On International Women’s Day, while the rest of India debated the validity of a monster problem over a documentary on India’s most horrible rape in recent times, patriarchy was flexing its arms elsewhere in Tamil Nadu.
Four men, of the unheard group, Hindu Illaignar Sena (Hindu Youth Army) attacked a television channel’s office in Chennai. The reason: the channel had circulated promotional news that on International Women’s Day they would telecast a special programme that would discuss the relevance of the thaali (mangalsutra in Tamil). The four hurled crude bombs in a bid to silence the channel.
Why would the men of Tamil Nadu worry about a discussion on the thaali? The thaali is a wedding ornament. The wedding chain washed with auspicious turmeric and gold is tied by the man on his wife’s neck signifying their lifelong bond. Many modern Tamil women are increasingly eschewing the ornament; they do not uphold the sacred myths around it — “a golden band of protection for a woman’s chastity.”
In a bid to uphold its sanctity the thaali has often been vulgarized and abused in Tamil cinema. Many of us have grown up on Tamil films where a man tied a thaali to the woman after raping her to make her ‘honourable’; forcibly tied a thaali to suppress a woman into marriage; or scenes where villains menacingly swung the thaali frightening a hapless heroine, waiting to be rescued by the hero.
Most married Tamil women continue to wear the thaali around their necks despite its rising absence among modern Tamil women at home and elsewhere. It signifies to the world that a woman is taken and belongs to a man. Dravidian activists invoke history of the Rationalist Movement of the 1920s saying the ‘self respect’ weddings of Dravidian political activists rejected rituals and did not mention the tying of the thaali as necessary by the groom. There is a loud debate about the century the thaali originated and how ancient, culturally it is in Tamil Nadu.
The March 8 thaali incident is the latest in a series of incidents emanating from the state that point to disturbing aspects of rogue patriarchy where casteism and misogyny and sexuality are evident.
• On March 12, a policeman from Madurai, beat and assaulted his daughter on the streets of Bengaluru. His anger was that she had behaved in a ‘dishonourable fashion’ by hanging out with a boyfriend.
• A fortnight ago came the news that Tamil writer Puliyur Murugesan was attacked and assaulted by a rogue mob in Karur. While the incident was spearheaded by members of a community attacking him for perceived insults to their caste, the reason involved gender. Murugesan’s short story, Balachandran Enroru Peyarum Enakku Undu, dealt with alternate sexuality, the illicit sexual coercion a wife is subjected to by her father-in-law, with no protection from her homosexual husband. This is the land whose 2000-year-old Sangam poetry are verses of beauty and power that also deal with sexuality with a self-assuredness its contemporary citizens seems wary of.
• A month before there was Perumal Murugan. A feted writer and academician, he was hounded and threatened to the point of silence following Hindu groups taking offence to his novel. Madhorubagan dealt with the ancient practice, among a community in Western Tamil Nadu, which allows married women to violate marital sexual fidelity for the sake of progeny. The obvious reason for violence against Murugan was he insulted a certain caste. But the simmering aspect of female agency and sexual proclivity outside of marriage that brought dishonour to the community went unsaid.
• Prominent writer B Jeyamohan created a controversy in Tamil literary circles in June 2014, when he claimed that Tamil media was partial to women writers and featured them despite their lack of literary merit, unlike the male writers with their elephantine literary talents. He gruffly agreed to an apology with rising condemnation by many female writers.
• Poet and activist Meena Kandasamy has been trolled for her vocal views on caste and gender. She even received threats of ‘acid attacks’ and ‘gang-rape’ on Twitter in 2013. Poet Salma who wrote of the female body and the pressure of marriage and the rigidity of sexuality within marriages, received condemnation from her community elders.
• Since the turn of the 21st century, the infamy of filing 22 cases of cultural denigration filed against actress Khushboo in Chennai in 2005, for her comments that premarital sex for women is not taboo, continues to dog the state.
While most of these cases are held up as instances of free speech being muzzled, or attack on creativity and debate in the state, the worrying aspect is almost all of these acts of violence and protests stem from patriarchal fear. Despite the increase in literacy, the lack of educated and informed minds erupts over clashes with modern ideas of female voices and permissive sexuality.
A culture that worships machismo and fosters a cult of masculinity raises its ugly head despite the many social indices of prosperity and empowerment. The glitzy superhero movies continue to hold up women as symbols of Tamil pride and honour, both of which seek to control female sexuality.
And those who speak of the beauty and universality of Tamil culture today seem to have forgotten the glorious verse of that modern feminist Bharati who said, “Let us reject any dogma that subjugates women.”