If you observe the women in Kerala who are spoken of as the ‘head of the family’ or ‘the real decision-maker of the family’ to justify the claim of matriarchy— these are women who comply with patriarchal ideals. They speak, opine, operate and model a behavior that serves the interests and desires of men, within their family and in larger society. They earn this cultural authority as a reward for co-opting misogyny and participating in the oppression of women and of course, they are spared from some of that oppression, for collaborating with the oppressor. Therefore, it is not ‘domination by women’. These women maintain exactly the same social order as men who display toxic masculinity—the institutionalised domination over women!
These women often discourage other women who aspire autonomy and agency by saying:
‘I was OK with this so why are you refusing to tolerate it,’ or
‘You have no respect for men,’ or
‘Things were way worse in my times.. what are you even complaining about?’ or ‘My husband has always been my God,’ or
‘You have no respect for our culture and traditions.’
Annie’s Kitchen, a Malayalam TV show, has often been at the receiving end of flak following the remarks of the host, a visibly disappointed Annie, on the lack of cooking skills and the choice to not wear make-up, etc., of the female actresses who are invited to speak on the show. This makes the show’s host and the enabling ecosystem that the show and its makers provide, excellent studies of internalized misogyny that demeans other women for not being perfect templates of patriarchy-approved femininity.
Dr RW Connell calls this kind of internalized misogyny in women ‘emphasized femininity’ instead of continuing to misname them as ‘matriarchs’ or hegemonic femininity. You see this especially amongst women in the role of mother-in-laws of women, mothers with sons, grandmothers or just women who have suffered oppression under the same system but misdirect their anger inwards, to their own femininity and avenges other survivors and victims of the very abuse they experienced, expecting some kind of a sadistic relief. Mothers of daughters also perform ‘emphasized femininity’ because by teaching their daughters to perform docility, in their attempts to prove that they were responsible mothers who taught daughters to respect traditions.
You also see ‘emphasized femininity’ a.k.a the kulasthree troupe amongst young educated professional women who get a kick out of performing anti-feminist femininity, like the #readytowait crew who came out of the bushes wearing traditional costumes during the Sabarimala discourse. As Professor J Devika pointed out, these are also the women who endorse misogynistic traditions but are willing to compromise on them by wearing pants to work because they are sedated victims who pledge their allegiance to white supremacist Brahmanical hyper-masculinised capitalism. It is an unfortunate coping mechanism women resort to in the absence of an opportunity for true healing. Almost like Stockholm Syndrome, these hostages fall in love with their captor…
According to feminist scholars, in our present day life, after everything that has gone down in history, there is no such thing as hegemonic femininity…there can only be emphasized femininity and this is exactly what’s often visible in Kerala. People often use ‘matriarchy’ as synonymous to ‘matrilineality’ which aren’t even remotely the same. Matrilineal kinship centres wealth inheritance, which again is a capitalist, colonial, Brahmanical concept that is misogynistic at its core because it was another instrument for men to control women’s bodies.
Emphasized Femininity and Rape Culture
Emphasized femininity is also very present in early education of children, formal and informal, directly imparting gender performance to their cognitive development. We model emphasized femininity for children by socializing girls to wear dresses that are pleasingly feminine, to be quiet and obedient like a good girl, to idealize Cinderella and Ariel, to be curious about make-up, to not dirty their clothes, to walk and move coyly, to get accustomed to compliments for their physical appearance and outfits etc. while we complementarily instill hegemonic masculinity in boys so early that most boys in kindergarten would feel insulted if he is called a girl. We teach, socialize and enable boys to be assertive and loud, to idealize James Bond-like characters, to be determined and confident, to feel free to dirty their clothes, to show repulsion at the sight of make-up, to interrupt conversations and raise their voice etc.
How is it then surprising that we still live in a world the ways of which is determined by gender roles strictly assigned to gender binaries? How is it then unnerving to see that boys do not take a feeble no for an answer and grow up to become entitled men who develop a special liking for the challenge of a difficult pursuit and lack the ability to self-reflect, take accountability and apologize when wrong? How is it then shocking that girls are not often assertive and grow up to become people-pleasers who are reluctant to say no when they know that they aren’t listened to anyway?
How do we even understand consent when we have such a distorted sense of our own power, agency and autonomy? How do we make free choices whilst craving external validation due to lack of self-worth?
Emphasized femininity enables rape culture just as much as toxic masculinity does because women with internalized misogyny are also the first ones to victim-blame and slut-shame survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. These women’s agreement with misogyny is celebrated by toxic masculinity because they sing such synchronized chorus against feminism.
I call Kerala’s matriarchy a bullsh*t myth because emphasized femininity not only hurts cis-het girls and women but it also pulls the feminist movement several yards back by also reproducing heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia, racism, neocolonialism and capitalism. Yes, I said neocolonialism and racism.
I’m aware that they attach feminism to ‘Westernization’ but that is yet another myth. If it wasn’t for the British Empire’s manipulation, we, the larger population of Kerala, wouldn’t have adopted monogamous marriage, patrilocality (the practice of women moving into their husband’s family home), the dowry system, menstrual shaming, colourism and other callousness of the British Victorian patriarchy and Brahmanical patriarchy that do nothing but hurt us. Stay tuned for the next article, ‘Feminism isn’t Westernization, Our Patriarchy is What is Colonial’.
Featured image source: The Telegraph