From Madras HC comments on mangalsutra to an investigation in Karnataka, a disturbing view of women emerges
Recently, two connected media reports – on attitudes towards women, marriage and domesticity – allow us to reflect on the special nature of gender relations at a time of increasing public visibility for women. The first concerns observations of the Madras High Court concerning the “correct” behavior of women with regard to a symbol of marriage (the mangalsutra or necklace) and the second concerns a survey aimed at assessing attitudes towards gender in the context of the new national education policy (NEP) in Karnataka.
Commenting on the case of an estranged couple, the Madras High Court noted that the wife’s removal of the mangalsutra from her body amounted to “mental cruelty” towards her husband. The mangalsutra, the court continued, is not removed until the death of the husband. Regarding the survey of teachers, students and parents in Karnataka, two conclusions stand out. First, the overwhelming belief that childcare is the responsibility of women and, second, that they condone domestic violence for the “good” of the family. Responses to the second aspect seem to suggest not only observations about “what is happening”, but also about “what should be happening”.
The gender of institutions—courts, bureaucracies, schools, civic associations, etc. — is not much discussed and yet it is fundamental both for the circulation of ideas about women, men and those of other genders. Beyond the immediate rationale for the High Court’s observations (that the husband should be able to obtain a divorce), there are broader issues related to institutional attitudes towards gender roles and relationships.
Since there are no specific requirements that men must wear marriage symbols, making the connection between abandoning the mangalsutra and the death of the husband normalizes ideas about inequality in family relationships. A wife inflicts mental cruelty on her husband by rejecting the mangalsutra—his “social” death—because (observations would seem to suggest) a wife’s main task is to be a good wife and to display the symbols of domesticity. Men, on the other hand, are not subject to such an obligation and the “well-being” of their wives does not depend on their behavior. Given the deference that is both demanded of – and offered to – institutions, institutional statements that reinforce gender disparities are particularly unfortunate.
It is not surprising that the NEP-related survey in Karnataka has generated opinions suggesting that a very large cross-section of society believes that women’s primary role is that of wives and mothers (or, at least , that they should combine this with other aspirations) and that domestic violence should be tolerated for the “good” of the family. For ideas about what is “good” for the family (and, by extension, society), which emanate from powerful institutions and their officials, find fertile ground much more quickly than those from other sources. Considered as “above” society, the courts enjoy a superior position in the hierarchy of institutions. They are frequently, though erroneously, seen as guiding social mores, rather than reflecting them and, just as frequently, as reinforcing them.
The relationship between a society and its institutions is special: the attitudes housed in the latter are only pieces in the greater mansion of social life. However, we assume that the room is outside the house. And not only that he stands out, but that the relationship between him and the house must be one where the first shapes the second. However, just as significantly, this has never been the case: if institutions have adopted changed attitudes towards gender, for example, it is because of outside influences, including activism and academic research and writing. The remarks of the High Court of Madras and the attitudes of the actors of the school in Karnataka testify to a breakdown in this relationship, which is crucial for any social change.
Perhaps it is the hardening of an attitude that increasingly coalesces around the idea that institutions of all kinds are sacrosanct – and any criticism of their functioning is disrespect for society. and the nation – which is at the heart of thinking that rooms are homes in themselves. Or that, in the melee of social change that is among us – where, for example, there is evidence that the aspirations of young women are changing – some institutions become sites of protection for older power structures. In either case, if it is change we are looking for, rather than a chimera of change – where men can marry “modern” women who have to both work and take care of the house – then we have to think about the gender of the institutions.
What is the default gender of our institutions and what might that mean for the house we live in? And how do we change—if that’s what we want to do—the masculinity of institutions? One aspect of the media coverage of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka stories that becomes sadly clear is that while the discourse is about women, it is not really about women at all. It is their duties and the fact of their definition by the duties. Their duties are to their families, sons, husbands and society. And, in a strange twist, while the courts are seen as standing above society, in the views expressed by society (and reflected in the Karnataka survey), women are seen as below. from her. Their role is not to benefit from social life but to ensure that others benefit from it by contributing to a social well-being which excludes them. They should occupy a part of the house that is open to all the elements.
The writer teaches at SOAS University of London