Feminism and the Family – Thoughts on International Women’s Day

Excerpts from my forthcoming book Seeing Like a Feminist (Penguin India/Zubaan Books).

Have you heard of ‘nude make-up’?

This is what it is:

‘Nude makeup looks are all about your skin looking fresh and dewy, without looking like you’re even wearing any makeup. All you need is eyeliner, mascara, nude lipstick, and a highlighting blush that will give your skin a natural-looking glow.’[1]

The whole point of nude makeup clearly, is to spend hours painting your face in order to make it look like you never touched it at all.

The maintaining of social order is rather like that. It requires the faithful performance of prescribed rituals over and over again throughout one’s lifetime. Complex networks of cultural reproduction are dedicated to this sole purpose. But the ultimate goal of all this unceasing activity is to produce the effect of untouched naturalness.

When one ‘sees’ the world like a feminist though, with the gaze of a feminist, it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formating’ function in Microsoft Word (what an earlier generation of WordPerfect users knew as ‘Reveal Codes’). The feminist gaze reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.

What do I mean by feminism? A feminist perspective recognizes that the hierarchical organizing of the world around gender is key to maintaining social order; that to live lives marked as ‘male’ and ‘female’ is to live different realities. But simultaneously, to be a feminist is to imagine occupying the marginal position with reference to every dominant framework. For instance, any possible female reader of this post would be in a relatively powerful position with regard to working class men she interacts with daily – the auto rickshaw driver, the janitor, the domestic servant; and if she is an upper-caste Hindu in India, or white American anywhere, with regard to men who are not. At the same time, she would experience her relative powerlessness as a woman if faced by a man in a position to attack her sexually, regardless of his class or caste position; or when she compares her life choices and autonomy with those of a man of her class. Needless to say, it is not only ‘women’ who can adopt feminism as a political stance and way of life, but men who choose to do this have to be taking a stand against the privileges that they could otherwise take for granted.

Feminism is thus not about individual men and women, but about understanding the ways in which ‘men’ and ‘women’ are produced and inserted into patriarchies that differ according to time and place.

When a feminist ‘sees’ from the position of marginality s/he has deliberately chosen to occupy, it is a gesture of subversion towards power; it disorganizes and disorders the settled field, resists homogenization, and opens up multiple possibilities rather than closing them off.

To engage simultaneously with the ways in which different identities are produced at different intersections, but to be aware particularly of processes of gendering; to recognize the structural inequalities and injustice that underlie social order, and to engage in transformative practices at whatever level possible – is to be a feminist. Feminism is not an organization that one formally joins, and it can never be the isolated achievement of individual women. To be a feminist is to feel part of the history that has produced us; it is to insert oneself into two centuries of thick, textured narratives of struggles and celebrations that transcend national boundaries; to hear the strains of songs of anger and sorrow and militancy in many tongues; to remember our heroines, our foremothers; and above all, to feel an enormous sense of continuing responsibility.

To see like a feminist is not to stabilize, it is to destabilize. The more we understand, the more our horizons shift.

Changing forms of the family

Here’s a story my mother tells from our Nair matrilineal past: her brother, my maternal uncle, at the age of eight, in the early 1940s, sat studying his English primer, rocking back and forth, muttering loudly, ‘family means wife and children, family means wife and children’. Their grandmother hearing him was appalled. She raged up and down the house – ‘Is this the kind of Western nonsense they’re teaching children in school now? But family means sisters and their children…no wonder tharavadus are collapsing one by one…’ Bleakly, she faced a world in which brothers would abandon their families, their sisters, their nieces and nephews; a world in which a woman had nothing unless she was a wife. For her the tharavaadu was the natural institution; it was the patriarchal nuclear family that was a bizarre Western practice.

Over a period of about half a century, processes brought about by the colonial and post-Independence Indian state nation-wide, in alliance with sections of Indian elites, homogenized a variety of practices of kinship and family forms, enabling the family in its current form to appear natural and unchanging. The three key interlinked features of this ‘Indian’ family as it emerged by the first decades of the 20th century are – patriarchy (power distributed along gender and age hierarchies, but with adult men trumping older women), patriliny (property and name passing from father to son) and virilocality (wife moving to the husband’s home.)

In this configuration, patrilineal virilocality is key, isolating women from all previous support systems and leaving them entirely at the mercy of their husbands’ families.

In this context, here’s a revealing development – it was recently reported that that the Punjab State Commission for Women issued a brochure in Punjabi advising young women to stop using mobile phones to keep in touch with their natal families if they wanted to keep their marriages intact. Faced with criticism, the chairperson of PSCW clarified: ‘I found that almost 40 per cent of women consider seeking a divorce on the grounds that her husband and in-laws do not like her talking on mobile phones.’ Apparently the husband and his family members suspect that the woman is talking to another man over the phone. Even if the women are only calling their parents, said the chairperson, that’s a problem, as being in constant touch with their natal homes hampers their adjustment into their new homes (AFP 2011).

Clearly, mobile phones prevent the crucially necessary isolation of new brides from their natal families!

What’s in a name!

Another feature of this new form of family that has become increasingly ubiquitous, is the phenomenon of the changing of the woman’s surname upon marriage. Surnames themselves are relatively new in India, and emerged under British rule, previous practices of naming being gradually reshaped to fit the new state’s requirements of legibility. This phenomenon is found in all British colonies, by the way (Scott 1998). Along with the emergence of the surname, one sees the emergence of Mrs X, X being the surname of the husband, and sometimes his first name if he has not adopted the surname format as many have not yet, in South India for example.  The idea that women not change their surname upon marriage, is thus, not so much a ‘western feminist’ idea, but rather for us in India, could be seen as a return to one’s traditions! Every Indian family today only has to go back a generation to remember how different naming practices used to be, and consider the implications of that for women’s identity. The surnames that emerged under colonialism are simply caste names of course, and thus we see also the move to drop surnames as a deliberate political act, by Dalits as well as by non-Dalits.

Often, in discussions on feminism with young people, I have been challenged by the smart alec (usually male) in the room with the question – if a woman doesn’t change her surname on marriage, what’s the big deal; after all, her own surname is only her father’s name, it’s just another man’s name. I have found this question striking in its assumption that a man’s surname is his ‘own’, not his father’s name; while the woman’s surname always remains ‘her father’s’. After all, I reply, by not changing her surname, a woman is simply choosing their own father’s name over her husband’s father’s name. It is also striking when this question comes, not from traditional patriarchs, but from young men in college, thoroughly modern, having thoroughly internalized Western patriarchal norms as natural. Sometimes I feel like saying to them – at least defend your own damn patriarchy!

Recently, in what could seem like a paradoxical act, feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes successfully fought for the legal right of a divorced woman to continue using her married surname. The passport office had refused to renew her passport in her married name since she had divorced, but all her other documents were in that name, and a change in this one key document would mean immense hardship for her. Many divorced women have suffered because of this approach, said Agnes. Here the feminist concern is that women should not have to suffer an additional burden upon divorce, that of legally changing their name back to their previous one. Additional solicitor general Darius Khambata in a legal opinion to the Mumbai regional passport office, held that ‘The wife has a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India (right to life) to use any name including her married name, notwithstanding the fact that her marriage has been dissolved’, provided her husband has no objection (Deshpande 2011). Of course, if a husband objects to a divorced wife using ‘his’ name, then she has to give it up. [2]

What must be noted here is that the opposite pressure also operates – shockingly, married women who have retained their surnames are forced by the passport authorities to change their surname to match their husband’s, or to add it to their own surname. They are given no choice in the matter, although there is absolutely no legal requirement that women should change their surnames upon marriage (Sharma and Arora 2011).

Thus there are two issues here – the emergence of the universal ‘surname’ as part of the homogenizing practices of the modern colonial state and the wife taking the husband’s name as a natural and unquestionable part of marriage. What we see in the interlinking of the two is the gradual naturalization of two dominant patriarchies, North Indian upper-caste and British colonial.

(Public) citizenship and (private) family

The gendering of citizenship requires us to question and to challenge the fact that citizenship, a supposedly public identity, is produced and mediated by the supposedly private heterosexual patriarchal family. Feminist thought thus recognizes the patriarchal family as the basis for the secondary status of women in society, and hence the feminist slogan – ‘the personal is political.’ That is, what is considered to be ‘personal’ (the bedroom, the kitchen), has to be recognized as completely submerged in power relations, with significant implications for what is called ‘the public’ (property, paid work, citizenship) – it is therefore, ‘political’.

Some illustrative instances follow. A Supreme Court judgement (2005) ruled that a child inherits the father’s caste. It thus held illegal the election of an upper-caste man’s daughter from a constituency reserved for a candidate belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. In her petition defending her election challenged by the defeated candidates, Shobha Hymavati Devi had argued that her father had not legally married her mother (belonging to the Bagatha, a Scheduled Tribe), and had abandoned her and his children by her. Therefore, since Shobha Devi was brought up by her mother in her community, she should be considered to have inherited her mother’s caste. The Justices of the Supreme Court were not impressed by this reasoning. Indeed, they expressed their ‘dismay’ that a politician in her bid for political office would stoop so low as to ‘brand her five siblings and herself illegitimate and her mother a concubine.’[3]

There are two implicit assumptions at play in this judgement – one, that ‘illegitimacy’ is something that any respectable person would try to hide, and so a declaration of illegitimacy could only be a ploy to hold on to office. Two, the three upper-caste judges constituting the Bench seem to share the general upper-caste, anti-affirmative action understanding in India that a Scheduled Caste/Tribe identity is an undeserved advantage that must be limited as far as possible.[4] Thus, while the judgement has the potential equally to be read subversively as establishing a precedent to recognize women’s rights in common law marriage and as legitimizing inter-caste marriage, its underlying assumptions  establish it instead as a precedent for naturalizing caste identities passed on through patriarchy.

Another instance is a defeated Bill that sought to deny Kashmiri women the right to permanent citizenship of the state of Jammu and Kashmir if they married outside the state. A J&K minister defended the Bill against the charge of being anti-women with the argument that since non-Kashmiri women who marry Kashmiri men would get citizenship rights in the state, the loss of rights of one set of women would be balanced by the gain of another set. On the whole therefore, women as such would not lose out. That this argument can make any sense at all has to do with the way in which the rules governing the institution of the heterosexual patriarchal family are assumed to be natural, eternal and part of the human condition. This is why it seems perfectly reasonable to say that since all women will acquire (some) rights once they get married, through their husbands, unmarried women need not be given rights separately.  But most noteworthy here is the fact that the J&K Bill is no anomaly – it simply gives formal recognition to the actually existing status of women and the meaning of marriage in the rest of India.

For another example, take the Madhya Pradesh government’s ‘Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna’, a scheme meant to help girls from poor families get married at government expense.[5] Marriages under the scheme are solemnised free of cost and all arrangements are made by the district administration. Every couple is also provided assistance in the form of household items worth Rs 5,000. In other words, the state government takes over the father’s role in perpetuating marriage as an inevitable and unavoidable fate for all. After all, this money could have been used to train young women in some skill, or to set them up in a small business. However, this criticism of the scheme has never been made, but in July 2009, the news broke that ‘virginity tests’ were being conducted on the women, and there was an uproar (Ghatwai 2009). Of course it was obnoxious, but then, isn’t it equally obnoxious that every father who gets his daughter married in effect also guarantees her virginity? Isn’t that what kanyadaan implies? If the government takes over the fatherly responsibility of marriage, why is it surprising that it takes over the fatherly responsibility of ensuring the daughter’s chastity? This is what I meant by saying that it is only in extraordinary circumstances that the violence implicit in the institution of the family becomes visible; under ‘normal’ circumstances, it is, precisely, normalized.

As it happens, in this case, the explanation given was that several already married couples were lining up to get married under this scheme in order to avail of the wedding gift, and the virginity test was intended to weed out such couples; the assumption being that unmarried women would of course, be virgins! This kanyadan yojana is remarkable for exposing the key patriarchal assumption underlying family and marriage – the need to control women’s sexuality – and by relocating this assumption to the ‘public’ as opposed to the ‘private’, revealed it in all its misogyny.

Another revealing instance of how marriage is understood by the state is provided by Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code regarding adultery, under which a man can bring a criminal case against another man having an affair with his wife. The wife is not culpable under this provision, and nor can a woman use this provision against another woman or against her husband. In other words, the assumption is that the wife is the husband’s property, a passive object over which no other man has rights. Thus, the very assumptions of this provision are sexist and patriarchal, and therefore feminists are appalled by recommendations of the Law Commission and the National Commission for Women that this provision be made gender neutral to bring women under its purview. As recently as 2011, the Bombay High Court upheld the criminalization of adultery as essential to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

The criminalization of consenting sex between adults is unacceptable. Certainly adultery by either partner may be treated a ‘fault’ that can be the basis for divorce, but it cannot be treated as a criminal offence. This provision has no place in a modern legal code, and must be struck down.

We need to create conditions for marriage to be seen as an option to be chosen freely, with the in-built possibility of a fair divorce, but equitable partition of household resources is essential. Without the latter provision, the majority of women who continue to be by far the weaker party in any marriage, and who contribute to the husband’s income only through non-tangible ‘non-work’, will be left with no economic security or even a roof over their head after their divorce. The government has drafted a bill (2010) to introduce ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ as a ground for divorce in the Hindu Marriage Act, and women’s groups have been concerned that it is being rushed through without ensuring equitable partition of household property and wealth.

Understanding Dowry

We move now to an issue on which there appears to be little difference of opinion – dowry, denounced as an evil across the board. But what is dowry? Scholars of the practice say that it has changed so much over time, and refers to such a wide range of practices of gift-giving at marriage, that it is difficult to define. But in its most basic form it can be understood as a form of inheritance of parental property prior to the death of the parents, for daughters who otherwise lack inheritance rights. It is because of this aspect of dowry that some argue against a dowry boycott without strengthening women’s inheritance rights, since dowry provides women with at least some form of property that could stand them in good stead in their marital homes. However, others argue that dowry is transacted between men of the two families, and the control over a woman’s dowry lies not with her but with her husband and his family. What has also become visible in South Asia since the 1980s is the violence associated with dowry – its non-voluntary character, oppressiveness and systematic dowry-related violence against women in their marital homes.

Feminist writer C S Lakshmi linked dowry to the compulsory nature of marriage itself, and to the way it alienates women from their natal families. She quotes the instance of a question addressed to well known social reformer and anti-dowry activist of the early 20th century, Sister Subbalakshmi – what if women cannot get married because they refuse to give dowry. Sister Subbalakshmi’s response was ‘Then women must have the dignity and courage to remain single.’[6] In this sense, say some feminist scholars, the issues underlying dowry can be related to the condition of women under western patriarchies as well – that is, gendered subordination built into the political economy of compulsory heterosexual marriage, women’s unequal access to financial resources, and widespread physical and structural violence against women. The point here is that dowry related violence is not unique, but only a specific South Asian expression of gendered violence present in different ways in different parts of the globe (Basu 2009).

Srimati Basu argues that the Dowry Prohibition Act (amended in 1984) is ineffective because it can do little to address the social mechanisms through which dowry flourishes, and can come into play only if a complaint is filed. It must also be noted that complaints are never about demands for dowry as such, but about ‘exorbitant’ or continuing demands for dowry after some dowry has already been given. But the fact that both giver and taker of dowry are held to be equally culpable by the Act also means that there is an inbuilt disincentive to report demands for dowry, except after death or in association with other lawsuits (Basu 2009:181). Indeed, in 2009 a judgement by a sessions court in Delhi, on a complaint filed by a woman against her husband’s family for dowry-related violence, ordered that the woman’s father too should be prosecuted under the Act for having given dowry (Anand 2009). This is why women’s organizations working on the issue prefer to use a range of other legal options that address concrete problems within marriage – economic subservience, lack of residential options, and domestic violence – rather than the Dowry Act itself. These options include pursuing divorce along with Section 406 of the Indian Penal Code for criminal breach of trust if dowry goods are not returned; Section 498A relating to cruelty by husband or his relatives, and the Domestic Violence Act (2005) which gives women rights of residence in the marital household.

Dowry was essentially a North Indian Hindu upper-caste practice but has gradually spread to almost all classes, castes, regions and religions in India. The reasons for this spread are said by different scholars to be a combination of ‘sanskritization’ (a sociological term meaning ‘emulation of upper castes’), increasing consumerism and marketization and the rise of cash incomes associated with the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s (Tomalin 2009).

Men against violence against women, Maharashtra

But I would like to suggest here that the spread of the practice of non-voluntary dowry and related violence, must be directly linked to the gradual spread of a particular form of marriage and family that by the late 20th century, had come to appear natural in India. That is, the emergence of the patriarchal, patrilineal, virilocal marriage as the universal form of marriage, from among all the heterogeneous marriage and property practices that had existed in different communities earlier. The expansion of dowry to every community in India must be seen as the consequence of the emergence of this one form of the family in every community – compulsory marriage that sends women away to husbands’ homes to adjust, manage and to survive or not as they will; and that gives women limited rights to property as a wife, never as a daughter. As long as this form of the family is seen to be natural and inevitable and as long as marriage under this form is compulsory for everyone, attempts to end the ‘evil of dowry’ are doomed to failure. Dowry as a problem cannot be resolved without restructuring the contemporary family form.

The implosion of marriage?

This form of family is an inherently violent institution that is gendered to the core.  I do not here refer to instances of physical violence specifically, I mean that the institution as such, and the form it has come to take all over India, involves a violent reshaping of the self of the woman getting married. We have not considered adequately what patrilineal virilocality does to a woman. She leaves her home, whether parental or living by herself as a professional, and goes to her husband’s home or to that of his parents. She changes her surname, in some communities her first name, and her children bear their father’s name; thus her own name, even if she is one of the rare instances of retaining her name after marriage, is obliterated.

Women have to learn to remake themselves completely, but even more significant is the fact that the entire period of their lives before this singular event of marriage, is spent in anticipating and preparing for this specific future, from choice of career and job options to learning to be adaptable from early girlhood.

As a young girl said, ‘Whenever I ask my mother to have fun, go out, to wear interesting clothes, she says, ‘Now I am married, I can’t do that’. If marriage is the end of life, how can it also be the goal of life?’[7]

It is in this context that we must address the common question thrown as a challenge to us – but women are women’s worst enemies; the mother-in-law after all, is the cruelest to the daughter-in-law. Why is this so? To arrive at an answer, let us consider a rarely asked question – why are there no battles for power between the father-in-law and the son-in-law? Because their spheres are entirely different. Because the power game between them is not zero-sum, where increased power for one means reduced power for the other. But women in virilocal households derive their power solely from men – their husbands, and then their sons, who eventually become some other woman’s husband. Power struggles between women are built into this kind of structure, and are inevitable. This is not because they are ‘women’, but because they occupy positions that are pitted against one another. One only has to imagine a situation in which fathers-in-law and sons-in-law had to face off against each other on a daily basis in the sphere assigned to them, to understand that the structure of the patriarchal virilocal family is tailor-made to pit women against each other.

This engrained violence of marriage is what in fact cannot be addressed, women have no language in which to address this. Hence, I think, the widespread use of Section 498A and allegations of dowry demands, that has come to be called ‘misuse’ of these provisions. Since dowry involves the property of the natal family, the woman can expect or at least, hope, to get their support by citing dowry, and indeed, part of the arbitration by women’s groups is often directed to getting back the dowry. Police and lawyers too, on getting complaints of domestic violence, often encourage the invocation of the Dowry Act, as a quick and easily recognizable remedy.

The ‘misuse’ argument made by men is in this sense, ironically correct. These men actually believe they are ‘falsely accused’ because what they are saying in effect is: ‘This is what a family is supposed to be, as a wife you are supposed to give up everything that you thought you were, we have expectations of you, which you are supposed to fulfill. This is marriage’. And women are refusing to recognise this as marriage. Men are right to say in this sense, that they are being ‘falsely’ accused – because all they were doing was functioning as a proper patriarchal family.

There is no explanation available for the woman’s unhappiness at her changed state. Can a woman just go back home saying simply – I don’t want to be a wife, I don’t like this job? Forcibly trained from girlhood for marriage and marriage alone, not permitted to dream of any other future, expecting that marriage will be the beginning of their lives, and finding that it is in fact the end of their lives; the frustration and resentment that this situation generates has lead increasingly to what I see as the implosion of marriageyoung girls simply refusing to perform the role of the docile wife and daughter-in-law, to the bewilderment and rage of the families into which they marry. These legal provisions essentially treat the family as a public institution to which public laws apply. Obviously, this creates a crisis for the family, leading to the idea that it is men who need to be protected from ‘draconian’ laws around marriage. But the overwhelming majority that suffers is still women, most of whom invest so much energy, so much courage, so much strength, in simply staying on in violent, humiliating marriages.

However, a thoroughgoing critique is essential, not just of the marital family, but of the natal/parental family. Even after one daughter is married off and killed for dowry, her parents’ idea of a secure future for their second daughter too, is marriage.  A parallel phenomenon is the violent ‘ragging’ in professional training institutions – young boys facing physical and emotional torture from senior students are repeatedly told by their parents to go back to their institutions, to bear it, think of the expenses involved, think of their future careers, to bear it and bear it, until finally they are killed. The family’s job is after all, to produce men and women who will not rock the boat, who will fulfill their parents’ expectations – of social status, of insurance in old age. For instance, Ravinder Kaur’s work on agricultural families in Punjab has shown that not even all sons are equally desired, bachelor sons are considered to be expendable (Kaur 2008). The patriarchal family as such – whether the conjugal (post-marriage) or the natal (into which the woman is born) – is a site of violent power play and exclusions.

There are growing indications of the implosion of this form of marriage and family. A newspaper story in late 2011 reported that in Haryana, a state with a marked degree of son preference and one of the lowest sex ratios in India, about ‘half-a-dozen notices appear daily in vernacular and English newspapers’ from fathers, sometimes mothers, publicly disowning sons and daughters, and debarring them from their property (Siwach 2011). Although such notices have no legal sanction, they reveal the explosive tensions that are just barely contained within the framework of the family.

The family is an institution that rigidly enforces systems of inheritance and descent, and in this structure, individuals – sons, daughters, wives, husbands – are resources that are strictly bound by the violence, implicit and explicit, of this frame. We tend to take this frame for granted, and it becomes obscenely visible only in extraordinary circumstances.

As feminists we need to build up the capacity and strength of both women and men to live in ways in which marriage is voluntary, and to build alternate non-marriage based communities


AFP (2011) “Indian brides told to put down their mobile phones” May 9, Asia One News

Anand, Utkarsh (2009) “Bride’s father in the dock as city court says giving dowry is also an offence” Indian Express August 11.

Basu, Srimati (2009) “Legacies of the Dowry Prohibition Act in India” in Tamsin Bradley, Emma Tomalin and Mangala Subramaniam eds Dowry. Bridging the gap between theory and practice Women Unlimited, Delhi

Deshpande, Swati (2011) “Divorcees can retain surnames” Times of India October 3

Ghatwai, Milind (2009) ‘Virginity’ row: MP sets scheme selection rules” Indian Express Sep 5

Kothari, Rita (2009) The Burden of Refuge Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad

Scott, James  (1998), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed New Haven, Yale University Press

Sharma, Garima and Chandna Arora (2011) “So, what’s your name now, Ma’am?” Times of India October 17 Siwach, Sukhbir (2011) “Not my son’s father” The Times of India November 13.

Tomalin, Emma (2009) “Introduction” in Tamsin Bradley, Emma Tomalin and Mangala Subramaniam eds Dowry. Bridging the gap between theory and practice Women Unlimited, Delhi


[1] From an on-line Nude Makeup Tutorial

[2] In other cases where the husband has objected, court rulings have prevented divorced women from using their married name.

[3]  ‘Upper Caste Woman’s Marriage to Dalit no ticket for Poll Quota’ The Tribune, Chandigarh February 1, 2005; ‘Child will inherit only father’s caste: court’ The Hindu, New Delhi January 29, 2005

[4] The three judges were Chief Justice R C Lahoti and Justices G P Mathur and PK Balsubramanyam. Later in 2005 a seven-judge Bench including these three, abolished caste-based reservation in private, unaided professional colleges. Interestingly, in the same judgement the Bench allowed a quota for Non-Resident Indians.  See J Venkatesan ‘No quota in unaided private colleges’ The Hindu August 13, 2005.

[5] Kanyadaan or giving away a daughter in marriage is seen as a religious duty in Hinduism, and is often performed for poor girls by private individuals or organizations too.

[6] Lakshmi (1989), cited in Basu (2009)

[7] Respondent to Rita Kothari (2009:166)

59 thoughts on “Feminism and the Family – Thoughts on International Women’s Day”

  1. Reblogged this on sarahjanelives and commented:
    Very interesting. Nothing like a glimpse into the day-to-day difficulties and injustices of women in another culture to make you appreciate just how well off we are here. We still have some work to do in the states in the areas of equalities and civil liberties…….but clearly we take the freedom we DO have just a little bit for granted.

    1. sarahjanelives – It’s not clear from your blog where you live, but I assume the USA from some indications. I find it somewhat odd when women in countries of the global North use internal feminist critiques from other parts of the world to feel smug that “we” are “well off” as compared to those poor benighted women of “another culture”. If you read feminist critiques of your own society, or simply look around you, you’ll find that marriage is pretty much the same there as here, as is the glass ceiling, the sexual division of labour, the sexism, the domestic violence. Not to mention the fact that the USA cant get a woman elected head of state, nor till today, has the Equal Rights Amendment as part of its constitution!
      The point is that patriarchies take different shapes and forms, and so do feminisms.

      1. I certainly meant no offense by my comment. There is a slight difference in our culture and I was just interested in the nuances between the norms there and here. You are correct, I am from the USA and we certainly have our share of problems here that need to be addressed and rectified. My comments were more musings on the need to be thankful for what we have than an attempt to cast a slight on Indian culture. My apologies if I was misunderstood. I enjoyed the original post very much.

      2. Hello Nivedita,

        Brilliant analysis. Thank you.

        I could relate to your analysis of marriage violently reshaping a woman’s sense of self because I have experienced it.

        I too was married into a family which monitored my cell phone usage, curtailed and disapproved of my maintaining daily contact with my parents.

        It really did feel that marriage was the end of life, and not just another rite of passage.

        To come to my point, I do sincerely feel that women have substantially more freedom and agency in the US than they do in India (IME).

        So, I did not quite understand your critique of SarahJane’s comments.

    2. Sure you’re lucky. You probably accumulated a lot of good karma in previous lives. :)

      Since I believe in rebirth, I often wonder if there is any way I could avoid being reborn as a woman in India.

      I’d rather be reborn as an animals than an Indian woman. Aniamls have way more freedom and dignity than do Indian women.

      1. i think there are few cultures on the planet that have what i consider to any real degree of true equality. every culture has its own unique set of challenges to any woman who wants to take charge of her own life and make her choices. the only familiarity i have with Indian culture is from literature and what I have seen in the media, but it has always seemed to me that women were truly placed in a very disadvantaged position there. Here in the US, we have been taking our own rights and freedoms for granted for too long, and are in danger of losing many of them and heading down a road that takes us right back to the kitchen & home, with no choices & no power. I tend to believe that there are really only two options for any area of society : progress or regress. Apathy and inaction just lead to backsliding. I love to read anything from other cultures because I find both the problems and points of view fascinating. Thank you, by the way, for your comments. I felt like you kinda defended me. I did not mean to offend, but I seem to have struck a nerve unintentionally. I would certainly never mean to imply that I think either I our my country is superior to anyone else or any other country. Just different.

  2. Great article with loads of information and strong perspective but conclusion seems to be inappropriate. i am of the opinion that one cannot solely criticize and blame institution of family for the major flaws. Instead of out rightly dismissing institution of family, we should think of how this institution should be reformed and how gender equality can be achieved within family and this would be more acceptable solution for large section of our society. I understand that we should not always conceived populist factor but if we really want to transform gender inequality and violence against women at mass level then we have to reform existing institution instead of abolishing them.

    1. Well, firstly, it’s very important that we understand this pattern has everything to do with sex. Gender is only a social function of sex. Big diff btwn the two, and the legal implications of getting the two confused are *devastating* for women.

      If it concerns, I don’t think reform is the answer. Compromise isn’t either. Sure, there are times when we must compromise to survive. But it’s nothing thrived upon. It sounds like you are married in a nuclear family setup and wish to keep it that way? No one on-target will automatically just tell you to dump your life. Hey, yeah. *That’s* the place for reform: individual relationships like marriages. But institutionalization of education, relationships, gov’t- of anything- will only begin to decay from the date of institutionalization. Legal marriage is simply a horrible, terrible idea that contracts a woman to a man as a mental patient. ._.

  3. This has to be the best thing I’ve read this week. Explains a lot of things in a lucid, accessible format. Thank you.

  4. Very well written piece and I agree wholeheartedly with all of it, except for the part about married women who choose to retain their family-of-origin surname being forced to change to the husband’s surname by passport authorities. I married, didn’t change my name and wasn’t forced or even politely requested by passport authorities to do so. Of course, I am prepared to allow for the fact that I was an exception because of the power dynamics between me and the individuals who represented authority at the passport office or the marriage registrar’s office at the time…but my experience is at odds with the phrasing of the sentence “..married women who have retained their surnames are forced by the passport authorities to change their surname to match their husband’s, or to add it to their own surname.”

    The part about infidelity in the Indian Penal Code has bothered me for a long time as well, and I appreciate your having spelt out the male-privilege that lies at the heart of it. What is very interesting is that while the law places power/ responsibility entirely in the hands of the men in question (the wife’s choices and decisions completely ignored), general social attitudes, even among young people, don’t seem to locate any responsibility on men for their actions. If a male partner is unfaithful in a heterosexual relationship, more often than not it is the “other woman” who is called a “home wrecker”. I know more women and men who blamed Anjelina Jolie for ‘breaking Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt up.’ It is this complete lack of accountability and responsibility for their actions that perpetrators of domestic violence exploit to their advantage. Society can digest unfaithful men more easily than it handles unfaithful women and in either case, blames the woman. If a man is unfaithful, the woman is blamed for not keeping him interested. If a woman is unfaithful, she must be a ‘whore’.

    Yes. To be a feminist is to destabilise and challenge what is taken for granted. To see marriage as a choice rather than a ‘natural’ part of life. To see having children as a choice (and might I add a choice that ought to be seriously considered) rather than a duty. To see gender violence in all its forms, structures and manifestations as conscious and/or deliberate attempts to control, suppress, weaken and devalue women and girls, rather than as human givens.

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading these excerpts.

    1. @ Surabhi, I am one of the women who HAD to change my name on my passport – simply because my daughter could not get a passport because of my name and my husband’s name being different! Believe it or not!

  5. Thought provoking and hard-hitting article, which pierces deep into the “family fanatic” and the “pseudo-egalitarian” alike.

  6. Thanks for writing this, Nivedita. A lot of the issues you have addressed regarding the institution of family and marriage in the context of India in particular, have been on my mind for quite some time.

    As far as the issue of surnames go, the most ridiculous so far I have seen is the practice of using double barrel surnames after marriage! It’s a confused soul that tries to keep a part of her ‘identity’ alive while sticking to the norm too, by adding his father’s family name on top of her father’s family name, and the practice is perhaps supposed to propagate in geometric progression in subsequent generations?!

    What about dropping surnames altogether? Does the Indian law provide for exercising that option? If not, then what about subverting the whole damn patrilineal and casteist baggage by using double names? Like two randomly chosen names instead of a name and a surname. At least that should be possible under the system we’re in.

    1. The Surnames can be dropped altogether. Three well known politicians/social reformers from Kerala viz. Mannath Padmanabhan, K. Kelappan and A.K.Gopalan (the first two were Nairs and the last one was a Nambiar) who could have proudly flaunted their surnames did not use the same at all. Though I use my Surname as I am staying outside Kerala, the other members of my family, including sisters and neices, do not use any surname.The first name-middle name-surname is a Noth Indian impost. It is not a legal requirement.

      1. but madam all over world even in Liberated AMERICA – YOU ARE NEVER ASKED WHAT IS YOUR NAME ? INSTEAD — NAME MIDDLENAME / SURNAME LAST NAME ETC — WHY ??????

      2. To be allowed to wheel about without a surname sounds like a privileged practice at this time.

  7. If one could judge a book by its excerpts, this is a much-needed one! Thanks Nivi. Looking forward to the book.

  8. Thank you for all your engaged comments. Surabhi, your experience with passport authorities precisely proves that there is no legal requirement that women should change their names upon marriage, and that the pressure is arbitrarily applied by random officials who have the power of with-holding your passport, and with whom you dare not argue. You’ll notice that at that point in my post, I have referred in an end-note to two articles in the Times of India, in which many women (one a very well-known model) said that this had happened with them.
    Kasturi, there is no law at all on how to name yourself, none. But what does happen is that one is continuously forced to normalize oneself through for example, forms that ask for your name in a certain format (how about the ubiquitous “Mr/Miss/Mrs”? Or the “name of father/husband”?) And of course you can drop surnames and use two names. This practice, as I said in my post, is a political act that challenges caste identities too, because the surname is the caste tag. And we also see this two-name thing often among children of people who married without anybody changing their surname. I personally know a 35 year-old with a name like that, which means it’s a very old practice indeed! The law only comes in if you want to change your name after you have been registered in school under another name. Or in the case of divorced women as I discussed, who had taken their husband’s name and opened bank accounts, got passports etc on that name.
    Shazia, why do we need to “reform” the institution of the family without changing its current contours in any way? After all, this particular form of the family is very recent, as I said in the post. It’s not about “abolishing” anything, it’s about recognizing and accepting that there are multiple ways in which people can live with one another in intimacy and love and support, and that there is nothing natural or desirable about this form of compulsory heterosexual marriage.

  9. sarahjanelives – Thank you for continuing the conversation. Dont worry about “casting a slight upon Indian culture” – we Indian feminists are doing that all the time ourselves, not to mention asking the more crucial question – what IS “Indian” culture…

    1. continuing the conversation is really important nivedita. allow me to mention it here, not just out of personal equations (i was thrown out of the feminist india group for having circulated emails dealing with the situation of students and women in Iran, calling it anti-Muslim and the like), but for the sake of the same reasons you have in your mind when writing the above, namely that we need to be open and understanding towards each other irrespective of which culture, community, region or political/economic/social ideology we belong to. most of the issues you mention are so old and yet unsolved still, particularly for us feminists of the older generation. it does remind us of the struggles we went through and yet so little has changed. sometimes we feel sad also because the youger women take much for granted and forget to continue with the feminist struggles due to whatsoever reason,
      my Italian friends Grazia told me not to expect anything from your family. she told me how she was not supported, both by her mother as well as her mother-in-law- in her wish to accept the scholaeship she got to do research work at a university outside her country, because her whole family would suffer then. she did it nevertheless on her own and is happy.
      families have and still are the worst enemies of women, not becaause they do not have love for them, but because they, the family members, are still mostly. so conventional and not really interested in facing any revolutionary changes in the structure of the society. also because it is men who will have to loose privileges then. they give false reasons like “we have to live in this culture and our daughters should not get spoilt nd the like”.

      and yet most of us who have really achieved our goals, living autonomous lives, have been able to do it, to challange the concepts of family, marriage, sexuality, identity etc.”, even if at some costs.

      wolfgang engels had analysed the relatioship between family, state and property hundreds or years back, but even leftist men have still not changed the dominant culture in this respect. they rather keep reminding us of how woman is woman’s own enemy…

      not only because I am and have been a feminist for more than half a century now, do I want to share this with the readers: it is only women(feminists) who can and will change the face of the sinking world today. and it is primarily them who have changed the world in their peaceful and human ways.
      it is the large masses of toiling and simple women, most of them not in power positions, who have done so. to name only an example: the vegetable vendors and farm workers of Liberia, West Africa, who brought peace to that part of the world, setting in motion a number of such initiatives nd even a UNSCR1235, giving women their due recognition in peacebuilding, in rest of the violent African countries and all over in the world.

      long live the hard working and struggling women of the world!
      int. women’s day, 8th march 2012.

      1. Being anti-Muslim isn’t a problem. It’s good to be anti-religion, especially anti-abrahamic religion. That stuff’s patriarchal as the dickens and male supremacist at the core.

  10. Honest question – Does feminism consider the question of children at all ? I understand that patriarchy perpetuates a social structure designed to subordinate women, but I find it somewhat disconcerting that feminism very rarely talks about children, or how they will be brought up and the impact of the dissolution of the family on children.

    1. Thought i’d just jump in to answer your question- I think the fundamental problem with patriarchy is that it has equated child bearing with child rearing. In fact feminism deals with this question heads-on when it demands an equal division of labour within the household. It demands that partners of women play an equal role within the household and much of this labour could involve child rearing.
      There is also nothing to say that the rearing of children cannot be done outside of traditionally understood family arrangements. Till a while ago (actually perhaps till now) several people would argue that a homosexual couple could not bring up a child well,the argument being that the children would suffer in such an arrangement.
      The point i’m trying to make is that there is nothing to say that there would be an adverse impact on child rearing practices with the break up of the ‘family’. Alternate arrangements which either involve either both biological parents or other adults keen on participating in the rearing of the child could be developed. We could also have a situation where children are not necessarily brought up by their biological or adoptive parents alone but also a larger community related through not biological but social ties.
      To assume that children would be impacted with the dissolution of the ‘family’ is to assume the patriarchal family as normal and normative and assumes that the role performed by the parents and especially women within this arrangement cannot be substituted by anyone else.

    2. dear akhil, because it is the childbearing capacity of a woman, which makes her the most vulnerable in society (the French feminist Simone de. Beuavoir hence advised women in her times not to bear children at all), is it the most important issue within feminists of the school of thought I belong to. how can one even put the question whether feminism considers the question of children at all, I ask myself. it smacks of the general bias that feminists are selfish and anti-men beings!
      both the fact that a girl/woman can concieve a child makes her so vulnerable in society and she is supposed to be “protected” et al as well as the fact that it is only after women/.mothers start having children, that most of the discrimination in life is experienced by them and not the father. she has to leave the (even respectable academic) job, she has to take up additional work, even if she decides not to quit the job. all due to the traditional sexual division of labor, which very few men are prepared to change..
      so a lot of attention has been paid in feminist circles to find out alternatives of work (paid as well as unpaid), so that women and men can together follow their careers as well as the children get taken care of well.
      creches for children at work place as well as parental leave facilities for parents with children are just some of the outcomes of these struggles within the feminist movements.
      now many fathers in eurpoean, mostly scandinavian, countries are taking advantage of parental leave. so we have mothers with families, who are members of parliament; presedents of eoropean organisations and the like…asha

  11. A very thought provoking article. Tried to read it out to my mother. Would like to share her reaction. After listening patiently for a little while, she stopped me and said, ‘It would have been nice if this was written in a more easy-to-understand way and using simpler language. There are many people in India, who would benefit from reading and thinking about these aspects, but the way it is written now will restrict its access to a certain section of women or men, who are comfortable with this language and way of writing. If you want to engage with a wider audience, and it is necessary to do so, you have to find a way to keep it simple.”

    1. Manasi, thanks so much. Your mother’s reaction, may I say, is exactly what my mother’s complaint is about my writing! Once in a while she accords a newspaper or magazine piece of mine the accolade of “Now this is something people other than your friends can understand!”
      I do agree there is a need to reach out to a wider audience, and one needs to learn to write in different registers, not necessarily more “simply” but just addressing different audiences. After your comment I re-read my post and I think I can certainly make it more accessible with just a little rewriting.
      Having said this, however, I feel the predicament really is this – “simple” and “direct” language often can only restate received wisdom that has passed into common sense. Once we start challenging that common sense, we find the language we have inherited fails us, for that language can only reconstruct the world in the way it has come to be, while we want to reveal the rigorous formating underneath that apparently stable picture. In the process our language inevitably becomes unfamiliar.
      BUT but but…there is no excuse for unnecessarily academic and off-putting prose – thank you for sharing (attempting to share!) my writing with your mother, and thank her for her candid evaluation. Will certainly keep in mind!

  12. A very descriptive piece and illuminating in several aspects. Truly eye-opening in its examples.

    Perhaps, the single potent failure of the feminist movement has been its lack of understanding about how the male mind works. Of course, women are ‘structurally oppressed’ and suppressed BUT why is it so? Without understanding the nature of the beast, you may never overcome it.
    Women are considered to be the prime destabilisers of societies and it is therefore that they are suppressed in multiple structurally defined societies. Whatever manifestations that you may observe are just fragments of the larger picture on the behaviour of men – Whether be it in Hinduism or more clearly in Islam.

    As far as your attacks on marriage are concerned, it must be pointed out that free-will, consent and voluntary behaviour are dubious topics which have no clear resolution and in the case of women can be debated ad-infinitum. To blame the system of marriage for the naughty behaviour of Indian men and blaming it for the myriad problems manifested in Indian society – conveniently overlooks large sections for whom the system works both abroad and in consensual India.

    Wish you only the best in your endeavours !

    1. But most systems in the world ‘work’ precisely because of oppression, cheap labour and physical or mental violence. Take the existence of the State – it came into being through forcible taxation, slave labour and armies that kept the people down. Not much has changed in that basic contract, even if some of the actors have become more sophisticated. Question is, does something ‘working’ absolve it of moral burdens? And wow, Yojimbo, your barely conceived woman-suspicion, even while you sound like you’re reasoning it out, takes my breath away. Women are suppressed because they destabilise systems, and men are simply ‘naughty’, is it? Maybe we could rap them both on their knuckles, once in a while? Women, stop being desirable, free-willing agents! Men, stop coveting desirable, free-willing agents. Problem solved.

      1. “Does something working absolve it of moral burdens?”
        I love that jumping-off point. Allow me for anyone who needs a little nudge unpacking it! *ahem*
        Answer: Depends on what that thing is working for/toward. I quote from blogger CherryBlossomLife: “What something does IS what it’s for.”

        A glove has opposible thumbs, so it’s for the protection of a human or maybe a monkey’s hand. The tough part is that average dudes don’t see the little or big ways in which they each contribute. There’s too much reward in not seeing. But there are different ways in which different groups or cultures of dudes will carry out oppression. It’s like they think “well I’m not doing ALL kinds of oppression, and the oppression these chicks speak of it all-pervasive. Therefore, I must not really be a contributor.”

        So strange to see a jillion men each place a brick into the wall, and then stand back to say they and their fathers didn’t build it.

  13. Thank you for this wonderful article. It has helped me immensely in understanding my own family especially with respect to my mother. I also think that somewhere even media is responsible in furthering the idea of an “ideal woman” who is docile, who makes sacrifices for her family & adheres to the “Indian culture” & the traditions come hell or high water.
    Because I have a fair idea about Marathi serials, I can tell that they are the worst offenders. Most Marathi serials portray women in a very regressive manner & it only gets worse as they turn out to be the most popular ones. Even when the serial is about a rebellious female character, the character is shown in positive light only she conforms to the societal norms. Also, Marathi serials are mostly dominated by Brahmins & so these serials tend to popularize the Brahmin traditions and customs quite vividly. On a whole, it does leave an imprint on the viewer especially when they expect the women to emulate the “ideal women” from the serials.
    And who can forget the infamous “size-zero” phase which the media was obsessed with! Plus, the regular bombardment of ads selling anti-ageing, face-whitening beauty creams. It is really irritating when some lifestyle magazines run articles on why older men are desirable but if women show “signs of ageing” they depict it as a catastrophe (it is equally ironical that Ponds makes the most noise about Women’s Day). Also, one just has to take a glance at the matrimony columns to know what makes a woman “desirable”. I understand that media is only a part of the problem but it is a potent tool when it comes to crippling the self-esteem of women.

  14. I really like the easy-to-read and friendly style,pointing to issues without the baggage of academic jargon..refreshing and real, Thank you !

  15. Very well written piece and so apt in today’s context. was a pleasure reading this. years back as a part of interdepartment paper activity in LSR – you guided me on the topic what constitues a family.. and it made my mind open to so many dimensions I had never thought about at that time.
    Its interesting that you raise the question of changing the surname. My sister on marriage hasnt changed her name – and neither my brother in law / his family / or my sister saw it as a point of discussion. We all noticed it when people would come and appreciate my brother in law’s liberal attitude which was of course was found funny / out of place / not required and handled adequately.
    Like I and my sister say – the day we have no requirement of women’s day is the day we know we have equality. Making people act without the prejudice of gender and keeping your own act neutral is a tough task – something we all have to encourage and work on constantly. Articles like this makes one rethink, refine one’s thoughts and also influence positively and obviously help in bringing about a change.
    Would love to get the book when its there.
    Keep writing.


    Yesha Bansal

  16. This is an absolutely perfect and much longed for teaching material for those of us teaching gender. Really looking forward to the book. A small quibble though. I think Nivedita misreads the question of the ‘smart alec’ regarding women keeping their father’s surnames post marriage. I think what our smarty could have meant was that choosing not to change one’s surname upon marriage, doesnt really challenge the rule of patriliny…if thats what the objective behind such a move/ choice is. To my mind, the question comes more from the desire to figure out the ‘right thing to do’ than anything else. And I say this because I myself have encountered this question from a number of students, cops, NGO workers and govt. officials I have done workshops with. There’s something deeply troubling with the authoritarian professorial voice in which Nivedita dismisses the question and imputes (patriarchal) presumptions and (masculinist) bad faith to the (male) ‘smart alec’.

  17. I enjoyed reading “Feminism and the Family – Thoughts on International Women’s Day” and am looking forward to the moment when your new book ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ will make its compulsory read.
    However, I find certain problems with one of your observations here – i.e; as if patriarchy and the subjection of woman in family as we understand today, were in most details created by the western colonial powers, and before that, patriarchy didn’t matter much..On the contrary, we find the entire Brahmanic discourse of culture and virtues was about upper caste men controlling all women, with their labour power,reproductive power and sexuality!
    One wonders how the status of women in Nair tharavadus could make an exception!

  18. Nivedita, absolutely delicious writing, and I only mean that I enjoyed every word, and nothing ‘soapy’. I definitely look forward to the book.

    Also makes me think seriously about the name my passport should show.

  19. Brilliant article. I expected mention about the role of economic changes in gender relations. May be it is there in another chapter? Looking forward to the book..

  20. Venugopal, it was not my intention to suggest that there was no kind of patriarchy before colonialism, only to point to different kinds of kinship practices that existed, than the kind of family that has become established as “natural” through social processes and legal interventions. As you know Nair matriliny was eventually abolished by law. But I also do not subscribe to a certain kind of feminist understanding that whatever the form of family or social arrangement, patriarchy is always dominant. Rather, I hold that there is an “outside” to every dominant structure, whether capitalism or patriarchy or heteronormativity, and that to keep these structures in place as if they are a “close fit”, a huge amount of “work” has to be done. So while I am aware of scholarship on Nair matriliny that suggests that all it was, was the power of brothers rather than husbands over women; I am also aware from other accounts, that the picture is far more complicated. Cannot enter into this debate here, but certainly, any form of kinship in which women inherit, and property and name pass through women to women cannot have the same implications for gender relations as its opposite.
    Saptarshi, re my “authoritarian professorial voice” – a little quick to condemn, aren’t you? Yes, the question can also come from a desire to figure out the best thing to do, but you will have to go by my assessment that in the sessions I am talking about, the question was inevitably posed aggressively, by men rather than women, and in order to show how absurd the feminist take on not changing the surname after marriage, is. If such questions come from sincerely troubled spaces, I recognize that, and in that case, my argument above does address it. I dont think, by the way, that married women retaining their surname does not challenge at all, the rule of patriliny, because a) the wife and husband start off on par as regards name and b) it starts off a new series of possibilities for naming children etc.
    Please also, never underestimate the degree of male aggression towards a female speaker (as opposed to a male speaker) talking about feminism, regardless of the social power of the female speaker (female prof vs male student in this case).
    Meenakshi, Yesha, Arun, Komal, Suneetha – *blush*.
    [ More appropriate reaction finally, eh, Saptarshi? :) ]

  21. “..but certainly, any form of kinship in which women inherit, and property and name pass through women to women cannot have the same implications for gender relations as its opposite…”
    The strongest point; fully agree with you, Nivedita!

  22. A few thoughts.

    1. Monogamous marriage is not perfect; no social institutions are. However, that being said, I do think it helpful to look at institutions like marriage through the lens of cultural evolution. That is, at one point in time, a tribe of humans thought it would be expedient to do away with whatever sort of tribal polygamy there were practicing and instead adopt monogamous pairing. At the time this may have seemed radical, but the decision paid off. Marriage would not exist today as we know it had it not succeeded.

    2. I take it the author is not married, but she is obviously successful and presumably the product of a stable household. This paradox recently came to a head in the US with Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Part. While the author and others like her are more than happy to play the iconoclast, the effects of their views are devastating for the lower classes. In America, the upper class intelligentsia is remarkably conservative when it comes to their lifestyle habits (stable marriages, high investment in children’s’ education), while the lower classes suffer from high divorce rates, high rates of single parenthood, drug abuse, etc.

    3. For poor families in particular, it is empirically demonstrable that children born into households with a mother and a father have a statistically higher chance of succeeding than children born into less fortunate households. Is this unworthy of the author’s consideration?

    Click to access 15_02_04.pdf

    4. I agree with the author on most of her views, but I think this is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, to use an American idiom. Women should not be forced to change their names, nor should they deprived of inheritance rights. That being said, I think it is irresponsible for the author to condemn one social institution without an appraisal of the consequences. The fact of the matter is that marriage done right is the best way we know to raise children in a harmonious, productive environment. To try and break that institution is an assault on the poor’s ability to raise itself up from the dregs of society. I support the author’s efforts to reform marriage, but it is selfish and short-sighted of her to try and throw it out altogether.

  23. A very potent piece, undoubtedly.
    But I am somewhat uncomfortable with the following generalization: ”to be a feminist is to imagine occupying the marginal position with reference to every dominant framework.” Nivedita justifies her position by referring to (i) the “experience (of) her relative powerlessness as a woman if faced by a man in a position to attack her sexually, regardless of his class or caste position”, and (ii)by comparing ”her life choices and autonomy with those of a man of her class”. Let us take this two arguments one by one.
    The second one clearly situates the woman in her own class context. Yes, in the same class, the woman is powerless compared to the man. No denying that. But that does not place the woman an the bottom of *all* hierarchies of power. For example, that does not mean that an upper class, english-reading social activist is powerless in comparison to her driver. In the first argument, Nivedita essentially paints the driver (and every man) as a potential sexual predator. This is both nefarious and extremely conservative at the same time. Moreover, here she reaches out to biology (sex, and not gender) in making the argument of socially constructed gender inequality. That logic is both unconvincing and inconsistent with her own positions.
    The sense of victimhood need not be heightened in such uncalled-for ways to make one’s point.
    There are dimensions in which power hierarchy is constructed and reproduced by the micro and macro level. But I am unconvinced that a feminist needs to feel that a woman is at the bottom of *every* power hierarchy, including class.

    1. I think it’s not Nivedita but Indian society in general that holds the view that men are violent sexual predators who cannot be expected to control their base desires.

      In Indian culture, women are expected to defend their own bodily integrity by not doing anything that “arouses male lust”.

      Women are the sexual gate-keepers in Indian society and are expected to curb male sexual violence (by modest demeanour, attire and behavior).

      Why else are rapists always given the benefit of the doubt while the rape victim is blamed for “inciting the man”.

      You can’t have it both ways. We should either accept that:

      A) Men, being human, are perfectly capable of controlling/inhibiting their own sexual desire and assuming respnsibility for their sexual conduct.
      B) Men are held hostage by their hormones and should not be expected to exercise the discretion and inhibitory caution that charecterises human adulthood.

      Men cannot simultaneously deny responsibilty for sexual violence and yet complain about being stereotyped and demonised as “sexual predators” who are driven entirely by instinct.

      These two positions are inherently contradictory and perhaps women should be excused for assuming that men prefer position B.

  24. JG – okay, let’s keep marriage going for the “lower orders”, “the poor” and the “dregs of society”. Those of us who are part of the “upper class intelligentsia” can opt out. Good idea.
    Sourav – that ridiculous reductionist position (“women are at the bottom of all hierarchies” and “all women are victims”) is certainly not my argument as even a quick read of my post would show. This is a convenient straw feminist in your head whom you can deal with better than the real thing. But then, if my post didn’t disturb anti-feminists of all genders, I would have been a little worried.
    So JG and Sourav – thanks for the affirmation.

  25. I wish there was a ‘like’ button for Nivedita’s comment above, like on Facebook! How humans adapt and mutate with technology…in this post-facebook world, reading something and liking it in some simple old-fashioned sense has begun to feel inadequate…my right index finger searches for the ‘like’ icon and feels disappointed that I can’t click on something! But it doesn’t matter for some of the pro-marriage or anti-feminist arguments here that we as a species are changing and adapting to our environments at a breathtaking rate. We have this incredibly complicated civilisation – masses of information floating around at the speed of light, space missions, superconductors, string theory, ecological upheaval, hundreds of thousands of permutations, combinations and adaptations of social structures including family and marriage…no it doesn’t matter. The female of the species must remember her primary responsibility is to the family and children. Sacrifice an entire human life, so another generation may grow up to be successful CEOs or world leaders. Any suggestion that it doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game, if only men would take on half of child-rearing time and duties, if they behaved at home with utter equality, without threatening violence, humiliation, psychological annihilation of their partners or abandonment, without demands that need to be met immediately…any suggestion needs to go over the whole rigmarole again. From scratch. The argument for female subordination to a larger cause – family, marriage, children, in-laws, society – somehow overrides all our arguments about the superiority of our civilisation, the enormous ‘progress’ we are making, the innate human-ness of our genius compared to other species. No, we can invent and reinvent the wheel, but marriage is somehow eternal and natural, unchanging. We can split the atom with our intelligence and freeze humans so they will wake up in 2075, but we can’t apply human intelligence to the problem of one half of the species being in oppression. Also never mind the incredible complexity of living and child rearing arrangements in different societies at different historical moments. They are all to be brought in line with our understanding of what morality, sexuality and stability is. If some unfortunate polygamous tribals haven’t woken up and smelt the coffee yet, we can always entice them with television sets and modern education and hope they get with the programme. I can’t begin to get my head around this – where does this incredible, largely male hubris even begin to be formed? Early infancy, when a male child is told by his slightly pathetic, harried mother-figure and his heroic father-figure that he is the centre of the blessed universe?

  26. a thoroughly researched write up. Somewhat like an exemplary case of backward engineering. The article has presented all the arguments and counter arguments that i started thinking from the age of 5. i was branded a ‘mahila mukti morcha’ way back in school, and i used to tell them, that if they had any common sense coupled with a probing mind, they’d be the same. An article i will share will people who can understand this level of thinking.
    would have loved to know more on the ‘alternate non marraige based communites’, for which i’ll await the book.
    best luck nivedita, we need more like you. If i can be of any help, i’ll be honored.

  27. Brilliant article Nivedita, thank you. I am also intrigued by many of the threads in the comments, I’m referring in particular to that of Sarahjanelives. Your first response to her first comment was exactly mine. Yet I feel that maybe it needs to be extrapolated further so that your response is not understood as a defence of culture, but rather a critique of the global phenomenon which is assumed/accepted/embedded patriarchy. (I’m nowhere near as articulate as you so am struggling through this). To give you an idea of where I am headed with this: As you know Vimochana in Bangalore has been doing a lot of research into the “stove burst” deaths in Bangalore. A few years ago, when Oprah Winfrey was doing a show on dowry, she sent her team to meet Donna and others at Vimochana. They (the Vimochana activists) were very reluctant because they had no edit control and were very dubious about the slant the story would take. But after massive discussion and a sharing of all the background of the cases and the clear links to liberalization and greed, they agreed. Eventually and despite all the talk, the story was spun as one of culture. i.e Dowry and it’s links to culture. This happened simply because the journalist in question who came here simply could not get past the idea that western modernity has rid itself of patriarchal shackles and somehow Indian “cultural” norms are at the root of the dowry evil.
    Anyway, this was just to say I’m totally with your argument and will be sharing this article widely :-)

  28. fantastic. it’s refreshing, current & so needed. this generation needs to know understand & be inspired by feminist thought. where are the icons of today?? 30 years ago, i managed to find my way into feminist thinking & was a role model (of the bare bones type) for some of the next generation of my family. What they have become however, are mostly just modern brats.

  29. A beautiful piece! As already pointed in one of the earlier comments, I only wish thoughts of this caliber were available in simpler language, not only for it to ‘appeal’ to a wider audience (as if it’s something to entertain!), but because of the potency of these thoughts and the changes they can initiate in very young minds. I really do wish I had had access to such thinking back in college.

    Hats off to you for writing such a brilliant piece; will buy the book at the earliest. Wish one could make pamphlets of each of these ideas….be it marriage, virilocality, etc and distribute them or paste them all across the filthy corporate lobbies that people like me inhabit. Will be such a delightful break from the monotonous corporate posters nonsense that assault us every day!

  30. I appreciate you Nivedita Menon for writing this brilliant piece. The CBSE has introduced gender studies as an elective in senior secondary classes from this academic session 2013-14 and I really hope and wish that people like you are involved in framing the curriculum for what we will teach our young girls (and even boys). Feminist studies in India or even Asia for that matter really need a lot of in depth research and case studies and reference material to come up with its own paradigm of relevant subject matter for discussion and policy. Your book is a pioneering work. Congratulations.

  31. A great article Mam…….It gave a huge information.
    I want to ask you a question because when I took admission in Political Science and studied feminism,I also started used to think the same way they do but the problem is that when you raise question against patriarcy people(mostly females) say that I am crazy,they say that I should learn to behave the same like they do(that is obeying each and every order of the male members in the family)…
    I just want to ask you that does feminism is relevant?

    1. I was surprised to see a comment on this article that is four years old! Shyamli, a cursory reading of the evolution of human civilization will show that “crazy” people and ideas have always inspired changes in all social structures. Therefore, “isms” are permanently relevant. And “isms” will clash in both public and private spheres, creating changes, sometimes for the better, other times for worse. It’s not always possible to predict the results of such clashes, but those clashes and changes are inevitable. So, if your mind (brain inspired by knowledge and ideas) tells you to question and revolt, feel free to do so, regardless of being considered “crazy”. Because, the ultimate violence on a human being is the one that he/she inflicts on his/her own mind, by stifling or suppressing his/her expression and thoughts.

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