Looking for those census
districts in India which display normal female/male
ratios, we also discover family structures different from India including
empowered females and excluding fatal
daughter syndrome. None of districts in the Indian state of Kerala
display the abnormality of female/male ratios below one characteristic
of India, and the family structures are matrilineal and matrilocal, not
patriarchical. At the same time, the extended
families located in India as a whole (different from the nuclear families
of western societies), are common in Kerala.
The entire caste system of
Kerala is quite different from India. The Nayars, the dominant caste, originated
in Kerala. Matrilineal and matrilocal family structures found in Kerala
are unfamiliar in the experience and literature of western societies. Lacking
a patriarchical identity, the Nayar family
structure is most easily explained in terms of its joint family residence
called a Taravad (also spelled Tharwad).
A distinguished Indian jurist explains that a Taravad
consists of a female ancestor,
her children, and all such other descendants, however remote, in the female
line. The male descendants themselves are its members but their children
are not. A person belongs to the Tharwad of his or her mother only and
the Tharwad membership arises by birth in the family. A female member of
a Tharwad does not change her family by marriage unlike the others systems
which follow the agnatic line of descent. . . . Each member of a Tharwad
acquires an interest in Tharwad properties by reason of his or her birth
alone, and when any member dies, the interest of that member devolves upon
the other members of a Tharwad. (Variar)
Taravads were the female-lineage
joint families (with female-owned properties and residences) of the high-ranking
Nayar caste of historic Kerala. Advocates and jurists trained in English
law brought the ownership of family property vested in females under concerted
attack during the time of the British Raj. In addition, a Christian attack
on the appearance of polyandry in the Taravads joined by a low-caste attack
on caste restrictions generally moved with force in Kerala during the early
twentieth century. Both the religious and the legal foundations of the
Taravad institutions were severely undercut. (Jeffrey)
From early times the gender
equity found in Kerala appears to have grown out of the attitudes and beliefs
of the indigenous Malayalee population later
(more than one thousand years) to become Nayars living in Taravads. These
beliefs were secured by a special kind of marriages of Nayar women with
the very-small ritually-high land-owning caste called Nambudiri Brahmins.
Gender equity was diffused from the powerful Nayar households into the
whole population of Kerala. The weak patriarchy
of the Taravads was and continues to be found in all parts of the Malayalam
speaking population--among lower-caste Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
The experience of gender
equity in the historic Taravads has been described by the distinguished
anthropologist Kathleen Gough.
[In Cochin a] woman might
have six or eight husbands of her own or a higher subcaste, and a man,
any number of Nayar wives of his own or a lower subcaste. Residence was
duo local: spouses lived separately in their natal homes and a husband
visited his wife in her home at night. Exact physiological paternity was,
clearly, often unknown, and in any case a man had no rights in or nor obligations
to his children. Among Nayars of this area [the male-lineage] family was
not institutionalized as a legal, economic, or residential unit.
Male support, discipline, and
role models for each boy were provided by a mothers brother, a member
in the female-managed households.
In the hilly and sparsely
populated areas, duo local residence was impracticable.
In most cases a man took
his wife to live in his ancestral household in avunculocal residence and
children were brought up until adolescence in the houses of their fathers.
There was some polygyny, but polyandry was forbidden. Fathers had morally
though not legally recognized rights in and obligations to their children
and a strong affective bond with them. . . . Both in Kottayam and in Cochin,
Nayar women were occasionally married to men of the highest, patrilineal
caste of Nambudiri Brahmins. Children of such unions were Nayars, and rules
of ritual pollution maintained distance between them and their higher caste
fathers. The Nambudiri father might not eat with his wife and children,
and might not touch them during the daytime while in a state of ritual
purity. Only the eldest son of a Nambudiri house might marry a Nambudiri
wife and beget children for his own family. (Gough)
Nambudiri Brahmin daughters
in excess of first sons were relegated to life-long seclusion and denied
the educational opportunities enjoyed by Nayar daughters. The numbers of
Nambudiri Brahmins were small, less than one percent, and remain numerically
A foremost Indian scholar
summarizes the essence of the Nayar model of gender equity, the key to
modern well-being success in Kerala.
Nayar women had greater
personal freedom than most women to take decisions regarding marital and
sexual relations. Nayar women played a crucial role in making household
decisions, the decision-making role being invested with great authority---inheritance
was through them, and it was they who were the bearers of the family name.
The birth of a girl in a Nayar household was welcomed; it was far from
being considered a disaster as in other parts of India. (Ramachandran)
The reports of visitors and
resident officials have long noted the higher status of women in Kerala.
A 1875 census report for a part of the future Kerala included the observation,
"The partiality of parents in bestowing greater care on their female issues,
will be hazarding an opinion based on insufficient data, though it is a
fact that among [matrilineal] people a female child is prized more highly
than a male one." (Aiya) Looking at India in
2000, data is no longer insufficient.
To the western visitor, the
families of Kerala seem much like the families of all India. They are much
like other India families, but the status and the authority of the women
in Kerala in their families is significantly different. The writer has
often noticed the difference in the positive and confident approach of
Kerala women to their men. Kerala women are not powerful, but life in Kerala
culture does empower women in their families and in their communities.
(Directory) March 20, 2000