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Matriliny the key to gender equality


PERSONA NON GRATA: The survival rate of the girl child is beginning to fall in Kerala, indicating a fall in the woman's social status

A group of Kerala historians believes the secret to equality for women lies in the matrilineal system once followed in the state. It allowed women the freedom to pick partners, inherit property and maintain their identity after marriage.

If it is possible somehow to turn the clock back on social changes and bring back the now extinct matrilineal system in Kerala, can it bring to an end the increasing instances of violence and discrimination women are facing in the state today?

No, says historian Kesavan Veluthat of Delhi University who believes that society has to deal with its trials and tribulations in contemporary terms. Yes, says a group of history enthusiasts who form a part of the Thrissur-based Kerala Historical Research Society. The group is revisiting the matrilineal system which legally prevailed in Kerala up until 1975 to look for pointers on how to upturn the gender skew in modern society.

"We are certainly conscious that matriliny is now extinct in Kerala, and there is no possibility as well as need for reviving it considering the socio-economic changes that have occurred since Independence. We are also aware of the downside of the system, the decadent tendencies it displayed in the 20th century. But it will be worthwhile reflecting on something in our socio-cultural heritage that ran counter to the current trend of viewing women as mere sexual objects, " says a KHRS official.

Kerala's matrilineal system, specially the manner in which it was followed by the Nairs in the erstwhile Malabar region, has been the subject of extensive studies, both national and international. Even though many of those studies were inspired by the exotic nature of the system, they have gained valuable insights into a socioeconomic order which at least theoretically vested several rights, including to property, with women.

Commonly known as marumakkathayam, the matrilineal system in Kerala ensured that women were inheritors of not only family property but also family lineage. It also decreed that the uncle or mother's brother, and not the father, would manage the properties of the family. This uncle or karanavar would also be obeyed by the family's children in all matters. European travellers of the past and scholars from the west in recent times evidently found this remarkable because they were exposed only to the standard patrilineal system in which the father is the head of the family.

Since women inherited family property, Kerala historically never treated the girl child as inferior as is the case in the north. Female foeticide was unheard of in Kerala and this probably contributed to the high malefemale ratio now prevalent in the state, say experts.

"The birth of a girl child was not considered a curse in Kerala - she was loved and cherished, " points out Prof MGS Narayananan, eminent historian and former Chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR).

Kerala also followed the matrilocal system wherein women continued to reside in their ancestral home even after they contracted a marriage or entered a sambandham (an informal arrangement) with a Namboodiri. "This gave women a sense of continuity in their identity. In the patriarchal system a woman is expected to become another person, cultivate a new identity for herself in the husband's house, " says Praveena Kodoth, associate professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram.
The matrilineal system allowed a woman a certain amount of sexual freedom. She could enter or exit a marital relation and she could turn down an offer for a sambandham. Also, in the wedding ritual she is not "given" by her family or "taken" by her husband's, as is the case in patriarchy. "This reduced the possibility of a woman being reduced to the status of mere property, " says Praveena.

Narayanan points out that many tribal communities in different parts of the world follow matriliny but Kerala was different because the system survived here even after the concepts of private property and state evolved. Kesavan however points out that the matrilineal system followed in the Tulu region (near Kasargod) also survived under British rule albeit with different customs.

Kesavan also argues that the matrilineal system did not really empower women in Kerala and that these rights existed only notionally. In reality, he says, the karanavar dominated the household, controlled its wealth and assets, and even picked potential bridegrooms.

Noted social scientist Prof K Saradamoni, on the other side, strongly argues that the decimation of matriliny was a serious blow to gender equity in Kerala. Women in the state were free to pursue higher education at a time when women in the west could not dream of such freedoms. This is proved by the fact that women from the Nair and Syrian Christian communities often went to study at various women's colleges in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Some had even gone to Sri Lanka to set up educational institutions.

Contemporary Kerala however is a very different place. Chauvinism is as visible here as in other parts of India. And, says Praveena, the survival rate of the girl child is beginning to decline, indicating a fall in the woman's social status.


The row between the Arakkal and Keyi families, over Rs 5, 000 crore in compensation from the Saudi government for the demolition of a resting place built in Mecca for Haj pilgrims from Kerala, has revived memories of the matrilineal system followed by the state's Muslims.

The resting place, Keyi Rubath, was built by Mayin Kutty Keyi in 1848 and pulled down by the Saudi authorities in 1971, so the area could be developed, after the fixing of compensation at 14 lakh riyals. The amount was deposited with the Saudi Auqaf department and has been lying there ever since, owing to the dispute.
The Keyi families belong to Thalassery in Kannur district and were known for their immense wealth and properties acquired through trade with the British East India Company. The Keyis are known for their matrilineal system of inheritance and usually marry into other Keyi families. But there are references in the history books of the Keyi family having marital links with Kerala's lone Muslim royal house, the Arakkals belonging to Kannur.

While the Keyi family claims to be the legitimate inheritor of the compensation since it follows the matrilineal system, the Arakkals base their arguments on patriliny which is common among Islamic communities.


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