The Woman Who Made the Difference
Prof. Dr. Milon Franz
Attempts at women empowerment will be fruitful only if they contribute to make a difference in the world they live in and more specifically, a difference in the living condition and dignity of each individual woman. Transcending the economic and social barriers, if they can lead to the uplift of each and every member of its community by redefining and reforming their position and role in the society, they will go into the making of history. Otherwise, all their egalitarian and epistemological ideas will end up in a bourgeois mode of realization. They will stand estranged from the common stream of human predicament, as has happened in the case of many feminist activist movements in the history of the world. But Mother Eliswa has created a legacy that could touch the lives of women around her in the terrain of the dark naked realities and needs of their lives and turn it to pure history.
One reason, why the women’s liberation movements have not been able to have a permanent influence on the lives of their fellow beings was that their practitioners often remained on a higher and isolated plane quite away from the struggles of common womanhood. That makes Mother Eliswa distinct- a widow who turned an ascetic and established the first indigenous religious congregation in the state. She had personally undergone the encompassing experiential spectrum of the various roles of women in society as a daughter, wife, widow, mother and sister. Nothing more is needed to vindicate her authentic and unique conviction and vocation as a woman reformist. She is one of the choicest and rarest women who were endowed with a different view and committed to make a difference in the world.
The Social Milieu
Contextualized in the socio-political situation of the nineteenth century, Mother Eliswa’s daring attempts to change the living conditions of women by challenging certain patriarchal taboos especially those remaining in the fields of education and employment assume much significance. Her attempts of social reform can be marked on three levels- the social, educational and economic. The social situation of Kerala in the nineteenth century was marked by a lot of inhuman customs and practices like sati, child marriage, devadasi system, smarta etc. It was also characterized by a deep chasm created by caste system and feudalism’. Though there existed a matrilineal paradigm of inheritance of property in one of the prominent communities, the Kerala society in general was dominated by the highly patriarchal values and traditions. Lack of education and economic independence remained the major obstacles on the path towards freedom and progress for women. Their destinies were shaped by patriarchal dominance and exploitation.
It is in this historical context that Mother Eliswa emerged from the shackles of widowhood and decided to forge a new future for herself and for her fellow beings through her humble attempts of social reform. It was a time when a widow was considered a curse and she was forced to commit sati at the death of her husband. Though Christian families were more or less progressive with regard to their attitude to widowhood, she had to carry out her mission in a society, laden with such misogynistic perspectives. With much valour and commitment she tried to enhance the dignity of women through education and economic independence. Her attempts to bring women of all sections, irrespective of their caste-barriers, together in the cause of their uplift, deserve special attention in this context. All these ventures put her on par with the acknowledged social reformers of the time like Sree Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swamikal and Ayyamkali.
Religion and Women
Women were not allowed entry beyond the domestic premises during that time. Religions and religious movements worldwide, offered very little in the way of social change for female followers. All religions of the time denied access to women to consecrated life. Though a change came in, with the coming up of the Christian missionaries, still there was no indigenous religious community for women in Kerala. The condition of the Christian women was better than that of their Hindu and Muslim counterparts as they were free from the practices of sati, child marriage etc. Still they remained on the peripheries of religious and ecclesiastic structures. Janet L. Jacob’s observes: “Religions including Christian and Eastern confined women primarily to roles of domesticity within theological frameworks that reinforced notions of female inferiority and submissiveness”. In such a society that had not assimilated women into its consecrated life, she brought about a historical change by establishing the first indigenous religious congregation for women in Kerala and the first Carmelite congregation for women in India.
The significance of her role as a catalyst of social change lies in the way she tried to mould the destiny of the women of her times, not simply the women of her community, but even those belonging to other religions and sects who were victimized by the atrocious practices and traditions of a male dominated society. It is not through any revolutionary modes but through silent dedicated service quite within the structure of the Church that she worked. Women empowerment and spirituality were conceived to be contradictory for a long time. Of late, there happened to have a change in this attitude and now they are considered to be complementary areas especially within the epistemology of feminist spirituality. But hundred years ago, Mother Eliswa had the prowess and insight to conceive this delicate harmony. This makes her contributions so valuable and momentous.
Education as Mission
Education and economic self reliance are the two powerful tools for materializing women empowerment. Literacy and knowledge help women acquire self knowledge and a sense of dignity and confidence. It also brings in an egalitarian and critical consciousness in the marginalized and the discriminated. They will develop the power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world in which they find themselves and will come to see the world not as static entity but as a reality in the process of transformation.
Mother Eliswa’s attitudes and views on education show a striking similarity with those of Mary Wollstoncraft, the pioneer of feminism in England. She opened her own school for girls at Newington Green at the age of twenty four. In her famous work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, she foregrounds the need for educating women and argues against the assumption that women are not rational creatures and are simply slaves to their passions. She describes the process by which parents brought their daughters up to be docile and domesticated. She maintains that if girls are encouraged from an early age to develop their minds, it would be seen that they are rational creatures and there is no reason whatsoever for them not to be given the same opportunities as boys with regard to education and training. She insists that girls and young women, be made to acquire inner resources so as to make them as psychologically independent as possible³.
Though education was denied to women of Kerala, the ventures by the Christian missionaries went a long way in giving them access to school education. The C. M. S. missionaries started a school for girls in Alappuzha and the British missionary, Rev. J. Danison started another one in Mattancherry. The Basel mission started a primary school in Kallayi in 1848 and in Thalassery in1856. But Eliswa was the first Catholic native to start a school for girls in the state and she started a boarding school and an orphanage too. All throughout her career, she gave special attention to cater to the educational needs of women. Today, the congregation of Teresian Carmelite founded by her has got a number of schools and a college exclusively devoted to the mission of imparting knowledge to the women community.
Empowerment through Economical Independance Movements of women empowerment are always seriously concerned with participation or non-participation of women in paid employment. The economic status of women of the 19th century was also very inferior as they did not have the right to inherit property. Though the women of Nair families were privileged to have this right under the matriarchal system, all the other sections of women suffered the lack of economic self reliance. Mother Eliswa realized the need for developing a sense of economic independence in them and with this purpose she started training centers where women of the locality were given training in certain skills and crafts. This opened up a new world of opportunities to them. Remaining in their own houses or in the training centers, they were involved in different kinds of profit making jobs and crafts.
The kind of initiative and functional service provided by agencies like ‘kudumbasree’ today were given to the women of the 19th century by nuns under the guidance of Mother Eliswa. She was such a visionary who could think and dream ahead of her times, one who had the far sightedness and charisma which a few leaders possess.
The unique position of Mother Eliswa in the annals of history is recorded as a great reformer who contributed immensely to the uplift of women at a social juncture which was feudal and patriarchal to the core. She could give shape to a noble sorority of enlightened and self confident women by challenging the most dangerous threats faced by womanhood namely, illiteracy and economic dependence. She will be remembered by posterity as a great benefactor of women who effected epoch making and revolutionary changes in their common destinies and living conditions.