Kerala, “God’s own country”, is an achingly beautiful land of abiding paradoxes. The first one is, of course, what has come to be known as the “Kerala model of development”.

The fact that a state with a low per capita income was able to match the social and health indicators of the West baffled scholars and policy makers alike.

Kerala studies became a veritable cottage industry. It was the first state in India to undergo health and demographic transitions, the latter with no coercion in the family planning programme or doleful incentives and disincentives.

The lessons that emerged were heartbreakingly simple: investment in the social sectors pays manifold dividends.

These are, of course, lessons the rest of India refuses to heed.

Underpinning Kerala’s remarkable social sector development, scholars such as Amartya Sen told us, was the social status of women and their education.

Indeed, this was often attributed to matrilineage, or the practice of tracing descent through the mother's line, in some communities.

Kerala is the only state with a positive overall sex ratio and it also has the highest average age at marriage for women. As in the West, women in Kerala now have fewer children than is required for population replacement.

Violence against women

But, here comes the second paradox: how does the above sit with the levels of violence against women and the fact that women in Kerala have the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in India?

Women in Kerala also have among the highest rates of suicides in the country. It is also well known that dowry rates are escalating, signifying the deteriorating status of women.

First, the connection between matrilineage and “empowered” women is entirely specious, for mere tracing descent through the female line does not translate into matriarchy, or women heading families or wielding power.

Misogyny is rampant in Kerala, as is the segregation of genders. Indeed there exists a virtual gender apartheid. There can be no bigger example of misogyny than the infamous judgement of the Kerala High Court in the Suryanelli rape case in 2005, which acquitted the majority of those accused in the gang-rape of a teenage girl as it found her "untrustworthy". The recent expulsion of a young man from a college in Kerala for sitting next to a girl is only indicative of how seriously segregation of genders is taken even now.

Gangs of young men can be seen at Shankamukham beach in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram but few young couples: the only couples generally on view are with families.

Women college students, condescendingly referred to as girls, have now started a movement against a 6.30pm curfew for them to return to their hostels. “If men can remain in libraries till 10.30pm, why can’t we?” they ask.

“Moral policing” of young couples is rampant and this began even before the bogey of so-called love jihad. Women friends, going to Kerala, say they feel uncomfortable in public spaces there because of the way men stare at them.

Deep-seated conservatism

There is a great deal of scholarly and popular literature that tells us that far from women being in positions of power, Kerala's society continues to suffer from deep-seated patriarchy and sexual conservatism.

This is an aspect that has largely been overlooked by the celebratory "Kerala model" evaluations of the state’s socio-economic characteristics.

The idea of men being a dominant and "superior" gender stems from and is reinforced by the family, religious norms and sanctions, customary laws and regulations, the state and its mechanisms, popular culture and even the media.

Take the so-called Vithura case of 2000 involving the serial rape of a teenage girl in which the judgment focussed as much on the rape as on women  in public places who do not conform to patriarchal rules of "modesty".

Much more generally, while Malayalee public and private cultures have been actively engaged with issues of women’s emancipation through access to education and jobs, the deeply entrenched masculinist idea of the “ídeal” Malayalee woman is very much a reality.

It finds reflection as far back as the iconic Malayalam novel Indulekha, authored by O Chandu Menon and initially published in 1889,  a significant theme of which is a deep seated anxiety about unbridled female sexuality and the idea that modern education (and ways of life in general) would serve to control it.

Studies focussing on contemporary Kerala also point to the several ways in which the rise of consumer culture has not necessarily undermined old gendered strictures and structures.

It has been suggested that contemporary modernity has, in fact, produced a context where young women might be allowed to choose the commodities they wish to purchase, while having restricted autonomy in other aspects of their lives.

What is significant is that Malayalees from all spectrums of Kerala society – the left and right, and those of different religious communities – have tended to conform to a shared understanding of male and female roles expressed through a common vocabulary of social conservatism.

A policy of hope

Notwithstanding the above, here's the third paradox: Kerala has recently become the first state in the country to announce a policy for the transgender community that was released recently at the glittering International Conference on Gender Equality in Kovalam in mid-November.

This policy promises the transgender community equality in citizenship and special efforts to help them out of marginal liminal spaces.  At the conference, the Minister of Social Justice, Dr MK Muneer, who supported the policy, announced the formation of a Gender Park with five acres of land gifted by the government of Kerala. Plans are afoot to host an international research centre – with fellowships and residencies – for scholars working on gender.

That was not all. The Minister also announced that he would be moving a resolution in the Assembly for Kerala to challenge the Supreme Court’s judgement on Section 377 that re-criminalised consensual sexual activity “against the order of nature”, which assumes nature to be heterosexual, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

This third paradox should really be re-interpreted as a context of hope rather than mystery, as paradoxes usually are. It suggests that the state is capable of thinking beyond general prejudices and that political will – another term for courage in public life – should not only be seen to  do what looks right, but actually do what is right and humane.

Mohan Rao is Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health and Sanjay Srivastava is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, both at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.