Kerala: Kudumbashree caught in crossfire as conservative groups battle over a gender equality pledge

ByK A Shaji

Published Dec 07, 2022 | 10:00 AMUpdatedDec 07, 2022 | 3:40 PM

Kudumbashree stall selling items

Kudumbashree, the Kerala government’s widely respected poverty eradication and women’s empowerment programme, is caught in an unseemly controversy that is not of its making. And as is usual in these times, it has acquired a communal colour.

Kudumbashree, which has won many international laurels and is considered a model nationally for the way it has successfully executed women’s empowerment programmes, is caught in the crossfire between conservative Muslim and Hindu groups over a pledge that, among other things, stresses the need for equal property rights for women.

The pledge, interestingly, is not its own. It is part of a campaign called “Nai Chetana” rolled-out by the Centre’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). Kudumbashree is the campaign’s nodal agency in the state.

The “equal property rights for women” element in the pledge attracted the ire of a prominent Islamic scholar who said this was against principles laid out in the Koran.

But the controversy took on a life of its own when the right wing launched a cyber campaign suggesting Kudumbashree — and, by extension, the ruling LDF in Kerala — had withdrawn the pledge to pander to Islamic orthodoxy under pressure from the Muslim community.

Kudumbashree logo

Kudumbashree logo.

And despite issuing statements to the contrary, the matter has refused to die down.

When contacted by South First, Kudumbashree Executive Director Jafar Malik was categorical.

“As the nodal agency for NRLM in Kerala, we observed ‘Nai Chetana’ and took the pledge. The pledge is not compulsory or mandatory. In Kerala, we have not made any addition or omission to the directive from NRLM,” said Malik.

He denied that the organisation had revoked the pledge, or issued instructions to neighbourhood Kudumbashree groups to not undertake the pledge.

How it all began

It was Nasar Faizi Koodathayi, a leader of the influential Samastha Kerala Jam-Iyathul Qutba Committee (SJIQC), who first stoked the controversy when he objected to the “Kudumbashree pledge” stressing equal property rights for female members of any family.

Kudumbashree Islamic scholar Koodathayi

Islamic scholar Faizi Koodathayi (left).

When contacted by South First, Koodathayi reiterated that the portion of the pledge relating to equal succession rights to women violated the principles laid out in the Koran. He also said it violated the Indian Constitution, which permits religious freedom.

He said the Koran prevented female members of Muslim families from inheriting comparable property as that of a man, and that she is allowed half of what a man receives from the father’s property.

He stressed Islamic principles could not be classified as an “act of discrimination”.

“It is a man who has to bear all the expenses of a woman’s life. Even if the husband is poor and the wife is rich, it is the husband’s responsibility to bear their expenses and that of the children,” Koodathayi said.

Interestingly, no other Islamic scholar of any standing has come forward to support Koodathayi.

When South First contacted a clutch of prominent Muslim leaders across Kerala seeking their response to Koodathayi’s statement, all of them refused to comment, saying commenting on the matter would further divide society on communal grounds.

Even the state leadership of SJIQC has directed its members to desist from any discussion on the subject, especially on television and social media.

Though some leaders of Jamaath-e-Islami and Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen initially expressed reservations against some portions of the pledge, they too have turned tightlipped.

Right wing makes hay

The Hindu right wing, not a great admirer of Kudumbashree in normal times, has seen a divide of sorts in its response to the the pledge controversy.

A section of the Hindu right wing mounted a social media campaign that alleged that Kudumbashree — which comes under the State Poverty Eradication Mission — had revoked the pledge at the behest of the LDF government.

Kudumbashree cooking for sale

Members of Kudumbashree at work. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

Even after the organisation issued categorical statements that it had not revoked the pledge, the attack on its continued on social media.

Another section of the Hindu right, ironically, emerged as defenders of an organisation they are normally uncomfortable with for its progressive and pro-woman stance. They rose to its defence against the pressure it had ostensibly come under from Muslim organisations uncomfortable with the pledge.

Joining the party were the Christian right wingers. The Christian Association and Alliance for Social Change (CASA) — known for its interventions on issues such as “love jihad” that target Muslims — also came out swinging on behalf of Kudumbashree and its pledge, quite forgetting that Syrian Catholics in Kerala have a dubious legacy of denying equal property rights to women.

Writer Arundhati Roy’s mother, Mary Roy, who died recently, was a long-standing champion of Christian women denied rights over their parental property.

LDF under pressure

In their cyber propaganda for and against the Kudumbashree pledge, the Hindu right wing has insisted that the organisation “revoked” the controversial pledge at the behest of the ruling LDF government which has come under attack of late for minority appeasement.

In fact, as far as the LDF leadership is concerned, the new controversy is the latest in a series of issues that has created a rift between it and the Muslim community.

Three months have passed since the state government backtracked on its move to introduce gender-neutral uniforms in schools across the state following opposition from Muslim organisations.

Attempts to bring all the appointments in the state Waqf Board under the Kerala Public Service Commission have also been shelved following opposition from the community.

The Hindu right wing has also alleged that it was under pressure from Muslim organisations that the LDF government cancelled the appoint of controversial IAS officer Sriram Venkitaraman as district collector of Alappuzha.

Venkitaraman is accused of causing the death of journalist KM Basheer who was employed with the Siraj newspaper owned by Kanthapuram Abubacker Musaliyar, a top leader of the Kerala Muslim Jamaat.

The Jamaat was spearheading the protests against Venkitaraman’s appointment as collector.