The Institution called Marriage

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 realize my own weaknesses and also those who share a different opinion then I do. Lately it is because of such friends and of those others around me, who have triggered me to write on an issue which is not only rampant but also sensitive and often lost in stereotypes and its changing notions. It is relatively complex and has a lot of subjectivity attached to. As in our well stratified society, individuals are living in different class, caste, regions, urban-rural set ups and face the issue as per their own conditioning of attitudes. Perhaps also because the advanced forms of it are often taken to be reformed and progressive, this may not necessarily be!

The issue relates to the Institution called Marriage and the different underpinnings of it in a patriarchal society. How the two are a related concept and how without understanding the role of each, reforms may be shallow and could lead to further perpetuation of stereotypes and acceptance of it in varied forms. But before one proceeds to the very concept of marriage, it is necessary to define patriarchy, not in its archaic form but the modern version of it in today’s era. With my discussions amongst the few, I realized how distortedly is the definition 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 for its existence are the radical feminists who go in extreme of unwanted debate and make living harder for those around them. Not just being an individual opinion but 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 tendency of so called feminine traits like transgenders, homosexuals. The legitimacy is sought through religious practices and customs and sustained through social realtionships. It celebrates motherhood, loyalty, chastity of females to male dominance. The present debate on ‘Padmavati’ could very well prove this point. You will see it in skewed sex ratio, wide prevalence of female infanticide, meager and namesake political representation, imbalanced women workforce participation and also concentration of females workers in stereotypical jobs like nursing, primary school teaching etc. also the fact that largely the public spaces are still owned by males and stepping out in public domain for women is accompanied by fear -of molestation, rape, social stigma. Further also of domestic violence and honour killings which will be addressed when in linking with marriage.

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 practiced at present. For example, women have a free hand in choosing their husband, of dating and live-in relationships before a long term commitment, they can work and achieve economic independence of sorts. They have greater say in family planning and can demand house management to be more egalitarian in its working. Also further they can file divorce petitions and can hold husband responsible for domestic violence. Thus the modern man might say 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 larger women’s rights? To the extent also that various laws are being misused by women agreed to by Supreme Court in its recent judgment ( s.498A IPC).

But when one starts decoding the entire liberties apparent on the face as emancipating, may actually be a farce, or incomplete. Therefore, before it starts taking the shape of another perpetuation, it’s important to dismantle such hold notions in its infancy. As patriarchy is not mere economic dependence and domestic slavery but also operating in cultural habits and inner consciousness dominating 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 that it is her choice to move to her husband’s home and be a dutiful wife, patriarchy has won. When one takes comfort in others surname (there is new trend of combining surnames interestingly just for women. I wonder if men are ever eager on taking his wife’s) and the right to claim property is looked down upon, patriarchy has won. also when marital rape as a concept in itself is neither accepted by our law books, nor it widely seems to be debated, shows patriarchy has won. when young couples are butchered in the name of honour and prestige, patriarchy still is winning. When dowry, a major issue is so rampantly present in all walk of our societies, one cannot negate the winning of patriarchy. When a working wife still happens to be primarily a homemaker and takes upon herself unilaterally of managing household, patriarchy has again won. when our Maternity Benefit Act decides to give maternity leave solely to women thinking child rearing is a prerogative of mothers only, patriarchy has definitely won. The list can go endlessly.
But wait !! someone might say what about decreased domestic violence and increased rate of its misuse by women ? for them I would suggest to look more widely and through perspectives to different realities around them. How right was it for Supreme Court to reach to a judgment by saying that sec 498A is being misused based on low conviction rate as per data given solely by National Crime Records Bureau? In fact the National Family Health Survey-3, Economic and Caste Census data has contradictory opinion to offer. We are not even getting into the non governmental and informal surveys carried on this issue.

So the question is not of giving women liberties, as it so casually is spelt to be because nor are the 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 into bias before one could even get started with 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 the modern societies have come to believe but to search for its origin as an institution in patriarchal societies.

When I questioned another friend of mine as to what she thinks about this. I was aghast by the defensive line she had to take. She said that ‘as an institution it has survived for centuries, making sense at societal level. It has added to the stability of our society by curbing the promiscuous sexual activities for reasons of disease. In fact the gender role allocation adds to the convenience. Many things are exploitative and marriage just one of the expression of such exploitation. That it is a societal problem and individuals may find it difficult to escape.’ The whole defensiveness connotes to the underlying naturalization and acceptance of status quo with a rather helpless attitude. Survival and stability argument makes a complex issue look simplistic. To use the line of defense that it curbs diseases is to throw away the entire fight that 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”, pinpoints 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 ostracism. It further legitimizes 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, it is in fact the vice versa situation. Therefore, behavioural changes are not outcomes of rhetoric but involves a deeper and clearer understanding of how the present attitudes are still shaping our actions in marriage and how for an everlasting change one needs to get at the very root.
If not for my dear friend, I would never go deeper into words as to how marriage as an idea came up and took quick roots to form the very base of society. We all know the discovery of iron lead to a very settled life, agrarian society became the norm and land became a resource. But then came the rights and determining succession was the biggest hurdle. Thus we find the concept of progeny, purity, lineage etc being attached to marriage. It offered a perfect solution. In fact it addressed the very insecurities of men in particular. How else would a man know that the woman is bearing his child? In Pre-Vedic era we know existed ‘Harappan culture’, but nobody can assure what system of life they lived in terms of sociology, what position did women enjoy? Thus the reason why we assume origin of marriage in Vedic period is for this same reason, still prominently followed on similar lines in most of the communities in India. I do not wish to oppose it in totality but at least have an informed debate on it. Tomorrow, one’s entry in to the institution should not be looked as its acceptance of all that is existing but as a hope for reform.

This a very limited juxtaposition of few dimensions and to address it in one article is quite impossible. The whole intention behind this exercise is to make our readers think and not accept prejudices in new forms. Because of vastness we live in, everyday encounters we seem to be facing in an environment of heightened romeo-juliet squads, love jihad terminologies, declaring ‘rashtramatas’ and drawing new ‘laxman-rekhas’ for wives, should not become the new normal. To also make an effort that at times it’s very much possible that we might not be aware about things and that our understanding could be based on facts in our perceived reality. Perhaps it is also quite possible that what I share is limited and narrow too and therefore the discussion needs further progression. 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.

Manisha Awhale

About Manisha Awhale

Manisha has a law degree from ILS, Pune. She has been a research intern at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and Human Rights and Law Defenders. Manisha's sensitivity towards the people around her and social issues, sets her apart.

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