Women empowerment and emancipation of women are ideals and future goals for many sections in the society but for Nairs it is a reality from ancient times and Nair women are one of the few groups in the world who enjoyed equality with men in almost all walks of life.
Ancient Nairs followed a system known as Marumakkathayam which provided security and freedom to Nair women at those times. This was unknowingly translated as matriarchy by some western educated scholars. Though women commanded respect among Nairs, Nairs cannot be called a matriarchal society in the real sense. Let us bear in mind the complexities of Nair society and family when we speak of empowered Nair women.
Ancient Nair women were free and it was almost impossible for erring men to exploit sexually or otherwise the proud and brave Nair women. But Nair women never dominated men as some academics have tried to portray and Nair women never headed Nair families or had an upper hand in social set up compared to men as written by some half baked intellectuals. This equality among men and women gave security to Nair women and Nair women did not consider men as opponents.
Actually, in ancient times Nair joint families were headed by Old maternal uncles instead of fathers. Maternal uncles and elders commanded immense respect of nephews. Their views were normally obeyed. This was the general norm. But in the case of rich there was freedom to differ within the system. Rich husbands often gave separate gifts to their wives and clearly had a special say in the upbringing of children. Like other Hindus, Nair women also respected husbands and conducted many religious rights for the well being of husbands. The social set up ensured freedom as well as security to Nair women.
Though old males headed who headed joint families guided Nair women, she enjoyed a fair degree of freedom economically and socially. Ancient Nair women had the right to choose their husbands and divorce if she found it was impossible to maintain healthy relationship. Dowry system was not prevalent among Nairs before 1940s. Nair women were also allowed to learn martial arts (Kalari) and had the right to education.
Nair women enjoyed sexual freedom also but there were checks and balances to prevent it from becoming anarchy. Sexual crimes were less and Males would think twice before trying to attack armed Nair ladies.
When heads called Karanavars took decisions, they took into consideration views of women folk also. Autocracy of Uncles was not tolerated.
Many western trained academics did not understand this complex system and they simply termed Nairs Matriarchal like some tribal communities. But it is far from truth. Such wrong conclusions are the result of trying to define position of Nair women using parameters fixed by Western sociologists. Many of such conclusions are only partial truths and do not really reflect the social system that existed among Nairs.
Such complex family systems came into place as young Nair males were mainly warriors by profession and could not concentrate on the day to day affairs of the family. Old males were into agricultural activities and looked after families.
Nairs owned vast tracts of land in Kerala and their women had the right over crop yields of certain portions. This gave them economic freedom to a certain extent. Of course, the main income had to be distributed by uncles. Normally married girls continued to live with her parents and husbands came to her family. It meant there was little chance for women to face harassment from in laws.
(Marumakkathayam has been abolished by law in Kochi in 1920, Travancore in 1925 and Malabar in around 1933. Nairs now have nuclear families consisting of father, mother and children and sometimes grandfather and grandmother)