Women, institutions and roles

A set of questions to ponder over regarding certain societal structures

December 31, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

I have amazing friends, friends who enlighten me on a list of things, friends who share ideas I thought were impossible for me to think of, friends who make me realise my own weaknesses and also those who share an opinion that is different from mine. Lately it is such friends and others around me who have triggered me to write on an issue that is not only rampant but also sensitive and often lost in stereotypes and changing notions. It is relatively complex and has a lot of subjectivity attached to it.

In our well-stratified society, individuals are living in different class, caste, region, urban-rural set-ups and face the issue as per their own conditioning and attitudes. Perhaps also because the advanced forms of it are often taken to be reformed and progressive; however this may not necessarily be so.

The issue relates to the institution of marriage and its different underpinnings in a patriarchal society. The two are related concepts, and without understanding the role of each, reforms may be shallow and could lead to further perpetuation of stereotypes and its acceptance in varied forms. But dealing with the concept of marriage, it is necessary to define patriarchy, not in its archaic form but its modern version in today’s era.

I have realised in what a distorted form the definition is accepted and how easily it is dismissed. A male coming from a metropolitan city, having an identity of so-called upper caste, upper class elite, surrounded by the modern notion of freedom of choice and empowerment (for women), for him there seems to be no existing form of patriarchy in marriage anymore, and those claiming its existence are the radical feminists who go to extremes with unwanted debates and make life harder for those around them. This not just an individual opinion but one shared by many. Therefore it becomes a serious matter to define the modern form of patriarchy along with its concrete examples.

A well-known term, used often in day-to-day casual conversation, applies to an ideology to convey male dominance or a condition where males have come to hold greater economic, socio-political, cultural power in society, subjugating not only the other sex but also those showing a tendency of so-called feminine traits, such as transgenders. The legitimacy is sought through religious practices and customs and sustained through social relationships. It celebrates motherhood, loyalty, chastity of females and male dominance. The recent debate over the movie Padmavati could very well prove this point. You will see it in the skewed sex ratio, wide prevalence of female infanticide, meagre political representation and imbalanced share of workforce participation and also concentration of female workers in jobs such as nursing, primary school teaching and so on. Also the fact that public spaces are still largely owned by males and women still step out into public spaces fearing molestation.

But why is marriage the primary focus here? Perhaps for two reasons. First, marriage as we understand today has become a comfortable affair for many to take refuge in the changed social conditions and to declare that it has liberated women the way it is practised at present. For example, women have a free hand in choosing their husband, of dating and live-in relationships before a long-term commitment; and they can work and achieve economic independence of sorts. They have a greater say in family planning and can demand house management to be more egalitarian. Also, they can file divorce petitions and can hold a husband responsible for domestic violence. Thus the modern man might ask: isn’t it enough for women to have all these liberties? Isn’t it pushing for too much by still carrying on the discussions for women’s rights? To the extent also that various laws are being misused by women, as acknowledged by the Supreme Court recently with respect to Section 498A IPC.

But when one starts decoding the entire liberties apparent on the face of it as emancipating, it may actually be a farce, or incomplete. Therefore, before it starts taking the shape of another perpetuation, it’s important to dismantle such notions in its infancy. Patriarchy is not mere economic dependence and domestic slavery but also operates in cultural habits and inner consciousness, dominating the minds of males and females equally. When the rules of dating are pre-decided to include caste and class specific mindsets, patriarchy has won. When a woman believes it is her choice to move to her husband’s home and be a dutiful wife, patriarchy has won.

When one takes comfort in another’s surname and the right to claim property is looked down upon, patriarchy has won. (There is new trend of combining surnames, interestingly just for women.) I wonder how many men are ever eager to take their wife’s name. Also, when marital rape as a concept in itself is neither accepted by our law books nor is the issue widely debated, it shows patriarchy has won. When young couples are butchered in the name of honour and prestige, patriarchy is still winning. When dowry, a major issue, is so rampant in all walks of life, one cannot ignore the victory of patriarchy. When a working wife still happens to be primarily a homemaker and takes upon herself unilaterally the responsibility of managing the household, patriarchy has again won. When our Maternity Benefit Act decides to give maternity leave solely to women thinking child-rearing is the responsibility of only the mother, patriarchy has definitely won. The list goes on.

But wait, someone might ask, what about decreased domestic violence and increased rate of its misuse of the law relating to it by women? I would suggest they look more widely at different realities around them. How right was it for the Supreme Court to reach a judgment by saying that Section 498A is being misused based on low conviction rates as per data provided solely by the National Crime Records Bureau? In fact, in the National Family Health Survey-3, economic and caste census data appear to be contradictory. We are not getting into the non-governmental and informal surveys carried on this issue.

So the question is not about giving women liberties, as it is so casually spelt out. Nor are equal rights something to be given or enforced or snatched. Their presence is by their very nature intrinsic. And please let us not further stereotype those who speak for them. In my opinion, no word is as misunderstood and shunned as ‘feminist’. So to talk of women’s rights means to be the part of this misunderstanding at its very inception, which results in bias before one could even get started on the debate.

The second reason for discussing marriage is considering the whole necessity of it. Examining this is not to negate it as a form of companionship as modern societies have come to believe, but to search for its origin as an institution in patriarchal societies.

When I asked a friend of mine what she thought about this, I was aghast at the defensive line she took. She said that as an institution it has survived for centuries, making sense at the societal level. It has added to the stability of our society by curbing promiscuous activities. In fact, the gender role allocation adds to the convenience. Many things are exploitative and marriage is just one of the expressions of such exploitation.

The whole defensiveness connotes the underlying naturalisation and acceptance of the status quo with a rather helpless attitude. The survival and stability arguments make a complex issue look simplistic. To use the line of defence that it keeps diseases away is to throw away the entire fight the LGBT community is fighting. I can’t escape all of society, so what’s the difference if I choose to escape one of its institutions, so goes a very black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.

Marriage, if sought without much analysis, is designed with stringent prescribed roles for both partners, deviation from which is a social sin. It further legitimises violence as an excuse against women, physical and emotional. Till today, issues of sexuality and its ownership dominates our laws, be it adultery or homosexuality. Having laws in place does not mean the war has ended. Therefore, behavioral changes are not outcomes of rhetoric but involves a deeper and clearer understanding of how present attitudes are still shaping our actions in marriage and how for an everlasting change one needs to get to the very root.

This is a very limited juxtaposition of a few dimensions and to address it in one go is impossible. The whole intention behind this exercise is to make people think and not accept prejudices in new forms. Because of the vastness we live in, every day we seem to be facing an environment of heightened Romeo-Juliet squads, love jihad terminology, rashtra matas and new Laxman rekhas for wives. This should not become the new normal. At times it’s possible that we might not be aware about things and that our understanding could be based on facts in our own perceived reality.

It is also possible that what I share is limited and narrow too and therefore the discussion needs to go on. Let’s not try to win an argument because we have to but go beyond that for the sake of our own cherished dreams of a better society.




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