It’s time to banish benign patriarchy of protecting sisterly honour & chastity, writes KAVITA KRISHNAN

Aug 19, 2013 No Comments by
The ideology of masculine protectiveness of their women-folk, especially sisters, has deep cultural roots and emotive power. The North Indian festival of ‘raksha bandhan,’ where the sister ties a ‘rakhi’ (a band or string signifying the bond between sister and brother) to her brother, who in return for her sacred gesture of sisterly love, pledges to protect her. Brotherly protectiveness of sisters, invariably, involves avenging her sexual violation – a notion that stretches to include ‘protecting’ her from unwanted emotional and sexual entanglements. The brother derives status, prestige and ‘honour’ from his ability to protect his sister. This ‘honour’ is both personal and also shared and reinforced by the family/community. And the sister owes her brother a duty to safeguard her own chastity, on which rests his honour. If she compromises her chastity (and his honour, which in turn is linked to the collective masculine honour of the family/community) by exercising her autonomous choice of husband, or marrying outside prescribed caste/community norms, he is socially sanctioned, even expected, to forcibly prevent or avenge this loss of honour.
The bond between brothers and sisters, or the filial duties of daughters towards fathers, are not always experienced as coercive. The ‘raksha bandhan’ ceremony is one in which many women take great pride. The brother ‘needs’ a sister to protect, as much as the sister needs his protection. This bond of benign patriarchy is strained only when the sister exercises sexual and/or economic autonomy: making self-choice marriages or marrying outside prescribed norms, or demanding her legal share in land and ancestral property.
In most Indian cultures, across castes and communities, the young adult woman is viewed as a ward, an asset (paraya dhan – wealth that belongs to another) kept in trust for a future owner, that must be handed over sexually un-violated and ‘innocent’ to her husband. Therefore the daughter/sister is loved, adored, in her natal family, but hedged about by anxiety about her chastity, innocence, and sexual purity.
Why does this anxiety about control of the daughter’s sexuality prevail to a large degree even in the labouring classes and castes, even where transfer of property around a legitimate line may not be a big factor? One answer is that marriage strictures (laying down the prescriptions and prohibitions for who you can and cannot marry) are also crucial to maintaining caste purity, and for maintaining control over the smooth transfer of community assets and caste identity. Rape and violation of women of the oppressed castes by the upper castes is one of the many forms of caste domination and privilege. When these communities resist oppression and assert their identity, fighting feudal sexual exploitation is central to such struggles. But this sense of identity can also bring with it an assertion of a sense of patriarchal ‘honour’, and a need to control women when they seek to forge sexual relationships outside these oppressed castes.
For the women’s movements against sexual violence, consciously rejecting and challenging this ideology of patriarchal protection is not just a discursive gesture, or a nod to political correctness. It reflects the very necessary understanding of the fact that the same ideological framework and sexual politics underwrites sexual violence as well as everyday social subjugation of and violence against women. If we continue to raise the slogan of ‘suraksha’, we have to take pains to inscribe, and popularize, radical interpretations of this term, rather than fall back on its common sense connotations.
One way to do so might be to assert women’s demand for ‘suraksha’ (security – economic and social) in her own right, rather than as a female dependant on a masculine provider/protector. We could demand steps to ensure that woman’s security is not contingent on marriage (i.e the exchange of women’s sexual and reproductive labour for survival). The State, therefore has an obligation to ensure that women have access to remunerative work, equality and rights at the workplace, crèche facilities, as well as rights over land, and other resources, in order to create a material environment that promotes and nurtures women’s autonomy and assertion. If this were done, women would also be better placed to resist the multi-faceted coercion and violence they face in daily lives.
It is important to distinguish such measures from what passes for ‘empowerment’ in the neoliberal framework. Avenues of employment and survival promoted by the State exploit, rather than challenge, the existing social subordination of women. For instance, women employed in the ASHA/anganwadi rural health schemes run by the Government and World Bank, are paid a mere ‘honorarium’; women’s unpaid labour in the household is being extended to the workplace, similarly masked by the patriarchal ideology of women’s selfless service to family/society. Microfinance schemes, too, exploit the notion that women make more reliable candidates for loans, because they are less mobile and therefore less likely to abscond, and are more vulnerable to peer pressure and ‘shaming’ tactics in case of failure to repay loans.
The State’s job cannot begin and end with policing, either. It must be obligated to provide truly effective shelters that provide support for the survivor of violence. At present, there is a great paucity for any shelters, and existing shelters at best treat the survivor like a jail inmate, and at worst, are themselves places where women are vulnerable to systematic abuse (as the Arya Orphanage case and the case of baby Falak and her teenage companion tragically indicate). A sojourn in such shelters would only reinforce a survivor’s sense of helplessness and lack of options, rather than providing any effective possibility of autonomy from the household which in many cases has been one of the sites of abuse and violence.
A similar self-reflexivity is called for when the women’s movement demands ‘samman’, or ‘izzat’; whereby we have to find ways to distinguish our demand that women’s dignity and sense of equality and individuality be acknowledged, from the common sense notions of ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ (closely linked to notions of female chastity and virtue) that are hegemonic in society. ‘Respect’ for women, as defined in the terms of hegemonic patriarchy, is not a respect for women as equal being enjoying rights as individuals on par with men. Instead, it is contingent on women’s embrace of the norms of ‘good womanhood’ as defined by patriarchy.
(The author is National Secretary AIPWA -All-India Progressive Women’s Association)

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