In January 2023, CSW visited the Narikuravar community in Mappedu, on the outskirts of Chennai, and met with members of a community who for decades have suffered discrimination on the grounds of gender, and more recently on the grounds of religion as well. The following blog offers some reflections on the visit. Please note that the names have been changed for security reasons.
Radhika, a mother of three young girls, sat inside a little room with a thatched roof. With folded hands and a scarf over her head, she knelt down and prayed earnestly before turning to speak with me. As a woman from a disregarded community who is also subject to restrictive gender-specific traditions, she would be excused for lamenting her circumstances but says that her new-found faith gives her the hope to live each day.
Radhika belongs to the Narikuravar community, a semi-nomadic tribe who were originally hunters and gatherers. She lives with around 30 other Narikuravar families in a tiny colony in Mappedu on the outskirts of Chennai. The Narikuravars have faced and continue to face discrimination in all spheres of life, including education, employment and even in securing accommodation.
In December 2022 the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (the upper and lower houses of the Indian parliament), finally voted in favour of granting the Narikuravars Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. The community has been demanding this status for more than 60 years, as its benefits include a specific proportion of reserved places in education and employment. While many within the community have welcomed the move as a step in the right direction, some feel that it will make no difference to their well-being, as attitudes towards them must change first.
Arun, a waste collector from the community, told CSW that even if Narikuravars are given ST status, it may not change their job opportunities as employers look down on them and may not want to hire them. He added that the adoption of the bill is only the first step; receiving the ST certificates will be a long and arduous journey, as with every other government document.
The Narikuravars have a distinctive lifestyle, way of dressing, beliefs and food habits. Historically, the community earned a livelihood through hunting; however, as wildlife conservation laws grew stricter, this became almost impossible. The community has resorted to other means of generating income to sustain their livelihood, such as selling handmade bead jewellery. In Tamil Nadu, it is a common sight on local trains to see Narikuravar women and children selling bead necklaces and other accessories. However, even this has become unsustainable for them as they are often treated as a nuisance and chased away by the police.
Many Narikuravars have now resorted to working in waste collection. Due to their unique habits and lifestyle, they are often looked down upon when they interact with Tamils or people from outside their community. For instance, Kavitha, a 30-year-old woman from the community, lamented that her children are always discriminated against in school. She says other children look at them ‘as if they are not humans, as if they’re straight out of the jungle.’
In addition to the discrimination they face in wider society, married Narikuravar women are culturally even considered impure by their own people, and as such they face further discrimination within their communities. Wherever they walk, they are obliged to lift their skirts to make sure they do not touch anything. Radhika says that they also must be extremely careful not to let anything fall on their feet. If a phone, a cooking utensil or anything else accidentally falls down near their feet, the men and elders will take it and destroy it into pieces. Married women are also not allowed to sit on chairs. They must always sit on the floor. They are not even allowed to wear undergarments.
Narikuravar women, particularly those who are married and therefore more strictly monitored by their husbands, are also not traditionally permitted to step outside of their homes, although such restrictions are gradually changing. There is a fear that if women go outside, they will associate with men who are not from outside their community and bring shame to the community. This is one of the reasons why girls are not encouraged to study. Only a handful of Narikuravar girls have a higher secondary or university education; they are often forced to drop out because the elders are afraid that education will enable them to get a job and mingle with other people.
These customs effectively constitute a discriminatory foundation on which the prejudices of wider society are superimposed, compounding the pressures experienced by Narikuravar women and girls in daily life.
Radhika is a mother of four girls, and she says that her life has been ‘a living hell’ because of this. She told us that within the Narikuravar community, married women are only respected if they give birth to boys. Kavitha told us that her husband left her because she ‘only gave birth to girls’, and she is now a single mother of two.
Over the years, Radhika and others in the Narikuravar community have converted to Christianity, where they state they have found a greater degree of personal freedom; however, their conversion can entail further discrimination. For instance, Radhika says that when she attends community festivals or special occasions, she is not allowed to eat what everyone else eats. Others like her are constantly prohibited from participating in social gatherings and have been harassed emotionally, often to the point of depression.
For married women, some of this hostility can also come from their husbands, who often threaten their wives with divorce if they do not leave their newfound faith. In many cases, this is because husbands fear that their wives will no longer be bound by the traditions which Narikuravars value.
A Christian church leader who has been in the area for more than a decade, spoke to us of the heaviness of the cultural restrictions experienced by married female Narikuravar converts, and that ‘many of these women feel a greater sense of worth after conversion, as they suddenly recognise for the first time ‘their value as equal human beings.’
However, there are grounds for hoping for an improvement in their circumstances – according to this church leader, attitudes towards those who have converted are gradually becoming more tolerant. The main source of hope for many married Narikuravar women like Radhika, is that progress will increasingly be made towards ending much of the discrimination and restrictions that they face on account of their tribal, gender and religious identities.
By CSW’s India Desk