Friedrich Engels, in his classic work, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), argued how the emergence of private property necessitated the institution of monogamous marriage, since it enabled the owner to know for certain who his “legitimate” inheritor would be. Engels also showed how within this new form of familial economics, the first class system emerged; the husband came to be the owner, and the wife a form of slave chattel.
With the advent of Christianity, a new stigma came to be attached to the woman. She it was who, in the Garden of Eden, had first succumbed to the temptation of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – one forbidden by God. Adam, the first man, and Eve’s companion, only did the eating out of sheer chivalry, just to be on her side (laudable for that reason). This “origin” of woman’s “frailty” was to ensure that the earliest she got the right to vote was in New Zealand in 1893; only much later, in 1928 in “Great Britain.”
Here in India that right may well have accrued to her coterminously with all others after our political Independence from colonial rule, but think of this: what still prevails in many minds is the sanatan construct – voiced just the other day on television by a saffron-clad sadhu, till recently a member of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan Cabinet in Madhya Pradesh, but now disgruntled – that politics is the wife and dharma the husband, where the latter must always have pride of place in order to keep politics, the wife, from straying. A veritable theory of state and governance.
One recalls that Gandhi too mistrusted any politics that was not informed by dharma (ethics) but thankfully in his case there was no articulation of the gendering of the idea.
I have often asked my Muslim friends why it is that in Islamic practice, marriage between man and woman is a mutually-agreed contract, but that the right to divorce should be exclusively that of the husband. Often the first bright response to the question tends to be that this right is given to the wife as well, called ‘khula’, until it transpires that she cannot exercise such a right without the consent of the husband – rather a curious circumstance in which she must seek permission of the oppressor to be free of his oppression. As the conversation then proceeds to the rationale for instant triple talaq: we are told that it is, among other things, a deterrent to keep an erring wife from erring: and when erring, to show her the door. Notice that in hardly any system of religious faith do men ever err; they only exercise the privilege of being masters.
How deeply internalised some of these founding formulations can be is evidenced, for example, by the gala reception, full of flowers and confetti, accorded in Jalandhar to the Bishop recently accused of rape, and out on bail.
So look where you will, gender equality remains still a goal – one whose attainment alone may after all make us fully human.
Apropos the piling of MeToo revelations, look at what a minister of state, Radhakrishnan, has just opined: that these sorts of revelations “corrupt the purity of the land” and indeed “discredit the honour of women”. Referring to such instances a sort of “play” among children of school age, Radhakrishnan, by inference, sees neither oppression nor criminality attaching to the harassment of women by men who exercise power over them. Understandably; after all, the organised political spaces of India must be as full of such “play” as other work-places, although revelations there may be harder to come.
Extrapolated to the imbroglio at Sabarimala, a woman respondent has succinctly commented “The Supreme Court can say what it likes, but men will be men and women women.” Thus does an ingrained patriarchy, often more forcefully among women than men, collapse history uncomplicatedly back into the argument from “nature.” Think that the only female judge on the Supreme Court Bench which delivered the Sabarimala verdict asserting the right of women of all ages to visit the shrine thought it fit to dissent.
The continuing contention at the Sabarimala shrine site, or enroute to it, underscores an interesting duality of our days; where the Supreme court has in recent months delivered one progressive watershed judgement after another – designating the right to privacy a fundamental right, denying any free-wheeling mandatory use of citizen’s biometric identity, decriminalising homosexual and transgender relationships, decriminalising extra-conjugal relationships, delegitimising instant triple talaq – vast sections of Indian society, not excluding very literate ones, seem patently unready to embrace a liberated and equitous future.
But the fact that such thinking seems now ascendant among those incharge of interpreting the Constitution of India, gives heart to vanguards who now have at least one State institution to back their work to bring human rights in India up to respectable international standards, especially at a time when the Executive particularly offers little hope.
Let us make no mistake: the MeToo movement is not about to be rolled back. This advanced genie is now squarely out of the bottle and slated to drive other progressive movements across the polity, as well as cumulatively oblige the State to yield space to more assertively democratic forms of social life, coterminous with more responsive State initiatives, willy-nilly.
Indeed, a Google MeToo map shows that women in the Indian hinterland are now expressing a desire to join in with the MeToo movement – early evidence that the movement could soon become a tsunami of sorts.
What the honourable Supreme Court must now consider – reconsider – is the regressive and chilling effect of the laws of criminal defamation. Having been dropped from the jurisprudence of most evolved democracies, it is time it likewise went out of date in Indian juridical life.
Just a thought that men, even devout men, who despicably force themselves on unwilling women might consider in this Dusshera-Diwali festival period: although Ravana held Sita captive, he did not once touch her because he did not have her consent.
Badri Raina taught English literature at Delhi University.
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