By Kahini Iyer Aug. 20, 2019
Have South Indians really earned the right to claim the moral high ground when it comes to sexism? For starters, comparing stats on women’s rights in developed states to the rural cowbelt, is like lauding India for having a stronger record on human rights than Saudi Arabia.
I’ve got a confession to make, one I didn’t realise was a secret until I unwittingly broke it to a North Indian friend: South Indians, from Malayalis to Tamilians, think they are better than you.
Of course, this is India, where most people wouldn’t know what to do with their free time if they stopped looking down on another community for utterly trivial reasons. South Indians are not alone, nor am I suggesting that we’re all a bunch of judgemental pricks. But as a member of a community that perpetually wins gold in the superiority complex Olympics, I can’t deny this hallmark of the culture. South Indians have better movies and older mother tongues; higher literacy rates and more advanced development. Despite all this, the region is usually shunted aside when it comes to conversations about national identity, parked under the umbrella of “Madrasi” by clueless northies. Is it any wonder that rolling our eyes at them has worked its way into our very DNA?
These are just a few of the reasons why the TamBrahm family in Abhishek Varman’s 2 States – where the story exploits this north-south divide – spend most of the movie being quietly horrified by the antics of their loud, colourful Punjabi future in-laws. But their greatest anxiety over this union is that their independent daughter will be forced to abide by regressive customs. The TamBrahm girl wins over the Punjabi family by solving a dowry dispute that her own parents would never be caught dead in. Similarly, the young couple’s break-up happens when she overhears her Punjabi boyfriend placating his mother by promising her that she can treat her bahu as she likes after marriage.
For all the oft-abused points of contention between north and south, nothing stands out like their attitudes towards sexism. The South, with its relatively low crime rates and well-educated women, has a perennial disdain for the treatment of women in what they, Game of Thrones-style, would describe in hushed tones as “the North”. They scoff at the notoriously unsafe streets of Delhi, and tut-tut over news of gang rapes in UP and Bihar. They wring their hands over the abysmal sex ratios of certain regions where men frequently import brides from other states, and mutter an aggrieved “aiyyo” when confronted with a Bollywood item number.
For all the oft-abused points of contention between north and south, nothing stands out like their attitudes towards sexism.
Don’t get me wrong: I, too, have done all of the above, as have sensible Indians everywhere, regardless of their geographic location. But South Indians tend to follow up this natural dismay over rampant sexism with a series of comparisons that illustrate just how good women have it when they cross the Maharashtra border. Gone are the roaming gangs of rapists and the misogynistic politicians; no more must girls fear the scourge of infanticide and child marriage. At least, these are the stories we like to tell ourselves.
But have we South Indians really earned the right to claim this moral high ground? For one thing, comparing stats on women’s rights in developed states to the rural cowbelt, is like lauding India for having a stronger record on human rights than China or Saudi Arabia. While it may technically be true, it’s still nothing to write home about. And are we southies really as far ahead as we believe?
We all recognise a version of the self-satisfied South Indian patriarch who “allows” the women in his family to attend university in pursuit of some respectable qualification, so long as he never has to make himself so much as a cup of tea. I’ve helped talk a bright, ambitious 20-year-old cousin out of getting married when her chartered accountant mother consulted with the family astrologer, who said if she didn’t wed immediately, she wouldn’t until the ripe old age of 28. Clearly, a culture of education is not a panacea for sexism when other aspects of that same rigid social structure are designed to oppress women.
Confronting our own failures of sexism and misogyny would make for a daunting to-do list, even for us enlightened southies.
Sure, we may shy away from a crass offering of a car for dowry, but that doesn’t stop most communities from loading up brides with all the gold jewellery they can afford. The deeply held traditions of the south that are often held up as a marker of civilised society also guard against “unsuitable” marriages and romances, and caste-based honour killings are on the rise. We surely educate our girls, spending several times more of our income on higher education than northern states. That’s assuming, however, that we allow them to reach college-going age at all. The latest data shows the sex ratio in southern states dropping alarmingly as sex-selective technology improves, with Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan tied for last place. Who would have thought? Certainly not most South Indians.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised either that the furore over hit Bollywood remake Kabir Singh, which glorifies stalking and abusive relationships, originally came from Tollywood’s Arjun Reddy. It didn’t just open to universal acclaim but also met with absolutely no criticism at all. Nor is Andhra Pradesh alone in pushing the boundaries of sexism – who can forget the infamous Bangalore New Year’s Eve of 2017 that saw women revellers in the country’s IT hub being publicly molested; or the 2009 Mangalore pub attack where the 25 accused who openly thrashed women in pubs were acquitted last year? And when will we address practices like marriage between cousins, a regressive tradition that still prevails in many South Indian communities?
Confronting our own failures of sexism and misogyny would make for a daunting to-do list, even for us enlightened southies. But they definitely deserve to be higher up on our agenda than shaking our heads at North Indians for not meeting our ideals of “progressive.” As it turns out, they’re not the only ones who have a long way to go.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.