தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Last updated
15/07/07

Women & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam

Savitri by Jayalakshmi SAtyendra

Puthumai Penn - A Tribute
புதுமைப் பெண் - ஒரு பாராட்டு
 - Paintings in Oils by Jayalakshmi Satyendra

Tamil women at the crossroads, C.S.Lakshmi, March 1984
KARPU: Tool of Oppression? - SalvaDorai Dalit, June 2006
கற்பு என்பது நம்பிக்கை - Arugan
 சர்வதேச மகளிர் தினம் - பெண்ணியம் - கற்பு - தமிழ்ப்பெண் - Sanmugam Sabesan, 8 March 2006
பெண் உடல் மீதான சமூக வன்முறை - அஜிதா, 2005

தோழியர்

Notes on Love in a Tamil Family -  Margaret Trawick. 1992 "...Of course there are the stereotypes: India is "more spiritual" than the West, its people "impoverished," "non materialistic," "fatalistic," and "other-worldly," its society structured according to a "rigid caste hierarchy," its women "repressed" and "submissive," its villagers "tradition-bound" and "past-oriented," their behavior ordered by "rituals" and constrained by "rules" of "purity" and "pollution."

These words are not just products of popular Western fantasy. Scholars and specialists in South Asian culture use them often. But one thing I learned in India was that these words are just words, our words, to refer to certain scattered events occurring in South Asia. The propositions they imply are partial truths, half truths, and anyone going to India who expects all of Indian life to confirm to them will find herself merely deluded and confused. It would almost be better, I think, if we could abandon such words, all those words that imply explanation and understanding of such a large place as India, at least (those words whose referents are only scholarly abstractions, certainly those words over which academic people alight). Alas, if you wish to address the academic specialists, you must use them.

I have tried, anyway, in my own narrative not to lean on such words too much. This has not been difficult, because they explain very little of what I experienced in India.

The women I knew there, for instance, were more aggressive than me, more openly sexual than me, more free in their criticisms of their men than me. Here in America I often get in trouble for arguing, losing my temper, speaking my mind. But in Tamil Nadu, one of my woman friends, Anni, asked me pointedly, "is it your habit to bow and defer to everyone?" My personality in Tamil Nadu was no more sweet and obliging than it is in America; if anything, I was more short-tempered there.

As for Anni, she was milder than many Tamil women I knew indeed, she was known for her patient and loving nature. But when she accused me, through her question, of excessive deference, she was not being sarcastic. Compared to her, I was a little mouse. The notion of the repressed and submissive Indian woman simply did not apply to the people among whom I lived-and yet in some ways it did. Anni would not have been Anni without her fidelity to her men and her ability to endure hardship for their sake, to do without while they did with. She was proud of these qualities of hers and wore them fiercely. They entitled her to speak freely and to walk with her head held high...."

Ideology, Caste, Class and Gender - Selvy Thiruchandran, 1997 "...Women's location in Tamil social formation is part of a power network... Gender ideology was upheld rather vigorously in religious texts. By reason of its hegemonic status and through the pedagogic process the ideology was sustained for long periods... The ideological implications of such a process which started centuries ago were constantly reimposed. The linguistic connotations of words such as manai  (மனை) and manaivi (மனைவி) (one who belongs to the home/house) and concepts such as manaimatchti (மனைமாட்சி) (the elaborate discussions of the decorum befitting a good wife in Tirukural) bear witness to the development of otherness for the women in the public domain."

Women in Combat - Margaret Trawick, 1999  "..small arms technology has developed in such a way that one no longer needs great muscular power to handle a modern combat rifle, or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or whatever else advanced stuff is out there. The playing field has been levelled. A troop of well trained and well armed teenaged girls can rout a battalion of big strong men who are not so very well trained...".

Subramaniya Bharathy on
Women in Tamil Society

புதுமைப் பெண்
பெண் விடுதலை
பெண்மை
பெண்கள் விடுதலைக் கும்மி
 
Forum on Dowry System in Tamil Society
தனமா? - சீ-தனமா? - Sanmugam Sabesan, 4 September 2005 "...தமிழ்ப் பெண்ணைப் பூச்சூடிப் - பொட்டு வைத்து -பொன் நகையால் அலங்கரித்து - பட்டு உடுத்தி, பாட்டெழுதி மெட்டமைத்து, போற்றிப் பாடிப்புகழ்ந்து வந்தாலும் ‘பெண்அடிமை’ என்ற பிற்போக்குவாதச் சிந்தனையின் அடிப்படையில்தான் எமது தமிழ்ப் பெண் இனம் வாழ்ந்து(?) வந்திருக்கிறது. அப்படிப்பட்ட சமுதாயச் சீர்கேட்டுக் கொடுமைகளின் வெளிப்பாடு ஒன்றுதான் கட்டாயச் சீதனத்தின் கொடுமை!.." more
Some Reflections on Dowry - M.N.Srinivas, 1984
Sabarimalai: The banning of Menstruating Women - Shan Ranjit
Rebel Poet in the Panchayat


Tamil Nation Library - Women

Women in Tamil Society
 - Ideology, Nation & Gender

Women, Nation & Struggle  

Malar Segaram
in Tamil Guardian, 25 July 2001

"The issue of gender is often over looked in traditional nationalism debates, despite the significant contribution women have made to nationalist projects, and the intertwining of the feminist struggle and the nationalist one.....But to view nationalism without factoring in the gendered view is to ignore a significant factor that contributes to nationalistic sentiment. The role of women in nationalism, whether it is as nurturers, citizens or combatants, remains, as through the history of feminist struggle, a vital one. "


Nationalism has been described by various academics as a reaction to colonialism, as the political expression of particular groups, as expressing a cultural belonging to an imagined community or as articulating an ethnic sense of belonging.

It is seen as homogenising or differentiating a discourse aimed at people who see themselves as having something in common and against others they see as being different.

The traditional theories have been espoused by predominantly (white) men who argue the pros and cons and reach their conclusions, overlooking the influences of the gender debate on nationalistic sentiment.

However, a fast growing literary effort argues that looking at nationalism without considering gender is to paint a partial picture. First developed by feminists, this line of thinking argues that gender is constitutive of both nations and nationalism.

They argue that ways in which nations are expressed have to be looked at through the lens of gender, as well as race, ethnicity and class. As far back as the 1930s, the English writer Virginia Woolf looked at what the phrase ‘our country’ meant to women. Writing on the eve of a world war, she queried in what way English women of the time belonged to the nation. They were ‘outsiders’, unable to vote or own property, poorly protected by laws that effectively considered them chattel of the men in their lives. She que-ried in what way England belonged to her.

Woolf argued that a woman might say she had no country, indeed wanted no country. “As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

But the utopian ideal of belonging to womankind, above all other loyalties was immediately crosscut by her own strong sense that she was British. For as she went on to say, once reason had spoken, emotion tugged on the heartstrings. This ‘pure, if irrational emotion’, she went on to argue, will drive her to secure first for her country ‘what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world’.

Her thoughts are those of a pacifist responding to the threat of war. But her brief imaginings of being an outsider could not survive the war. Having seen her favourite places blown up, heard the bombs fall and watched her friends die, she could not stay aloof from it. As Catherine Hall says, “There is no way to be outside war, either as a man or a woman.” Yet the British nationality, which was felt so strongly by Woolf, was one that deemed her an ‘outsider’.

Its property laws and legal processes deemed even her, a white, upper class, educated woman, as being unworthy of citizenship. While the reform acts of 1832 and 1867 had given first, middle class, and then, upper class men franchise, women were excluded from this class of subject.

Class, race, ethnicity and gender all played a role in the debate, defining the lines along which boundaries could be established. That debate on citizenship has to be viewed in light of the empire. Citizens had to be differentiated from subjects.

It was the construction of ‘others’ in Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zea-land and the former colony of America that enabled the benchmarks for who the British did and did not want to be.

In 1867, Gladstone, the liberal leader, argued that working class men were entitled to have a voice in the running of the country because they had shown their maturity in volunteering for the American War. They had put their belief in a value system, the abolition of slavery, above their own material interests. His only concerns were where the lines were to be drawn.

They were eventually drawn around notions of respectable masculinity. Men who were independent, had homes and regular incomes, were eligible for citizenship, while men who did not, the vagrants and unemployed (which, at the time, often meant the Irish) were not. It was deemed that only the ‘respectable’ men would not threaten the fabric of national culture, or in the words of Hutton, “make us any less English or national than we now are.”

While the rights of men were being debated, the rights of women were also raised. In 1832, it was formally clarified that women could not vote. By 1867, the right to vote had become the symbolic crux of citizenship, and suffragettes organised a petition seeking the same rights as men. When the issue was raised in the House of Commons, it was briefly debated and speedily dismissed.

The House of Commons concluded that women were not citizens because they were subjects. These ‘naturally’ gentle and affectionate guardians of domesticity and morality were not suited to the world of politics. Many years after women were eventually granted the right to vote the perception that women are the ‘gentler’ sex still prevails. Discussions on the role of women in combat and the recent urging by the United Nations to give women a greater role in peace delegations are both often argued on this basis, rather than on physical capability or equal rights, which may be equally gendered, but less confrontational reasons.

Gender issues surrounding nations and nationalism are perhaps most clearly articulated at times of war, when bodies become the sites of conflict. The masculinization of war and citizenship have been recognised as being intimately connected, with the exclusion of women from the military crystallising in their exclusion from citizenship. Britain decided in 1867 that men were entitled to vote because they had fought for the beliefs of their country. Women, who were denied the right to make that choice, were also denied the right to vote.

But gender also has other bearings in times of conflict. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis theorised that women are crucial to national processes as biological, cultural, ethnic and symbolic reproducers of the nation.

While it can be argued that women continue to bear and reproduce national traditions, it cannot be assumed that women’s interests are not represented in nationalistic movements. Tamil women for example have redefined their roles in society as a consequence of the Tamil nationalist movement. Traditionally a very conservative community, the war has forced the Tamil people re-examine the role of their women.

From the early stages of the agitation for the recognition of their rights, Tamil women supported the actions of their men. Heading into the 1970s, the women were at the forefront of the Satyagraha campaigns. As the form of struggle transformed from silent protests to non-violent agitation and on to violence, the women were only steps behind the men - and not for want of trying to be alongside.

However it was the descent into violence that saw the greatest change in the role of Tamil women. Unlike the British women, Tamil women were given the option of joining the war effort, and many chose to do so. From being viewed solely as wives, sisters or mothers, women have begun to carve a name for themselves as warriors. In the West, where women work outside the home on a regular basis, the role of women in combat is still a contentious one. For a society that until the world war believed that women were the homemakers (although it was somewhat acceptable for those with professional qualifications to work as well) to accept - or be forced to accept - women as military leaders is a considerable leap.

That the Tamils have taken that step can be seen as considerable progress on the road to gender equality - provided these changes persist even after the war is over. Other women have also made tremendous gains in the course of nationalistic movements. Many young women of Nepal have moved from traditional homemakers to arms bearing warriors in the Communist struggle while the women of Guatemala fought alongside their men in the Central American country’s revolutionary war.

While many Guatemalan women went back to the homes after the war, they proved their capabilities outside these and can do so again. The role of women in society has also shaped the course of nations. For example, the emergence and evolution of Egyptian feminism was an integral part of the history of the nation and was vital to the founding of the state. Egyptian women assumed agency and in so doing subverted and refigured the conventional patriarchal order. The Egyptian feminist movement advanced the nationalist cause while working within the parameters of religious (Islamic) precepts.

A gendered view allows for another lens through which to view nationalism. It can provide a different perspective on nationalistic struggles. But to view nationalism without factoring in the gendered view is to ignore a significant factor that contributes to nationalistic sentiment. The role of women in nationalism, whether it is as nurturers, citizens or combatants, remains, as through the history of feminist struggle, a vital one.  
 

Tamil women at the crossroads - C.S. Lakshmi, UNESCO Courier, March, 1984


In the Tamil epics women are depicted as formidable personalities with superior moral power, capable of such extraordinary feats as burning down an entire city to avenge the death of a husband. This image persisted until the dawn of the twentieth century, by which time Tamil women were becoming aware that it contrasted starkly with the realities of their inferior status and were athirst for knowledge and formal education. A number of distinguished men supported the cause of women's education, but controversy arose about the kind of education that should be provided and about the medium of instruction. Since women were considered as "do-gooders" it was widely felt that education should prepare them for service in such careers as teaching and, later, medicine.

While the early women teachers who taught girls in their homes in the second half of the nineteenth century had mostly been Christians, in the early twentieth century it was Hindu widows who met the need for a body of committed teachers. Hindu widows were not allowed to remarry and there were large numbers of them because of the prevailing system of child marriage. (Little girls aged two or three often found themselves widows, condemned to a life of drudgery. Brahmin widows were also tonsured when they came of age, and thus became physical outcasts as well.)

The fate of many of these widows began to change through the pioneering work of a courageous young woman named Subbalaksmi, fondly known as Sister Subbalakshmi, who grew up among widows and was for many years haunted by a childhood memory of attending a wedding where she had seen a three-year-old girl being teased because she was a widow. Sister Subbalakshmi was herself widowed at the age of eleven and was only able to pursue her studies because she was encouraged to do so by her liberal-minded father. She trained to be a teacher and then opened a home for widows and began to train them as teachers too.

Women's education gave rise to many jokes about women who neglected their homes while their husbands struggled with the children, and about women who could not cook without referring to were also made fun of in cartoons and jokes which expressed the anxieties and fears of a generation of people confronted by a changing world.

It was but a short step from education for "service" to activities in favour of reform. In the early twentieth century two Englishwomen, Annie Besant and Margaret Cousins, were active in the social and political life of southern India. In 1917 Annie Besant founded the Women's Indian Association, and the All India Women's Conference was inaugurated by Margaret Cousins in 1926. These movements fought for such major reforms as the raising of the age of consent for marriage, the franchise, and the abolition of the Devadasi system. [The Devadasi belonged to a caste of women dedicated to the service of the patron gods of the great temples]. Many upper-class Indian women were inspired to call for social reform by the two Englishwomen, who were demanding that the Vedic past should be revived.

Women also began to be increasingly active in writing and the other arts. Not only did members of the Devadasi community, who were traditionally artists, appear on stage and screen;; women such as Kalanidhi, Rukmini Devi and D.K. Pattammal, who belonged to communities which traditionally did not practise the performing arts, now became prominent in dance and music. With the launching of Jegan Mohini, edited by Vai. Mu. Kodainayaki Ammal, and Chinthamani, edited by Sister Balammal, women's magazines run by women came into vogue and began to stimulate debate and discussions on women's issues.

As the nation-wide agitation for independence gathered momentum, women were inspired by Gandhi to enter the political arena. They picketed shops selling imported cloth, spoke on party platforms, travelled to spread Gandhi's ideas, wrote articles on the need for a new role for women, and became active in literacy programmes.

In 1947 the Women's Welfare Department was started and set itself "the difficult and comprehensive task of assisting women in rediscovering themselves". Since the 1950s the world of Tamil women seems to have expanded to encompass fields from which they were previously excluded. The working woman has become a familiar figure in the towns and cities. Women's associations have proliferated. The literacy rate among Tamil women is comparatively high.

In spite of these changes, however, the roles formerly performed by women have neither disappeared nor been transformed. Although it may be camouflaged in various ways, the traditional image of the chaste woman and the devoted mother is still reflected in modern Tamil literature, in the media, and in customs. Most female characters in stories have an overt and hidden face. The overt face is seemingly "modern", but at some point in the story the character proves that modernity has not destroyed her hidden, more beautiful, traditional face. Gruesome punishments are often meted out to those who stray from this cast-iron mould: fire and water are considered purifying elements and have often been used as devices for the physical destruction of an "impure" character. When physical destruction is eschewed, social degradation, ostracism and neglect provide alternatives which in some cases may seem less merciful.

The media image of women, shaped by commercialization, is very close to that found in literature. In the media the traditional and modern images are often termed "good" and "bad", and more often than not the "good" prevails over the "bad". Commercial values have also affected family relationships, including the institution of marriage, with women being considered as saleable or non saleable commodities. The dowry has assumed oppressive importance; instead of being liberated, the woman who works in an office has been transformed into a dowry-earning individual

The gulf between the urban and rural woman has widened. In the early part of the century the rural woman was considered a romantic figure, morally courageous and physically beautiful. She sang soft lullabies and traditional love songs in her unsophisticated rustic voice. Much has happened to change this idyllic image, and it is today realized that the rural woman belongs to an anonymous, faceless mass enmeshed in the reality of the struggle for a better existence.

For the Tamil woman today there are many grounds for apprehension but there are also ground for hope. She stands at a cross-roads, and the very fact that she is aware of this is one hopeful sign. There are others. Most of the women's magazines that project the image of the homely woman will sometimes devote space to discussion of law affecting women, women's psychological problems, or the way in which women's lives have been ruined by distorted values. Although coverage of such topics may be surrounded by masses of recipes and articles on embroidery and dressmaking, it nevertheless makes a dent, albeit a small one, in a structure built on hearth and home. From time to time a woman with a questioning mind is also portrayed in the media, but even though such portrayals are diluted because of commercial considerations they have still not been accepted without comment.

The earlier phases of "rediscovery" were directed into mother and child care projects. They were geared to traditional needs and were an extension of earlier charitable activities. Today organizations such as the Women's Democratic Front and the Penn Urimai Iyakkam (Women's Rights Movement) are bent on transforming the image of women and working towards more meaningful forms of "rediscovery". Most women, however, are still looking at the sky but have not yet decided to fly. Their wings are not clipped, and the time is not far off when they will use them.

 
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