Kochi: The I.V. Sasi-directed Malayalam film Vaartha (1986) with Mammootty in the lead was fairly controversial back in the day for being too close to reality, with the central character modeled on the then editor of Mathrubhumi daily, Monu aka Madhav Das Nalappat.
The film also had an author-backed female lead in Kozhikode District Collector (DC) Radha Menon, played by Seema, also said to be modeled on a talismanic woman district magistrate, a rarity those days. 35 years later, Kerala has a record nine women among its 14 district collectors, yet another first for the outlier state.
The second term of Pinarayi Vijayan’s chief ministership had originally penciled in eight women collectors, before the latest reshuffle resulted in the addition of a ninth, in Kollam, making the first offline meeting of the collectors chaired by the state revenue minister in Thiruvananthapuram last week a trailblazing event.
Five of these IAS officers hail from Kerala — Divya S Iyer at Pathanamthitta district, Haritha V. Kumar at Thrissur district, P.K. Jayasree at Kottayam district, Sheeba George at Idukki district, Geetha A at Wayanad district.
Of the remaining four, Thiruvananthapuram DC Navjot Khosa is from Punjab, Palakkad DC Mrunmayee Joshi is from Maharashtra and so is Kasaragod DC Bhandari Swagat Ranveerchand; Kollam DC Afsana Perveen (who is wife of serving Ernakulam DC Jafar Malik) is from Jharkhand.
While the development is clearly an instance of breaking the glass ceiling in a state deceptively steeped in patriarchy, is it a definitive turning point?
According to gender studies experts and feminist thinkers in Kerala, it is too early to make that call. Most of them dubbed it a positive development, yet, were non-committal on whether this could have a larger sociological impact.
There are also mixed views on whether this could break the stranglehold of patriarchy in Kerala, which has always been a patriarchal society going back centuries — regardless of the mindless glorification of the past when it was supposedly matrilineal, but only in theory, and that too, among certain communities.
Meena T. Pillai, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Kerala, while calling it a “heartening” development, cautioned that merely an increase in the number of women in key positions need not tantamount to an erosion of patriarchal values.
“Patriarchy isn’t biological; you can be a man and a feminist and similarly, women schooled in patriarchy may actually perpetuate it,” she said. But she added that women holding such positions make them “more approachable” for the common womenfolk and inspire young girls to take up the profession.
Among the current lot of nine collectors, and among the immediate predecessors who were shuffled out as directors of key flagships and missions of the state government, almost all of them are direct recruits — in their twenties, thirties and early forties, making them real change agents.
Being high-profile and visible, they do inspire the college-going girls as evident in the reactions of young women in a prominent women’s college in Kochi. In fact, the state bagging the first rank in 2012 after two decades through Haritha V. Kumar, the newly-appointed Thrissur collector, turned out to be the turning point, as faculties at the burgeoning civil services coaching centres in the city testify. Of late, Thiruvananthapuram has emerged as the new hub of civil service aspirants in Kerala with fewer aspirants making the trip to Delhi.
Civil servant-turned-politician M.P. Joseph, who unsuccessfully contested as a United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate in the assembly election, said, “The increasing number of women collectors is a natural phenomenon, an extension of the strides undertaken by women in other spheres.”
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Not enough women politicians
But even as the sheer number of women collectors gives hope, the poor female representation in the political arena is a cause of concern. Following the V.S. Achuthanandan government’s decision to reserve 50 per cent of the seats at all local bodies to women, there has been a visible increase in female participation at the lower levels but they are often sidelined for party tickets to the state assembly or parliament.
The poor upward mobility of women politicians from local bodies who now make up about 54 per cent of all representatives (with women also contesting from general seats) is a sticky issue. The ones who have risen up the ranks from this pool are a miniscule minority in the 26 years since 1995, when the A.K. Antony government held the first local body election following the implementation of the Panchayati Raj Act in 1994. One of those who made that switch is incumbent minister for higher education R. Bindu, an academic and, more importantly, wife of Communist party of India (Marxist) State Secretary-in charge A Vijayaraghavan.
Speaking to ThePrint, Prof. Bindu claimed that the appointment of a high number of women collectors is a “deliberate policy decision towards women empowerment undertaken by Pinarayi Vijayan”.
However, when ThePrint caught up with Revenue Minister K. Rajan of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the nodal minister to whom the collectors report to, he had a slightly different take: “Of course, we are in favour of bringing more women to leadership positions, but it’s more of an organic process than a deliberate push.”
On being asked about the process of appointments and reshuffling of civil servants, Rajan stated that it’s done through a consultative process with the chief minister.
Speaking to ThePrint, Pathanamthitta Collector Divya S Iyer expressed hope that the sight of more women DCs would serve as an inspiration to young women.
She also vouched for the talent and tenacity of women representatives in local self governments, drawing from her previous stint as the Mission Director of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
Iyer, who wears many hats as a medical practitioner, author and having acted in a movie, is married to Youth Congress vice-president, K.S. Sabarinadhan.
‘More needs to be done’
There are contrarian voices, too, like that of J. Devika, a well-known academic and feminist thinker. According to her, “the civil service in India isn’t decolonised”.
She doesn’t think more women in positions of power can affect the patriarchal mindset of the society although she concurs with others that “it can alter the expectations of children growing up now”.
Dr Rekha Raj, a Dalit activist and gender scholar, too didn’t seem too impressed, saying she would only say that it’s a “positive development”.
Meera Velayudhan, a pioneering gender studies expert, while hailing the move, added that it has to be supplemented with emphasis on many other fronts.
There have been many catalytic developments in the last five years which would sync well with the symbolism of having so many women collectors across Kerala today. Ever since actors such as Parvathy Thiruvoth openly criticised the Mammootty-starrer Kasaba (2016) for celebrating toxic masculinity and misogyny, and post the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), there is greater sensitivity to the portrayal of female characters in Malayalam cinema. The Great Indian Kitchen set off a public debate in Kerala like no other film in recent times, tackling a tricky subject with dexterity in the larger context of the Sabarimala flashpoint. The casual misogyny that used to be the norm in Malayalam films of the previous decades has given way to a conscious political correctness.
The exceptionally brave resistance of a group of nuns against the organised might of the church following the denial of justice to their compatriot and the revolt of the conservative Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)-affiliated Haritha, its student outfit for girls, against the patriarchal leadership of the party were important milestones on this front.
Aleyamma Vijayan, founder of Sakhi, a Women’s Resource Centre, was of the view that the appointment of a large number of women collectors need not be conflated with the churning in the society. Opposition politicians too dubbed it a symbolic move. But, even as symbolism, two-thirds of the government interfaces at the highest level in the state being women is no mean feat and needs to be applauded.
Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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