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Patriarchy 101

Patriarchy 101 Vinay Bahl patriarchy became an analytical category when feminist political and intellectual culture gave way to women

BOOK REVIEWaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly52Patriarchy 101Vinay BahlPatriarchy by V Geetha;Stree,Kolkata, 2007; pp 212,Rs 240.The Lancet, a British journal, esti- mated in 2006 that as many as 10 million female fetuses had been aborted in India over the previous 20 years. Addressing this depressing issue the Indian prime minister said the following at a national conference dedicated to ‘Saving the Girl Child’: “No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilised world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women” (TheNew York Times, April 29, 2008). It is not the lack of laws that is leading to such horrific conditions of the girl child in India. It is the non-implementation of exist-ing laws as well as a lack of real under-standing and a will to eliminate the patriar-chal system that sustains these anomalies. Patriarchy, the third textbook in the series on ‘Theorising Feminism’, is an attempt to address these issues as an ongoing project of challenging patriarchy that is never finished. This textbook is intended for teachers in ‘mofussil’ institutions, women’s organisers of women’s groups and readers outside academia, who have no access to specialised scholarly journals published abroad and in metropolitans of India. Patriarchy is a jargon free, short and comprehensive understanding of the work-ing of the Indian patriarchal system in everyday life. It includes, among other things, how the role of the state, caste, household, kinship, religion, culture, pro-duction, reproduction, language, rituals, customs and literature are contributing in the promotion of violence against women and subordinating them. The authoralso provides a panorama of the debate on patriarchy, both in the global and Indian context historically as well as the role of both men and women in rewriting the social relationships that are intertwined with gender, caste, class and various social movements. The focus of the book is on Indiansocialrealities but it draws from writings and research from classic Marxist text to feminist thought from the Americas, Europe, and west and south Asia. A short bibliography along with information for further advanced reading is provided at the end of each chapter. It contains five chapters and the longest one (chapter three) isdevoted to the question of production, reproduction and patriarchy focusing on Indian arguments on household, kinship caste and the state. The first two chapters are about history and debate. Chapters fourand five focus on the issues of cul-ture,religion and sexuality.While weaving various ideas taken from both the “third world” and western feminists, the author questions the concepts of universal sisterhood, defining women’s oppression, and theorising patriarchy in a divergent and complex social world. She points out that neither all men are the agents of patriarchy nor do all women resist its working equally. Moreover, class, caste, religious contexts and identities, sexual preferences and gender identities mediate the exercise of male authority, its workings and resistance to either (p 2). That is why, theorising patriarchy is not possible without understanding its ever-changing meaning.Shifting Meaning of Patriarchy Patriarchy used to be considered a stage of progress over the matriarchal system in the human stages of existence. In the 19th century patriarchy was considered a social system which included rule of father over all women, young males and other males who wereeconomically dependent on him in the household. But the world his-torical churning, brought about by politi-cal and theoretical developments across the globe during the 1960s and 1970s, po-sitioned patriarchy as an object of political attention and critique, both in India and elsewhere (p 15). Women in the US and UK, based on their own understanding of patriarchy, made the term patriarchy im-portant and pervasive, while trying to influence state policies for women’s enti-tlements through various protests. Later, patriarchy became an analytical category when feminist political and intellectual culture gave way to women’s studies pro-grammes as disciplines in various univer-sities. All these historical and social deve-lopments in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) also fed into the Indian debate that was underway and was being shaped by local regional circumstances and the political context of the time. Three major events during the 1970s further energised Indian women: (1) The government of India’s report Towards Equality exposed the horrific conditions of Indian women. (2) The declaration of the Emergency in1975 led to an enormous number of resistance movements in India in which women actively participated in anti-price movement and created the self-employed women’s association (SEWA), an independent economic option for un-derprivileged women. (3) The United Na-tions (UN) held first the international wom-en’s conference that made women more visible in many areas of public life includ-ing in trade unions. Many Indian women, who were partici-pating in the Naxalite movements of the 1970s in rural Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, became aware of the limitations of existing social and political theories that were based on the ideas of communism and socialism that they believed in. They overcame these limitations by making women more visible in their theoretical analysis and making a woman a social entity in her own right. It allowed feminists to connect a woman’s rights with state policies by focusing on the woman’s survival needs, which were routinely subordinated to family needs, and her rights for access to food, shelter and mobility that were infringed (p14). Widening their scope feminists started focusing on other institutional and cultural areas that were affecting women’s lives including religion, cultural practices and tiesto kinship. Focusing on women of the informal sector, Shramshakti Report (1988) has highlighted the role of capitalism in using cheap and exploited female labour forindustrial and economic growth, and the role of customs, culture and economic deprivation in keeping women subordinated (p 23). Many published articles contributed in opening for public debate the issues relating to caste, religion, caste violence,
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 9, 200853police violence, domestic violence and oppression. In turn, these debates helped in raising theoretical questions about an alter-native to the patriarchal family, to conjugal love and heterosexuality. But Indian feminists had difficulty in de-fining sex work when they took up the social issue of prostitution during the 1980s and 1990s, because sex work was also con-nected with caste issue of ‘devdasis’ (p 194). They were also reluctant to endorse lesbians’ social rights considering them as “western” feminist concerns (p 196). But with the epidemic of HIV/AIDS the debate on sexuality and conjugal love became more of a public issue, along with the rights of ‘hijras’ and transvestites, that connected with public health, state policies, reproduction and familyplanning. In this new context, patri-archy came to be understood as a complex social engineering effort, whereby human beings had to choose to be men and women in defined, specific ways or else suffer social disability, alienation and a systematic denial of their humanity (p 197).It was becoming increasingly clear to feminists that patriarchy needed to be chal-lenged at many levels, including hetero-sexuality, that would require multiple struggles against property, caste norms and social habits. It also required a radical re-thinking of the relationship between biolo-gy and social identity on the one hand, and social identity and caste, class and state on the other, because heterosexual model is affirmed in law, in civil society practices and made the basis for governance (p 200). The Working of PatriarchyThe author argues that the power of patri-archy is not merely coercive, rather it seeks our consent, beguiles us with its social and cultural myths and rituals and implications in its workings. She argues that cultural and sexual norms constitute the everyday context for the exercise of patriarchal power and that all of us actively aid, retard, negotiate and challenge these norms (p 2). Chapter three demonstrates how kinship structures and the caste system are intrinsic to the very organisation and continued persistence of patriarchal power and authority in India (p 2). Chapters four and five indicate how patriarchal struc-tures of social system are experienced in everyday cultural life that reproduces it: acts of labour and love, relationships, practices of faith, authority and power. The whole discourse of motherhood – girl as earth, waiting for the monsoon rains, a mud vessel, receiving the seed – encoded in folk songs, in ordinary speech, appro-priate and non-appropriate sex, chaste, obedient wife is upheld, the desiring, seductive other woman is both desiredand denounced, regulates woman’s behaviour (p 133). Popular fiction and cinemarein-force self-sacrificing but powerfulmother representing an authority that is associated with motherhood, bearersofworthysons and mother exists only for the glory of their sons. Whereas, masculinity and fatherhood is affirmed in a punitive sense aswell when any boy desires to be like a woman/homosexual. Similarly, good/bad woman is written into the notions of upper caste/lower caste women. Labouring women are treated as the sexual property of the men for whom they work and are not expected to adhere to ‘stridharma’ and their men are not consid-ered “men enough” to protect them. On the other hand, upper caste women are consid-ered pure, ethereal, ‘pativarta’ (pp 139-40). Public/private space is also defined on gen-der and caste lines. Home and hearth are considered as an essential feminine space but their rights to equality, justice and dig-nity at home are routinely compromised. Men can easily become part of political parties and come together to form trade unions by creating male solidarities that are forged in teashops, sports clubs, film fan associations and arrack shops. Where-as, women are largely in informal labour situations that are not bound by labour legislation and women do not congregate in leisure places. For dalits, men or women, public and political forums, where authority is affirmed, remain out of bounds. Other Critiques and Challenges Earlier, serious challenges to patriarchy came from the anti-caste movement (self- respect movement) that emerged in Tamil-speaking areas in the 1920s and 1930s.Theircritique of the caste order included that of gender arrangement thatsustained it. It became obvious to dalit women, who joined these movements in largenumber, that by choosing public work(remaining single) over conjugal love women could challenge the logic of reproduction not only of the family, but the caste system itself. Neelavathi, an articulate feminist of the time, raised the question of the worth of women’s work. Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur took the initiative to pass new laws – against cruelty towards women and the Divorce Act of 1919 – which attempted to penalise caste patriarchy. Ambedkar took the onerous task of addressing both untouchability and women’s low status in tandem. He suggested a new form of life for women, where conjugality had to be redefined in the interests of their community (p 190). Sarla Devi and Prema Kantak, who had a unique relationship with Gandhi, contributed to the social and emotional freedom for women as they held out a promise of a new form of intimacy in a shared political life created in the context of the nationalist movement. Gandhi enabled social options for women and sug-gested ways of disengaging with features of the patriarchal system, but he did not seek to overturn it (p 180).Inspired by the revolutionary nationalism of 1920s and 1930s young women such as Pritilata Wadedar and Kalpana Dutt took up arms against local British authority. Their lives exemplified an existence that rewrote the meaning of conjugality (p 181). Allured by the socialist idiom of freedom, justice and comradeship across class and gender, many middle class and peasant women joined armed struggles waged by communists against oppressive landlords in the Tebhaga movement of Bengal and in Telengana in the 1940s. Participating in these struggles allowed women to rewrite patriarchal ground rules and imagine other modes of social being and existence (p 184).To conclude, Patriarchy helps in grasp-ing the intricate web of coercion and con-sent mediated through social institutions, social structure and cultural systems that are keeping Indian women subordinated and perpetuating violence against them, not only during their lifetime, but even be-fore they (girls) are born. But, the publish-ing ofPatriarchy also affirms that women are not giving up their fight against an un-just, unequal and violent system. The editor of the series and the authorofPatriarchy should becommended for their efforts.Email:

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