Women are now 2/3rd of Kerala DCs but one step forward in a state steeped in patriarchy
The I.V. Sasi-directed Malayalam film Vaartha (1986) with Mammootty in the lead was fairly controversial back in the day for being too close to reality, with the central character modeled on the then editor of Mathrubhumi daily, Monu aka Madhav Das Nalappat.
The film also had an author-backed female lead in Kozhikode District Collector (DC) Radha Menon, played by Seema, also said to be modeled on a talismanic woman district magistrate, a rarity those days. 35 years later, Kerala has a record nine women among its 14 district collectors, yet another first for the outlier state.
The second term of Pinarayi Vijayan’s chief ministership had originally penciled in eight women collectors, before the latest reshuffle resulted in the addition of a ninth, in Kollam, making the first offline meeting of the collectors chaired by the state revenue minister in Thiruvananthapuram last week a trailblazing event.
Five of these IAS officers hail from Kerala — Divya S Iyer at Pathanamthitta district, Haritha V. Kumar at Thrissur district, P.K. Jayasree at Kottayam district, Sheeba George at Idukki district, Geetha A at Wayanad district.
Of the remaining four, Thiruvananthapuram DC Navjot Khosa is from Punjab, Palakkad DC Mrunmayee Joshi is from Maharashtra and so is Kasaragod DC Bhandari Swagat Ranveerchand; Kollam DC Afsana Perveen (who is wife of serving Ernakulam DC Jafar Malik) is from Jharkhand.
While the development is clearly an instance of breaking the glass ceiling in a state deceptively steeped in patriarchy, is it a definitive turning point?
According to gender studies experts and feminist thinkers in Kerala, it is too early to make that call. Most of them dubbed it a positive development, yet, were non-committal on whether this could have a larger sociological impact.
There are also mixed views on whether this could break the stranglehold of patriarchy in Kerala, which has always been a patriarchal society going back centuries — regardless of the mindless glorification of the past when it was supposedly matrilineal, but only in theory, and that too, among certain communities.
Meena T. Pillai, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Kerala, while calling it a “heartening” development, cautioned that merely an increase in the number of women in key positions need not tantamount to an erosion of patriarchal values.
“Patriarchy isn’t biological; you can be a man and a feminist and similarly, women schooled in patriarchy may actually perpetuate it,” she said. But she added that women holding such positions make them “more approachable” for the common womenfolk and inspire young girls to take up the profession.
Among the current lot of nine collectors, and among the immediate predecessors who were shuffled out as directors of key flagships and missions of the state government, almost all of them are direct recruits — in their twenties, thirties and early forties, making them real change agents.
Being high-profile and visible, they do inspire the college-going girls as evident in the reactions of young women in a prominent women’s college in Kochi. In fact, the state bagging the first rank in 2012 after two decades through Haritha V. Kumar, the newly-appointed Thrissur collector, turned out to be the turning point, as faculties at the burgeoning civil services coaching centres in the city testify. Of late, Thiruvananthapuram has emerged as the new hub of civil service aspirants in Kerala with fewer aspirants making the trip to Delhi.
Civil servant-turned-politician M.P. Joseph, who unsuccessfully contested as a United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate in the assembly election, said, “The increasing number of women collectors is a natural phenomenon, an extension of the strides undertaken by women in other spheres.”