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The Indian family: A peace not worth protecting?

Justice and peace do not always coincide, writes Nivedita Menon. The heterosexual patriarchal family, for instance, contributes to the dominant social order in India, but it is not a just or equal space for women. Is this then a peace that should be protected? Sometimes, this author suggests, conflicts should not be resolved; sometimes disorder can be the beginning of justice

The French Nobel Prize-winning writer Romain Rolland said: “Where order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice.”

Peace and order are not necessarily just. Often peace and order are maintained to shore up the interests of dominant groups. Peace often rests on a dominant order that maintains itself through a combination of coercion (force) and hegemony (belief through consent). Hegemony is the policeman inside your head who tells you how to behave. Coercion could be exercised by institutions ranging from the army and police to schools, the family and religious institutions. Coercion often involves the law, and the law predominantly maintains an order that is in the interest of the dominant groups. 

The family is one of the key institutions for maintaining order -- but not necessarily a just order -- in society. People tend to define family in terms of love, solidarity, companionship and support. But every such institution is not necessarily recognised as a ‘family’. The law will define family according to certain personal laws in this country. But extra-legally too, you are forced into being part of a family defined in a narrow and strict way. For instance, a woman, her mother and the woman’s friend are not a family. A ‘family’ can only be a patriarchal, heterosexual family: man, his wife, two children, a dog maybe, and two cars!

In 1984, a judgment by the Delhi High Court said that fundamental rights are not applicable in the family: these rights have to stop at the door of the family. One way of responding to this as a feminist is to say that this is wrong, fundamental rights should be applicable in the family. The other way is to recognise that this judge was absolutely right. Because if you bring fundamental rights into a family, and if every individual in the family is treated like a free and equal citizen, that family will not survive. Because the family, as it exists, rests on one person being head of the household: the (eldest) male, the husband, the father. So, you have a situation in which there is actually no equality and no freedom and, in fact, if you introduce equality and freedom then the family as established by law and social practices will collapse.

One of the key features of this family is the sexual division of labour, with domestic work done by women. This sex-based segregation of labour is key, not just to maintaining the family, but also the economy, because the economy would collapse like a pack of cards if this unpaid domestic labour had to be paid for by somebody, either by the husband or the employer. When you have an entire kind of labour underlying the economy which is unpaid for, then surely the sexual division of labour is not something domestic and private.

Feminists do recognise that the family offers a space which no other institution offers and as feminists we also recognise that we have failed to create alternatives to the family. But an uncompromising critique of the family is absolutely crucial. The personal is political: Political is not just the vote, the state, institutions. What happens inside the bedroom and the kitchen is political too, because ‘politics’ is about power relations, and power operates in the private realm as well.

Also, the heterosexual patriarchal nuclear family is not natural, nor is it something that has always existed in all parts of India. Its current form is based on an upper-caste north Indian norm. In the south, even today, it is not assumed that if a woman marries she has to go to her husband’s home. This is a particularly north Indian idea. These kinds of families are called ‘virilocal’, that is, the woman leaves her natal home forever once she is married. But other forms of the family have existed till well into the 20th century. For instance, in the Nair community of Kerala that I come from, till my grandmother’s generation we were matrilineal. A normal family for my grandmother was sisters and brothers living with the sister’s children, and these children’s fathers would continue to live with their sisters. It sounds odd, but it was perfectly natural. This form of family ended due to various legal interventions brought about by the British in partnership with the Nair male elite.

Even today, in Meghalaya, the Khasis have a form of matriliny where the youngest daughter inherits the property. She stays with her parents to look after them in their old age, and her husband joins her in that house.

The other aspect of the family, both legally and otherwise, is that it is hetero-normative, assuming heterosexuality to be the norm. A family can only be produced by a union of a man and a woman, and ‘his’ children. In matriliny, it didn’t matter who the children’s father was because the property passed from the mother to her children. I remember this amazing moment in the Hindi film Mrityudand -- Shabana Azmi and Madhuri Dixit are married to brothers; Shabana’s husband is impotent and everyone in the village knows this. She goes off and has an affair, and when she comes back to the house after a while she is visibly pregnant. Her sister-in-law Madhuri Dixit asks her in shock: “Didi, yeh kiska bacha hai?” (Whose child is this?) This question would make no sense in my matrilineal Nair community, because it is clearly her child, the baby is inside her body. It would only make sense in a patriarchal context, because the question is: ‘Which man’s child is this?’ ‘Which identity does the child bear?’ ‘If it’s a boy, whose property can he make a claim to?’

Shabana answers simply, “Mera” (Mine). This reply created quite a buzz in the audience!

It is to protect this idea that a family is a man, his children and his wife that women’s sexuality must be strictly controlled. You have to control a woman’s sexuality because the fact is, no man can ever know whether a child is his. A woman will know and a man can never know, not even with a DNA test, which can only tell you if the child is not yours, but if your DNA matches it only indicates a high statistical probability that it is your child. It is this knowledge that creates a permanent anxiety for patriarchy, and because of the fear of this, women’s sexuality has to be controlled.

The American feminist Adrienne Rich has used the term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to refer to this range of controls that keeps heterosexuality firmly in place as the only normal and natural way to be. By using this term ‘compulsory’ with ‘heterosexuality’, she is de-naturalising heterosexuality, making you recognise that it is reproduced as natural through a range of controls, from hegemonic to legal. The point is not that homosexuality is natural and heterosexuality is unnatural, or the other way around. All forms of love and desire are either natural or non-natural. They are produced in various kinds of ways and we ought to be able to recognise the fluidity of this.

This heterosexual patriarchal family is the basis for securing the dominant social order in India. How do you maintain the purity of caste if people are going to go off and have relationships and marriages with people from all kinds of castes? You have to maintain the dominant caste order, the dominant religious community identity, and the property. You have to make sure not only that men can pass on property to ‘their’ sons, but that a few families control most available property. As long as this utterly unjust institution of property and inheritance remains, equality is just an empty word.

So the family as it stands is key to maintaining the dominant social order.

Feminists have critiqued Valentine’s Day because in this particular construction only a particular kind of love story is a real love story, and of course that is a man-woman one. ‘Romance’ is supposed to be so uncontrollable, but it ends up being so appropriate to patriarchy. However, once we realised that the Hindu right-wing was seriously exercised about Valentine’s Day too, we did a reassessment: we also understood what the Hindu right perceives, correctly, to be the subversive potential of love. Because there is always at least the possibility that if you let love happen, you may fall in love with the wrong kind of person, of a different caste or community, or of the same sex. Then what happens to this institution of the family? How are you going to maintain a certain kind of politics based on community identities and caste identities if these identities are going to be dissolved? This is why the family has to be protected at all costs. When we are asked as feminists, do feminists want to destroy the family, earlier we used to say, ‘No’, but now I actually say, ‘Yes, we want to destroy the family as it exists today and it’s already happening. Look around you, look at the property disputes between father and sons, between brothers, the way in which marriages are breaking up’. There are ways in which people are already living their lives outside the frame, and as feminists we recognise that we need to support those groups. The family is being reconstructed, deconstructed and reconstituted all the time.

If the maintenance of this order ensures peace, then resisting the order leads to conflict. If you look at India today, you see different kinds of conflicts and different kinds of resistances. One is against the oppression of the family, which is everywhere. The khap panchayats of Haryana are killing their young people because young people are falling in love and eloping. So clearly, the resistance is coming from inside the community, not from outside it. Inside Haryana, there’s a huge resistance to these ways of controlling your life. That’s one kind of conflict. But there are two other kinds of conflict which you notice: the huge movement against land acquisition, in which the Indian state has been acquiring land, dispossessing communities from common property resources and transforming this common property into private property which is handed over to corporations. Once upon a time this was done for dams, so the state could pretend it was for the common good. But now it’s handed over straightaway to a corporate house. Take a roll call of names -- Nandigram, Singur, place after place in Chhattisgarh, Goa, these are conflict zones and there is resistance to the projects of the Indian state everywhere.

Now look at another set of resistances -- Kashmir, the Northeast. These conflict zones are resistance to the imperialist nationalism of the Indian nation, backed by its army. The Northeast and Kashmir are kept within this territory called India by the army, by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Now, in such a scenario, where you find different kinds of resistance to the project of the nation-state on the one hand, and to the project of social order on the other, when you find that at every level in society there are certain kinds of conflicts, what is the assumption behind linking women and peace?

An endless number of conferences are being held on ‘women and peace’, ‘women and conflict resolution’. This term ‘conflict resolution’ is another problematic term in this context. Because you cannot resolve a conflict unless you remove the inequality and injustice that underlies it. It is not a matter of getting you to sit and talk to each other; if one party is very powerful and the other completely powerless, you can’t expect them to resolve their conflict. So, sometimes conflicts have to be there. They should not be resolved. That conflict has to lead to a new order. Now, in such a scenario when you say ‘women and peace’ and ‘women and conflict resolution’, the assumption is actually the unquestioned sexual division of labour. Women are mothers, women are nurturing.

But I don’t think women have a very special role to play in conflict simply because they are women -- they can be combatants, they can be violent, they can want peace, they can want to resolve conflict; just like men, they too can have a range of roles. Nevertheless, I do want to bring to your notice that there is a way in which, in certain kinds of contexts, women use their conventional identity to be peace activists in quite creative ways. So, anthropologist Malathi de Alwis looks at the political formation called The Mother’s Front that emerged in Sri Lanka between 1990 and 1993. It had the membership of a huge grassroots movement and worked with 25,000 women, basically mothers who were protesting the disappearance of their sons and male relatives. For three years the Mother’s Front actively and creatively used its identity as mothers, presenting themselves in traditional ways as mothers who care, with maternal suffering, but using these ideas to make a mark in the public arena, subverting the idea of motherhood as private and individual. They may have been foregrounding maternal suffering but they were not sitting at home and suffering, they were marching on the streets, facing the Sri Lankan army. 
Women in Black in Latin America and many others have used and creatively played with this identity.

Eco-feminism also draws from the sexual division of labour and women’s productive role to make a link between ecological conservation and feminism. They point to the predominance of what they call a ‘masculinist ideology’ that structures the world, through which both nature and women are to be controlled, dominated and their productive capacities harnessed for economic goals. Vandana Shiva, for example, shows how both women and nature are thought to be passive by masculinist ideology, productive only if their energies are harnessed in a certain way. A forest is thought of as unproductive until it is planted with, let’s say, commercial woods like teak that you can cut and sell (the very term ‘natural resource’ suggests that a natural resource is for capitalism to yield profit). Shiva points out that its productivity is actually continuous and that we must understand it in other ways. It is preserving groundwater just by standing there. It’s replacing oxygen in the atmosphere, it is providing habitat for animal species, it is providing food and fuel for local inhabitants. So what eco-feminism tries to do is claim from masculinist ideology a radicalised notion of the feminine. These kinds of creative things can also be done.

If, in conclusion, we’re saying that justice and peace may not coincide, then nor do women and peace coincide in an obvious way. As feminists then, when we talk about women we have to see women as negotiating different forms of violence as well as participating in them. And whatever they do, they are exercising agency. They are exercising agency when they’re being violent, and they are exercising agency when they are resisting violence.

Let me close with four different images of women in contemporary India from four different conflict situations.

One image is from the violence against Muslims in Gujarat, in 2002. On television, on one of the news channels, Hindu women were laughing and chatting together in the winter sun on the terrace. They were smiling shyly at the camera as they made missiles and fire bombs with  everyday materials -- saris, dupattas, kerosene from their kitchens. They were making these missiles to be used on Muslims, just as they would have made papad or pickles together. This is one image of women in a conflict situation.

Another image is of the Maoist cadre. Tribal women clad in olive green, wearing their guns and carrying them proudly. Says Arundhati Roy about Comrade Kamala: “She’s 17, she wears a homemade pistol on her hip and boy, what a smile!” So that’s another image.

The third image is of Manipuri women marching militantly, naked, to Fort Kangla in Imphal, where the Indian army was at that time quartered, and they carry this banner, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. This was a protest against the rape and murder of a young woman by soldiers of the Indian army.

And finally Irom Sharmila who has not eaten for over 10 years, in a hospital, with a plastic tube up her nose -- she’s under arrest and being force-fed; she’s under arrest because she’s violating the law against suicide in this country. She is on a hunger strike and she will not eat until the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is repealed.

You have these four women in four different conflicts. The point is that women are not just some biological bodies that reproduce and so are nurturing and harmless. Women are located differently in different contexts -- caste, religious community, class, race -- and women respond politically, imaginatively, creatively, violently, peacefully, to different kinds of situations. We have to understand these situations, we have to understand these contexts, and we have to think about justice as something that may need disorder to bring about.

(Nivedita Menon is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is the author of several publications including Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004) and Power and Contestation: India After 1989 (2007, co-written with Aditya Nigam). Her latest book Seeing Like a Feministis forthcoming from Penguin. She is an active commentator on contemporary issues in academic journals, newspapers and on the blog kafila.org)

(This article is based on a lecture organised by CCDS-Open Space in Pune as part of the ‘Keeping the Peace’ series of lectures)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011