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The Patriarchal Prison

Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), founded in 1987 is a rural women’s organisation that works in the drought-prone villages of Purandar taluka of Pune district. For more than 25 years, through the formation of women’s collectives and through ongoing interventions in health, violence, individual and social justice, political participation and strengthening of constitutional and human rights from childhood onwards, MASUM has strived to create a progressive space for women, especially from the most marginalized and oppressed sections. 20 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were held over a period of six months (November 2008 to May 2009) with the rural staff of MASUM in order to identify the structures of caste, patriarchy and other intersecting systems of hierarchy and domination within the village microcosm. They helped to plot the nomenclature related to honour and power, the daily norms related to women’s behaviour, the gender-caste matrix, the loopholes and tensions within the matrix, and women’s agency in spite of strictures and censures.

The following is an excerpt from Codes of Daily Conduct : Patriarchal and Caste Honour in Rural Maharashtra (India), a research paper written by Dr. Manisha Gupte of MASUM. It is published in ‘Honour and Women’s Rights – South Asian Perspectives’ – a 2012 book published by MASUM and International Development Research Centre.


Local Nomenclature for Honour and Power

Honour is understood in multiple and distinct ways, depending on who is being referred to and the individual’s placement on the gender-caste matrix. Words denoting respectability, value, clout, capability, suitability and so on intrinsically belong to those in power within the village. In a word, it is the powerful that ‘possess’ honour. Gender, caste and class privilege lend these power-laden characteristics to a select few people in the village, resulting in dominant men intrinsically possessing honour and power. On the other hand, women as well as men from the khalche or subordinated groups do not possess intrinsic honour – words are linked to behaviour rather than honour; these deeply embedded terms denote shame, stigma, lack of decorum, low social status, low intelligence, being bereft of honour and so on. The construction of honour for the dispossessed groups, including women from upper groups is negative (shame rather than honour), not affirmative and is always questionable. This already fragile and elusive honour, being dependent on the perception of men from dominant sections can be easily lost through behaviour that is unacceptable to the latter. The Achilles’ heel of privileged men (who are otherwise endowed with intrinsic honour) is ‘inappropriate’ behaviour of their women, such as not being covered and segregated, or leaving the sanctum of the home. Deviation of women from expected behaviour within a traditional, respectable or highly placed family makes everyone lose honour, resulting in severe reprimands of sullying the name and public face (‘cutting the nose’, ‘blackening the face’) of the family. Older women from Maratha families reported that they were not allowed to speak publicly; to walk through the main village with their footwear on or with uncovered heads; talk or interact with men of the lower groups; eat in village meals; watch a tamasha (folk-theatre) or a wrestling match, nor indulge in any non-religious recreation in the village. Thus, not only do women lack intrinsic honour but they are also responsible through their behaviour for loss of honour of dominant men. Whatever little honour women possess is dependent on their family status and to socially sanctioned behaviour, most of which is restrictive and subservient to the family and kinship network. When a woman tries to make a life for herself, she loses her izzat, laaj, aabroo; in fact, a woman’s power or agency deprives her of honour.

Any transgression or deviation from the binaries of gender roles or norms (Niranjana 2004; Connell 2009) is also considered dishonorable, provoking contempt and name calling. Women giving eye contact, speaking in public or laughing and talking loudly are considered ‘masculine’; when they walk unrestrained or jauntily, swinging hips or breasts they are considered shameless. Men who help around the home are ridiculed while those that look effeminate, do not or cannot get married or cannot bear children are called eunuchs. The term hizda (meaning intersexual or castrated male) is synonymously used for ‘effeminate’ men and for ‘masculine’ women, marking both as ‘neither men nor women’ (Jaffry 1998). In a way the labelling of effeminate men as shameful and of masculine women as shameless exposes people’s acknowledgment of the unrealistic nature of compact gender binaries.

Othering is an essential component of group identity with respect to honour because it is only in contrast with someone else (what Stewart 1994, calls ‘honor groups’) that one’s distinctive identity (and brand of honour) can be constructed. Women’s behaviour, both sexual and non-sexual is central to the construction and reproduction of group honour. Loss of honour for the dominant castes can result merely by the suggestion of being blood-related to those who are lower on the hierarchy. constructed. Insinuations or swear-words that denote being conceived of subordinated groups through the mother’s indiscretions, being called kaartey (orphan, also meaning ‘of indeterminate parentage’) or bandgul (parasite, as in ‘another’s child growing in your home’) are considered serious insults.

FGD participants identified numerous local words for power, some of them being identical to those used for honour. They relate to solid economic or political power and advantage, enjoyment of political connections, access to already influential persons or institutions and with the backing of kinship networks bringing infinite favours. Such power can then be used to consolidate further power by winning elections, to manipulate women’s sexuality, terrorise and even to outsource murders. Local leaders can usher in dictatorship due to their close connection with highly placed politicians, whereby they can deny access to basic resources or exclude anyone within the village for not abiding by their diktats. Their fearsome surveillance and control can wield strong pressure over the entire community.

Local goons and merchants possess ‘muscle power’ which they use to show off their might and to dominate or gain control over their caste groups. Most women elected representatives have power only on paper; in reality their husbands rule in their name. Within the home they are still ordered around and have to accept the superiority of men, especially in sexual matters. Women, especially from the lower groups may be given temporary status (such as making them sit on the stage) when they become elected representatives but their participation in decision-making or their authority to implement programmes will never be considered. In addition, women representatives from ‘lower’ caste groups are also expected to accept the superiority of women that hail from dominant castes or politically powerful families.

Within the domestic sphere, men’s control over their assets is indisputable. They acquire private ownership over children, wife, wealth, money, home and vehicles and have rightful claim over these through inheritance. Though rich families have a status within the caste and religion, women within their households have to live under bondage and bear violence because their ‘coming out’ affects the family’s esteem and status.


Daily Codes of Honour

Ubiquitous codes of behaviour govern women’s every action, thought, speech, posture and clothing; in fact, women’s very existence is stringently governed by omniscient signs and signals. Since honour is a public phenomenon (Stewart 1904), it does not matter what a woman is or who she thinks she is what matters in material and ideological terms is how everyone else sees her and what they imagine her to be. ‘Free’ (modern/loose) women who earn a decent wage, or single women pose severe threats to the patriarchal order and thus, mobile women (leaving the neighbourhood or village to study or work) are understandably considered a threat to family honour. They are derided with expletives such as ‘one who is given away to a temple’, ‘not under any one man’s control’, ‘without husband or keeper’, or an aimlessly wandering woman (gavbhavani) or cow (gaavjaani). The term raand is used synonymously for ‘widowed woman’ and ‘prostitute’. Codes of conduct become especially strict with night-travel, thus if a woman comes home late or goes out in the night, her ibhrat is severely affected. A married woman living in her natal home is compared to ‘cattle without a leash’; uncontrolled, ready to meander into any pasture.

Women’s appearance in the public domain is restricted by the threat of severe damage to their reputation. Making a speech or submission in a public meeting can render women without laaz, whereas going out with head uncovered makes the whole family lost their aabroo. An improperly covered woman from a dominant caste is compared to a man who ‘loafs around displaying his penis on his shoulder.’ However, disdain but no surprise is expressed when a lower group woman does not cover her head. It is accepted that she will behave like ‘her own caste.’ As a balutedar ‘who has no worth or credit’ and being bereft of honour, she is not expected to behave with decorum.

Only ‘honourable’ women need to be well-behaved and thus are constantly reminded to behave with restraint. Sexual slurs for Maratha women, suggestive of their perceived desire for multiple husbands ‘like the balutedar women’ are commonly noted, indicating that women’s life-long monogamy is an important and idealized aspect of defining upper group honour.

Women’s sexuality is the weakest link in patriarchy’s chain because after all, in spite of the careful crafting of patrilineality, the fact that motherhood is certainty and fatherhood a matter of speculation or faith remains. That ‘fields are lost through laziness and homes through extra-marital progeny’ is a proverb that depicts the constant and nagging fears in men’s minds.

Fearing fatal subversion of patrilineality through a woman’s sexual ‘misdemeanors’, relentless and obsessive control over her sexuality is exercised through life-long monogamy, and exclusive male ownership and patronage. Any woman that seemingly does not fall in line faces stigma and suspicion, and her behaviour can raise doubt about the paternity of her sons to whom her husband’s property will be passed on. Participants reported that if a woman got pregnant for the first time after the age of 35, it was sufficient to raise doubt about her fidelity to her husband. Widowed or deserted women wearing a bindi (Hindu marriage sign) or flowers in their hair create speculations about whom they may be wearing them for, with comments such as ‘who could her vaali (protector, owner) be?’ The worth of a woman deserted by her husband is rendered questionable, whereas a woman married for the second time is not welcome when co-habiting women are invited for traditional gatherings or meals around auspicious events.

The collective izzat of the village is lost if any woman has multiple sexual relations. She may be thrown out of the village to prevent people’s ‘sons from getting spoilt’. Daughters and daughters-in-law are discouraged or forbidden from visiting the homes of women where many men are seen visiting. If they do, they are reprimanded for publicly destroying the izzat of the family. A man’s multiple relations are acceptable to society just because he is male (purush, nar) but if a woman as much as speaks to a man, a romantic or sexual relation is assumed and she is labelled as promiscuous. Considering it her fault for ‘encouraging’ or ‘provoking’, the man is forgiven by saying that ‘he’s a male after all, but does not she have any sense?’ Women repeatedly encounter sexual commentary of their clothing or nubile body structure from men and boys, including loud declarations of explicit sexual desire. However, men do not lose honour by saying these but women do, simply upon hearing these or by having such things said about them. Being endowed with honour ‘as fragile as glass’, a woman’s actions have the potential to bring instant and permanent dishonour to her family and husband.

Married couples, especially younger ones are also governed by strict codes of conduct, with the bride bearing the greater brunt. Elders maintain strict control over newly married couples in order to prevent their bonding as a dyad, as that could result in them leaving the extended family or kinship network. Affection or intimacy between young couples is strictly discouraged. If a young couple chats or sits next to each other, or if a young wife serves her husband food when older women are present at home, she is scolded with ‘Didn’t we ever have husbands? Don’t you know how to behave in public?’

Similarly, the bride is considered to have abandoned her laaj and aabroo if the young couple stays in bed until sunrise. Her family and especially her mother come up for criticism for not having schooled her into propriety. A new bride that doesn’t touch people’s feet, doesn’t address even the youngest of the in-law with respectful terminology, and who is not adequately hospitable is considered to be without decorum. A young wife in a subordinated caste who prefers to work inside the home rather than do agricultural work is derisively taunted with: ‘Does she consider herself a bamnin (Brahmin woman)?’ It is interesting how being compared to the ‘other’ can become an insult among dominant as well as subordinated castes, with each perceiving the other is doing lesser and inferior work.

If prestigious families (such as Deshmukh Marathas) don’t bring in brides from equally high-status homes, many relatives may boycott the wedding and the family faces stigma for years or even generations. A Maratha household therefore loses tremendous izzat when their son marries a balutedar girl; with the family wailing ‘Couldn’t he have found someone better?’ ‘He’s gone under the Mahar-Chambhars’ or ‘Who knows what the quality and the caste-purity of the future progeny will be!’ The groom’s immediate family loses even more honour and status within their bhaavki (kinship) if they accept the alliance. The bride’s family doesn’t get any respect during such a wedding.

They don’t lose face within the balutedars but they may become vulnerable to violence from the dominant castes. The other families may inwardly envy them for their suddenly exalted social status but they also might worry about economic, social, cultural community from the dominant caste. For that reason, some of them may outwardly distance themselves from the wedding party. The bride’s family may either forego an ostentatious splay of gaiety to avoid displeasure of the dominant groups or may go out of their way to put up a show that is worthy of the groom’s status in the village.

An immediate family may be ostracized whenever its member chooses a spouse on his/her own the severity of chastisement depending upon the caste, sub-caste or family status of the intended spouse’s family. In most instances, a girl wanting to marry outside the caste is met with disgust and rage from her family. The emasculation of the entire honour group is evident in questions such as ‘Didn’t we have a sexual organ?’ or ‘Is their penis made of gold?’ The concept of honour not as a personal entitlement but as being collectively owned helps explain the collective frenzy of the kinship seeking revenge and retribution. The family is perceived to be the victim of the couple’s selfishness; thus exile, disinheritance or physical elimination of the uncontrolled woman or couple becomes justifiable in the eyes of the larger kinship that steps in if the immediate family is not perceived to be doing enough on its own to restore its honour (Stewart 1994; Wikan 2008). In such a case, the family may be directed to stay out of everyone’s way, or the family may voluntarily stop interacting with the broader caste and kinship network due to shame and dishonor

Further, a single transgressor can pull the rest of the group into the mire of dishonor (such as reducing the chances of finding honorable spouses for the other members) unless he is exiled from the collective or eliminated altogether (Wikan 2008). While murders have not been reported in the field-work area, the transgressing couple may not be allowed to enter the family homes for months or years because they are seen to have acted irresponsibly and without concern regarding the fallout on the elders and the kinship. Most couples understand the seriousness of the exile diktat since they know the codes and norms of their culture (Wikan 2008) and stay away, at least from the elders until they are ‘forgiven’. It is usually after the birth of child and many tearful telephone conversations that the exile may be lifted, with some immediate family members visiting the couple, at first surreptitiously and later (after the kinship has thawed) more openly. The fact that youngsters are not hunted down or killed by the kinship may be due to the absence of caste-based panchayats (such as the khap panchayats in Northern India) among the dominant castes in western Maharashtra, urban migration, some familiarity of legal consequences and fragmentation of the joint family. The percolation of urban influences into rural areas from adjoining big cities may have resulted in a semblance of cosmopolitanism and grudging acceptance of the fact that kinship cannot do much in the case of inter-caste marriages or elopements except disenfranchise or ostracize the transgressors.

When a boy from a subordinated caste elopes with a girl from the dominant caste, his family privately says, ‘We have not lost anything! It’s their nose that got cut.’ The honour of the groom’s family is not compromised in a hypogamous marriage, leading to a bride from an ‘upper’ caste being eventually accepted in the lower home. However, a bride from a subordinated caste or class is never fully accepted and she is likely to face humiliation and rejection within the private domain of her in-law for many years. On the other hand, a man marrying a girl above his station is more likely to face violence and retribution in the public domain, usually from the bride’s kinfolk.


Manisha Gupte