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.’
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. 
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.’
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. 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. 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.
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.’ 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).
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?’
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 marriage – young 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
 From an on-line Nude Makeup Tutorial
 In other cases where the husband has objected, court rulings have prevented divorced women from using their married name.
 ‘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
 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.
 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.
 Lakshmi (1989), cited in Basu (2009)
 Respondent to Rita Kothari (2009:166)