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Home > Culture of the Tamils > Women in Tamil Society  - Ideology, Nation & Gender  >  KARPU: Tool of Oppression? - SalvaDorai Dalit

Women in Tamil Society  - Ideology, Nation & Gender

Karpu: Tool of Oppression?

SalvaDorai Dalit
14 June 2006

On the 1st of June 2006, I had the privilege to read a poem written by Arugan from Italy: Karpu enpathu nambikkai. It is Arugan’s poem which acted as catalyst to writing this piece. Some long while ago, when I was working for my first degree, I wrote an essay on Inculturation. The professor who marked the paper had the good sense to mark it “A”. Bless his heart! However, this upper crust American, wrote in red ink in the margins, with his indecipherable scribble. ‘Had you not discussed the archaic concept of Karpoo I would have given you A*’

Westerners except in exceptional cases always seem to miss the point in understanding alien and ancient cultures. I’ll say it again there are exceptions a plenty. This is a considered opinion. Unwittingly perhaps they seem to have not over come the ‘civilising concept’. There is an element of sub-conscious feeling of superiority. Except a few avant-garde intellectuals, most western academicians seem to think, any thing foreign has to be redeemed from its primitive ignorance. Hence there is a sense of false altruistic propulsion to emancipate the under-developed souls from oppression. Of course, in every culture – whether Western or Eastern there are both good and bad. But it is utterly ludicrous or blatant arrogance for some one to think, let alone suggest, that the Tamils of Eelam - an ancient stock of people, should be emancipated from the concept of Karpu.

Karpu is a core value of the Tamil culture. Any good society will promote freedom and liberty. But in the name of freedom, one should not give way to license. Licentious living has produced far greater evil. Most ancient Eastern religions including Christianity [by the way it is not a Western religion] advance the concept of human freedom and responsibility. No religion in its right mind, promotes a permissive society nor a repressive society. None should misinterpret as if I’m hinting to promote illiberal restrictions on personal freedom.

I have been in familial contact with Scandinavia and its splendid people since 1972. I was told by Westerners [both Europeans and North Americans] that Sweden and its adjoining countries have permissive societies. I felt disgusted when I learnt that in Denmark even paedophiles could run their own website in the name of liberty and free-speech. I cannot comment further because only a sick mind would engage in such atrocity. It is indeed laughable when academicians with their own cultural-glasses, bias, vested-interests and in-bread prejudices try to judge and interpret ancient cultures. If some one were to say casteism, dowry system, oppression of weaker sections of society, child-labour to name only a few - that all these are oppressive and must be abolished. Most decent Tamils would say. Yes, of course yes! Karpu – modesty, chastity, loyalty, beauty, godliness, self-control, virginity in terms of spirituality etc etc ─ these qualities are oppressive? One could be childish or churlish in advancing such an ill-conceived position.

The Tamils want a free society but not a permissive society.

In my recent cursory readings I found an informative paper written by a Sweden-based academician who has produced some good materials regarding Tamil struggle. I shall refer to that paper later but first a word about the Tamil leader Mr Prabaharan.

As a young person I was drawn by the liberation movement and the idea of Tamil Eelam. I needed a longer period however, in fact some considerable years, to watch and perceive the character of Prabaharan by reading his actions. He was undoubtedly an indomitable spirit. Each time I read about the man in the formative days of the struggle, I would secretly weep there was a blood-pull of overwhelming affection towards him. I concealed my emotions, as one would, within me: I knew instinctively in my spirit, that he is living an underground, fugitive life in order to free his people tomorrow.

I disciplined my self to not get hooked to the myths and positive and negative spin in circulation about the man. After Tantai Chelva’s demise I refused to consider any one to be my Talaivar. Post-Chelva it was evident, most front men were tongue-twisting lawyers. Talaivar is a serious word, not to be used too hastily on any person, at least that is what I was brought up to believe. It speaks of commitment and loyalty – “Karpu”. One is not expected to “prostitute” their principles or values. Being part of a sycophantic-lot was not my cup of tea. I knew the idea of Eelam was much bigger than any one person. Until 2004 I did not feel comfortable within me to call Prabaharan with the title "Talaivar" while of course being an adherent of the movement. That connection was established in the Vanni soil.

Crisis reveals character. T Sabaratnam’s excellent series on Prabaharan reveals the “Talaivar” -

"...Ramachandran told Pirapaharan their predicament when they met in Chennai. “Is it a big problem?” Ramachandran asked Pirapaharan. Pirapaharan was furious. He said, “For you people who live in London it is not a major problem. Here, in our society, it is a serious problem. Who will permit their daughters to join a movement in which leaders molest their cadres?” Kandiah Urmila Devi, Urmila in brief, was LTTE’s first woman cadre. She was active in the Colombo branch of the Tamil Youth Forum and had worked closely with Uma. She was admitted into the LTTE on the recommendation of Uma. Ramachandran, whom I met many years later, said he had no answer to Pirapaharan’s query. He returned to London..."

Most Tamils know the history of the struggle. To the Western mind-set or even to some easterners of loose inclinations, moral lapse could be not a big deal, after all. “Is it a problem?” It depends from where you are viewing. Whether you are willing to exclude morality and values while, stretching the idea of secularism to the extreme breaking-limit. It is the result of selfish materialistic extension of an idea by the depletion of spirit and spirituality. It is like a lifeless corpse a spiritless soul. Tragedy that.

Karpu is wider in its semantic field and the overarching meaning is not strictly sexual. For rape the Tamil word that was employed was Karpu-alippu {destruction of Karpu} but the current word in usage is more closely translated to the concept of Karpu: Paliyal Val-Uravu.

One had been violently forced into having sex by coercive force [palathkaram, vanmurai]. In other words, the emphasis is placed on violation and violence. This is the plight of the Tamil virgins in the hands of Cingala forces. A molested woman or man whether a virgin or other wise (unmarried or otherwise) was sexually pure in spirit. Karpu is much more than a biological damage and violent intrusion. A wife could be raped by a husband! In essence, It speaks of the spirit, sould and body of a whole person - not just constricting to a physical act. When a uravu - a relationship is forced upon it is a rape. One should not underestimate the trauma. That is the purity, and punitham of Karpu.

As the Lord Jesus pointed out, the moral breach - adultery first happens in one’s eye of lust. In Tamil that is called apacam. This is an opposite of pacam and anpu. One reads in the Gospel, when a woman was caught in the act of adultery the men brought her to Jesus and they wanted her to be stoned to death in front of him. The crowd wanted to see Jesus’ reaction. He said, a man in the crowd who does not have sin let him throw the first stone. None did. This speaks eloquently about crowd-contagion. The trigger is in the “first-stone” This is what occurs in gang rapes. But it does not condone the sin of adultery. I often tend to ask why the crowd didn’t bring the man who was caught red-handed also to be stoned. [Jesus did not aprove of stoning] Aha! A societal breach!

I now turn to the paper that I mentioned earlier. It is entitled: The Martial Feminism of Atel Palacinkam. Herein below, I quote from it at length in order for the reader to get the drift:

"...The word Karpu, however, is not mentioned, nor is the concept in Atel Palacinkam’a books. It does not appear at all. She has adopted, it seems, a discrete, traditional and predictable silence on these matters. One does not simply talk about Karpu. Indeed, a direct attack on Karpu would have been counter-productive because it would have been an attack on a core value of traditional Tamil culture supported by both men and women. Karpu is an ultimate value for female behaviour. Besides Karpu need not necessarily be attacked, because the suppression of women is clearly observable in other terms, because the suppression of women is clearly observable in other terms, in spite of the removal of some discriminatory restrictions like those education for females. A refutation of the concept of Karpu would, however, have shown the author’s historical awareness of values about female segregation in Yalppanam that is, an awareness of the difficulty of eliminating this concept..."(Schalk: Women fighters of the LTTE. The Martial Feminism of Atel Palacinkam. South Asia Research, Vol.14, No.2, autumn 1994, p 178)

Is Schalk discussing here of a Taliban ruled Afghanistan or the Yalppanam we love and know from our childhood? Sadly, I cannot recognize Yalpanam - our cultural capital, in his writing at all. In my discussion with Tamilini- LTTE Women’s politicalwing leader, she emphatically said that there is still room for emancipation for Tamil women. There is no argument in this regard. Yalpannam society is a highly religious and conservative society but that is also a society yet which has produced thousands of emancipated and educated women even before pre-colonial period. These highly intelligent and articulate women, during or post-colonial times up to now have never ever voiced that what the Tamils urgently require is Western-type feminism. Far from it, our emancipatory concepts will be unique to our own context, confirmed Tamilini. The emphasis was that the Tamils are not willing to accept importation of novel ideas for the sake of it. The text will have to fit the context or else it will be just a pretext.

Can any Jaffna wo/man [run! ask your grand mothers] remotely identify women segregation? In my old age I am yet to come across a Tamil who has experienced segregation because of gender! If Schalk challenges caste segregation and discrimination in Jaffna – then the answer is, an overwhelming Yes. But when did Jaffna segregate in terms of gender? Are women experiencing "restrictions in education" in Jaffna? What a preposterous idea!

Palacinkam’s political perceptions have caused her to act wisely in silence. It seems Schalk and Palacinkam have viewed Karpu as a subversive tool of oppression. The latter has been extremely cautious and sensible not to impose one’s view on a highly-civilized people of mature culture. I have known many young Tamil expatriate professional gentlemen in the West who have returned to Eelam with the view to marrying young girls who have gone through paliyal val-uravu during the IPKF days or in the hands of Cingalavan forces. Of course, these noble Tamils do not go around giving interviews to write research papers! I have personally witnessed numerous such weddings. It never entered the minds of these noble men that their wives had no Karpu. What an ill-mannered suggestion is that?

If karpu is suppression and segregation then is permissiveness the answer? I do have to sadly admit in shame that in recent years I have dealt with some cases in which some crooked Tamil youngsters from Western countries have gone to Eelam and married young girls with fat dowries and returned to the West and completely forgotten about their wives! But no culture is immune to such small men. Schalk further comments in the above mentioned paper thus:

"Even though she does not mention it, Palacinkam implicitly rejects the ideal of Karpu by condemning some of its social expressions and implications. The value is connected with the social marginalisation of raped women and widows, and with the daily ideological control of men over women. The concept of Karpu is also connected with the gender specific and sex-connected concept of female power that is generated by the exercise of Karpu. All these expressions and implications, to which we must also add former practice of widow burning, are condemned by her. She does not, however, show that she is aware that all have their base in the sophisticated and manipulative concept of Karpu."

I doubt Schalk or Palacinkam are really being serious about what they are talking about. Either both have misunderstood each other or both trying to liberate the Tamil women from a wrongly perceived concept.

Having said that, one must agree without singling out Tamil culture Karpu can be gender specific. The emancipation of women is still being fought for in the West. By no means is it complete or final. Multitude of White men goes to Sri Lanka with full of lust and perversion knowing that only a mere pittance could buy him a virgin to be exploited and abused. Paedophiles of the West expose destitute Sri Lankan children to frightful indecency. Such fun loving sex-tourists might have to think twice if they are allowed to engage in such despicable pursuits in Eelam. Why? Eelam has high moral standards. Recent developments in the East Eelam with regard to Paliyal val-uravu by white NGO personnel on fellow local workers and the production of 'Blue movies' became a big issue, and rightly so. Do we interpret that as suppression? Can any one point to a Tamil Tiger ever raping a Cingala woman?

The concept of Karpu is not to be talked about loosely because that is not considered a decent thing. These are culturally sensitive matters. Tamils are a very discreet people. Hence it should not be interpreted as sign of oppression. It is hilarious should some one compare widow burning [Sati] with Karpu. The British Missionaries helped to abolish or out law widow burning in 1829 in India and the Tamils have had no qualms about it. Widow burning is by no means unique to the Sub-continent. It is believed that it was the Scythians who brought with them this custom to India. It was practised by Egyptians, Greeks, Goths and others. Not all Hindu communities in India practised it.

This is the unfortunate result when foreign researchers with their own pre-conceived misperceptions and biased cultural glasses find them selves meddling in other people’s cultures. Many ancient original peoples in the world faced and still do face such intrusive abuse. The missionaries of old in spite of their many sacrificial and great deeds failed miserably to understand deeply spiritual concepts of indigenous cultures. The Colonial frame of mind was filled with imperialistic modes of understanding and the mercantile nature of the colonial Christianity which brought with it the notion of racial superiority and the condescending impulses to act as "saviours" of the native population. Things have been glossed over in a politically correct world but the changing of attitudes have been by and large superficial. Hence there is an enormous risk of such fallacies being repeated in theory and practice in the name of flimsy emancipation of academicians.

Schalk has written many informative papers. He has insights in to both Tamil and Cinhala cultures. He has to be appreciated for his contribution in regard to the struggle from Cinhala hegemony. Nonetheless, the serious mis-understanding and the heretical exposition of Schalk is a vain attempt to promote a dilapidated view on the concept of Karpu. It must be said, it is not at all convincing. On a positive note however, perhaps his intentions are good, but his liberative thrust is alarmingly misplaced. The arguments do not seem to hold any water.

I look forward to reading his other papers in hand. One would think, it will prove to be different. Obviously. In conclusion I quote below in sentamil, excerpts from Arugan’s Karpu:

அதாவது கற்பு என்பது நம்பிக்கை.

கணவன் மனைவியிடத்தில் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
தந்தை மகளிடத்தில்வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
தாய் மகனிடத்தில் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
நண்பன் தன் நண்பனிடம் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
காதலன் காதலியிடம் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
காதலி காதலனிடம் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
தொண்டர்கள் தலைவனிடத்தில் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
அரசன் மக்களிடம் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.
மக்கள் இறைவனிடம் வைக்கும் நம்பிக்கை கற்பு.

இப்படிச்சொல்லிக்கொண்டே போகலாம்…

இந்த நம்பிக்கைக்கு எப்போது பங்கம் வருகிறதோ அப்போது கற்பு அங்கே அழிக்கப்படுகிறது;

இதில் ஆண் என்ன பெண் என்ன ?


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