IntersectionalityGender Unpacking What It Means To Be A ‘Periyar Pethi’

Unpacking What It Means To Be A ‘Periyar Pethi’

'Periyar Pethi' is used by trolls to often target bold women with an intention of derogating and insulting them and bringing into question their "moral" character. 

If you’re a part of social media, you would have witnessed the vicious trolling women are subjected to.  Women who dare to be vocal on significant issues have all, at some point, been victims of derogatory remarks, body shaming, hate speech and rape threats. ‘Feminazi’, ‘Pesudo-feminist’, ‘Shut up, ugly b***h’, ‘Fuck you, you dumb s**t’ are some of the common comments that we would have come across. If you are a part of Tamil social media, along with the Tamil equivalents of these, you will find another phrase that’s gaining momentum – ‘Periyar Pethi’ (பெரியார் பேத்தி). It loosely translates to ‘Grand-daughter of Periyar’ (sadly, the English translation loses out on the alliterative poetic quality). ‘Periyar Pethi’ is used by trolls to often target bold women with an intention of derogating and insulting them and bringing into question their “moral” character. 

These women are supposedly following in the footsteps of E.V. Ramasamy (1879 – 1973) who was a social reformer, anti-caste crusader and champion of women’s rights among many other things. The title ‘Periyar’ (Revered one) was conferred to him by women in a Tamil Nadu Women conference held in 1938—one of the special instances where women had the power and privilege to determine how the world called and viewed a man.

Periyar, in his characteristic rational way, challenged every oppressive institution that was in place and shattered to pieces meaningless norms, practices, rituals that reeked of inequality and denied human beings their rights, respect and dignity. 

Periyar vehemently opposed patriarchy and was a true advocate of women’s rights and empowerment—not the kind that decides which is and isn’t “true” empowerment. He actively fought for women’s right to education, property, sexual freedom and contraception. While many woke people are just starting to realise the harmful aspects of masculinity, Periyar, decades back, stated that women’s true freedom can be achieved only through the complete destruction of masculinity. And here we are, in the 21st century, only just terming toxic masculinity problematic and saying “true masculinity is respecting women!”

Periyar’s radical thoughts and actions combined with his mass appeal gained him a lot of haters then and even almost 50 years after his demise, Periyar has managed to sustain the popular hatred if not double and triple it. The right wing has identified him as its most formidable enemy and has continuously indulged in defaming and degrading him. Calling women who they find detestable as ‘Periyar Pethi’ is the extension of the hate that the right wing has for Periyar. 

Also read: For The Men Who Follow Periyar’s Rationalism But Not His Feminist Ideals

As Periyar did not have any biological heirs, who exactly is a ‘Periyar Pethi’? Let’s get down to business and unpack the term ‘Periyar Pethi’. It’s not necessary that one should have read Periyar and be a self-proclaimed Periyarist to be called such. You could/would be considered a ‘Periyar Pethi’ if you (in no particular order): 

  1. Don’t consider long hair to be the defining feature of a woman’s beauty and value
  2. Laugh loudly and unhesitatingly – a proud Surpanaka!
  3. Value your self-respect
  4. Are bold, courageous and assertive in your word and deed
  5. Wear clothes that you find yourself comfortable in 
  6. Are unapologetically yourself and don’t subscribe to the conventional gender roles and beauty standards prescribed for women
  7. Challenge Brahminical Patriarchy (Yes, B.R.A.H.M.I.N.I.C.A.L – Don’t shy away)
  8. Call out everyday sexism, misogyny, casteism and racism. (Dad/Mom/Sis/Ma’am/Sir/Dude, please stop it.)
  9. Believe women and men are equal and must have equal rights and opportunities
  10. Understand the importance of education for women and know a degree is not just a means to find a suitable match
  11. Want women to be financially independent 
  12. Understand marriage is a social contract and you have the right to walk away when/if the need arises
  13. Are aware motherhood is not the ultimate purpose and end for a woman (and share the disgust for the song lyric “thaayana pinbu than nee penmani” – “only after becoming a mother, are you a woman”)
  14. Believe in women’s bodily autonomy, respect and honour women’s sexual and reproductive rights and not behave like Texas
  15. Take your own decisions and don’t wait for someone to say “jaa, Simran, jaa”
  16. Rolled your eyes at my use of a Hindi movie reference and thought how dare I assume everyone understands Hindi in India!
  17. Are an atheist/agnostic 
  18. Are critical of religion and the inequality it perpetuates in the society
  19. Are rational and don’t let dogmatism and superstitions govern your life
  20. Are anti-caste (and find caste surnames annoying)
  21. Support inter-caste/ inter-religious love marriages 
  22. Don’t let others fool you into believing “reservations are the reason why caste continues to exist”
  23. Understand the nuances and importance of social justice
  24. Desire better and fair representation of women and “lower-caste” people in all public spheres
  25. Question everything and not blindly follow your government, religion and family
  26. Forego the “neutral” position and oppose the oppressor during times of crisis
  27. Actively participate in protests that demand dignity and rights for human lives
  28. Understand freedom is not something that’s “given” but achieved 
  29. Know “personal is political”
  30. Know everyone has the right to eat, love and live the way they like without being subjected to shame and harassment

If one or more of these apply to you, you would be deemed a ‘Periyar Pethi’ by some male chauvinist hate spewing right wing man. To make things easier, if you have even one quality that differentiates you from a doormat, then congrats – you are Periyar’s Pethi!

To be called ‘Periyar Pethi’ and be considered a part of his lineage is a matter of great honour simply because of what that man has been able to achieve. Alice Evans while recording the regional disparity in gender relations between North and South India observes in that women in South India are more likely to “Survive infancy, be educated, marry later, choose their own husbands, interact more closely with their husbands, bear fewer children, own more assets, exercise more control over their dowry, socialise with friends, move more freely in their communities and work alongside men.” She holds the Dravidian and Self-Respect movements as vital reasons for these social reforms that prioritised women’s welfare and development. Needless to say both of these movements were spearheaded by Periyar. Professor Sunil Khilnani too, credits the “primary school drop-out named E V Ramasamy Naicker” for the divergence in social and gender dynamics between North and South India in his book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives in the chapter on Periyar suitably titled “Sniper of Sacred Cows”.

Only an ignorant fool would consider the term ‘Periyar Pethi’ an insult. For it is the modern woman that Periyar envisioned (Periyar Kanda Pudumai Penn) who would be able to facilitate real change in the society and bring about gender and social equality. It takes a Periyar Pethi to make sure marriage is a partnership between two equals, to not expect men to free women from oppression and fight for women emancipation herself, to encourage and support other women to lead the lives they desire, to question the injustices in the society and to keep fascist forces in check. Also it takes a ‘Periyar Pethi’ to make male chauvinists uncomfortable – what more reason do we need to be Periyar’s Pethis?

Also read: Periyar & Maniammai’s Marriage – Though Irrelevant, Let’s Talk About It, Shall We?

Featured Image Source: Forward Press

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