The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Even women fail to recognize the oppressiveness of marriage in India

The noise about Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign origins” provides an opportunity to address a relative silence on another issue — the way in which the identity and status of women are established through, and only through, the institution of marriage. A quick aside before I continue — just as I support the right of people of Indian origin to full citizenship in the countries of their adoption, I support the right of any legal citizen of India to occupy its highest office.

Having said that, let me come to my own problems with the debate on Sonia’s succession to her husband’s mantle. Is there any doubt that had Indira Gandhi had a daughter who married an Italian man, that man would have had zero chances of being considered for political office' Once a woman marries, she assumes her husband’s identity, and far from the Italian husband becoming Indian, the wife would become Italian. After all, much of the mass support for Sonia comes from the understanding that bahu ki koi jaat nahin hoti. The bahu becomes ours — whatever she was to begin with. (Well, not whatever — as a reader asked rhetorically in a weekly, what would have been the acceptability of a blonde, Japanese or black bahu')

As for daughters, in the context of inheriting political mantles, some do and some don’t, the latter more so if there is a brother to take over. But with other kinds of inheritances — of family name, lineage and property — daughters have no status, they barely even exist except as tokens to be passed on.

This distinction between daughters and daughters-in-law is at the core of the Jammu and Kashmir bill, seeking to deny Kashmiri women the right to permanent citizenship of Jammu and Kashmir if they marry outside the state. A Jammu and Kashmir 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 is balanced by the gain of another set. On the whole, therefore, women as such do 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 patriarchal family are assumed to be natural, eternal, part of the human condition. This is why it seems perfectly reasonable to say that all women will acquire (some) rights once they get married, so what’s the problem' But the most important point here is that the Jammu and Kashmir bill is no anomaly — it simply gives formal recognition to the actual existing meaning of marriage in the rest of India.

Feminists have long had a theoretical critique of the institution of marriage, but in political practice that critique has tended to be placed on the back-burner, particularly in India. We have, of course, continually pointed to the oppression of women and children within the family, but we nevertheless reinforce existing family structures in many of our interventions, for example, on the issue of the uniform civil code, or over the practice of dowry. In both these instances, the target of our critique is not the institution of marriage; we attack only the practices that surround that institution — polygamy, dowry, domestic violence. With each such intervention we assert, in effect, that a good marriage would not have these features.

So what is wrong with the family' The fact is that the family as it exists, the only form in which it is allowed to exist — the heterosexual patriarchal family — is key to maintaining both national and community identity. Caste, race and community identities are to be produced through birth, and their purity cannot be ensured without rigorous control of the woman. Under patriarchy, the wife’s chastity is therefore crucial to maintaining these identities and existing regimes of property relations, for children do not bear the mother’s identity but that of the father, they derive their rights not from her but from him.

Incidentally, this may be the main reason behind the Hindu right’s opposition to Valentine’s Day. Many of us have our own objections to the commercialization of “love” — apparently it’s not enough to love someone, you have to buy something to prove it. However, there is a subversive potential to individuals “falling in love”, the possibility that young people could find someone of a different caste or community, or of the same gender. What sort of community would it be in which every family has Hindus and Dalits and Muslims, and homosexuals with adopted children from god knows where'

Policing of social boundaries is not the only work done by the institution of marriage. A Delhi high court judgment in 1984 ruled that the fundamental rights to equality and freedom have no place in the family. To bring constitutional law into the home, the learned judge ruled, is like “taking a bull into a china shop”. And of course, he was absolutely right.

The family in India is indeed premised on extreme inequality — beginning with the wife changing her surname on marriage, to the property to which no sister has equal rights with her brother. Freedom and equality among individuals would certainly destroy the family as we know it. Consider the other feature central to marriage, assumed to be as natural as breathing — the sexual division of labour, which legitimizes the unpaid domestic labour of women. It’s done “for love” — is it only in tennis that “love” means “nothing”' The ideology of marriage ensures that the physical and mental work (bearing and rearing of children, cooking, cleaning) that goes into reproducing human beings and ensuring their capacity to labour is classified as “not work”. And this not-work is performed exclusively by women. The oppressiveness of this is unrecognized; indeed, women themselves fail to understand why they are unhappy with this thankless, endless drudgery, for after all, they do it for those they love.

The so-called “misuse” of dowry laws is a striking illustration of the unnameability of the oppressiveness of marriage — what it means is that if a woman wants to address “harassment” of any sort within marriage, the dowry laws are the only legal remedy available. No other aspect of marriage can be brought under the scope of the law. Is it any wonder that women reach out for it'

I hasten to clarify that my point is not to bring everything under the law, but to specifically name marriage as an intrinsically oppressive institution. And so strong is its mind-numbing influence that more often than not, even the subversive potential of romance is tamed into conventional, socially acceptable relationships. How different in the end is the “arranged” marriage from the “love” marriage' When the stardust clears, you find “The Married Couple” exactly as you are used to seeing them — the man a few years older, a few inches taller, and earning a few thousand rupees more than his wife. And most probably of the same community and caste too.

Humans need to procreate, experience sexual pleasure, and build communities to ensure networks of mutual assistance. Is there any reason why these needs can be met only by the heterosexual patriarchal family'

Email This Page