our Mother's family name, with pride. That doesn't necessarily make us better/more independent than other women, but I'm proud to say that's a system we'll be continuing into the future. In a country where marriage wipes away our identity (hello, surname change!) not many people can boast of keeping their own name, that too, coming from their mother's side. Pretty empowering, if you ask me. That said, we still have a long way to go with truly empowering our women. However, every small step - even frivolous ones like a glorified system - is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction!
Anonymous said…
Today's newspaper story on female foeticide has state-wise statistics. Kerala's numbers clearly shows that there is zero practice of female foeticide. Other states have really bad figures. I think the matriarchal system has something to do with this, even if it isn't as wonderful as its portrayed to be.
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Hotels in Kerala
Anonymous said…
I live in the United States, which is far from being matriarchal. We have yet to have a female President, and boys still carry on the family name. However, feminism is part of American culture. You do not have to live in a matriarchy in order to want a girl more than a boy. It's just simply something women need to be more vocal about. I see that patriarchy in general has "set it up' so that boys have the advantages. Boys carry on the family name, boys are educated more and will bring more wealth to the family, etc. These are cross-cultural issues. The fact that boys have had special advantages leads me to ask what men are afraid of. Are they afraid that women will naturally desire daughters over sons? Like I said, here in the US, we don't live in a matriarchy, but women are much more vocal about wanting daughters than they used to be. This is the result of feminism and the resulting independence of women, not matriarchy.

I also want to add that I believe that the real reason men emphasize sons over daughters has little to do with genuinely wanting sons. It has to do with the fact that women are the ones who bring human beings into this world. We do something powerful and magical that men cannot do, and men have found a way to make this about them. How can men claim that they play a more powerful role in getting life here? They can't, and so they focus on the product. This is how they came to demean the birth of a girl child. Women who are dependent on men have fallen in place, and have accepted the idea that they needs sons - mostly for financial purposes. Hogwash. I believe women's natural inclination is to prefer daughters, if there is a preference at all. On the other hand, men's supposed natural preference for boys is simply due to ego and wanting to make the birth process more about them. It is more often than not less than genuine.

So, what do we do about it? We don't need to wait for matriarchy to save us. You don't need to live in a matriarchal culture. It is about embracing feminism - the good kind of feminism- and working hard to educate your daughters. i'm not just talking about schooling, although that is important. The more educated women are, the less they have to put up with. I'm talking about educating our daughters that men emphasizing sons is a form of abuse, and also about male insecurity. Women in India need to stick together and learn to celebrate the birth of their daughters openly, proudly and publicly. They need to recognize, as said, that emphasizing sons has been a form of abuse of women.

You write about the exception in the matriarchy. There are exceptions in patriarchy as well. Like I said, I live in the US, still technically patriarchal, and women are emphasizing that they want daughters more and more. It goes hand in hand with feminism and women's education and independence. I believe women's natural inclination is to prefer daughters. No different in India or any culture for that matter.

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