Saturday, September 10, 2011

Evolutionary theory of Patriarchy

Patriarchy has always surprised me. Why should one gender class, the females surrender almost everything at the feet of males? Was it always like this? Is it changing? Let me try to find some answers.

There is no definite evidence to show when Patriarchy originated, or whether it was present even before Homo sapiens were evolved. Many other animals including many of the non-human primates exhibit patriarchy. But many other species of both primates and non-primates do not exhibit patriarchy. This shows that as different species evolved differently they adhered to different systems regarding Gender relations.
 As per evolutionary anthropology there is a natural selection of behaviour which gives the species maximum survival benefit.
In case of early Homo sapiens specialisation into a section  who hunt and a section which do not hunt but only gather food is an important change from rest of primates which helped in its survival. The human baby needed adult care and support for a long time compared to other species. This meant many of the women were not available for going out to hunt. Also the increased physical strength exhibited by males might have been more suitable for hunting. Thus hunting more or less became the domain of males while child rearing and gathering the domain of females.
 Many believe that compared to most other species humans exhibit the strongest male to male bonding. This might have been the result of group hunting of large animals several times the size of humans. At the same time humans show the least female to female bonding. May be the way of life of a gatherer might have been to see a competition in every one else.
As the hunter-gatherer society evolved, incest taboo that prevents sexual act between close relatives resulted in females going out to join other groups. Many of the non human primates shows same behaviour,though in some others it is the males who go out of the parental group.

Why women went out and not men? Is this again because of the strong male to male bonding in humans?
 In most of the primates where females go out of their parental group (chimpanzees,hamadrayas baboons), patriarchy is very strong. One reason for this is it is difficult for the new-comer female to make any sort of bonding with females of her adopted group.

In contrast in some species, females remain in their birth communities their whole lives. Here females  form alliances against aggressive males. Vervet monkeys  macaques, olive baboons, patas and rhesus monkeys are examples for this 'female bonding' . Thus in these species the males behave with much more respect towards females.

As human society developed from hunter-gatherer system to cultivation and feudalism patriarchy became stronger. Surplus wealth created had to be transferred to off springs. But if it had to be given to girls who go out of the house in marriage also,it meant  diluting of the family wealth. So a male only inheritance was developed for the survival advantage of the family as a unit but at a distinct disadvantage to females.

 Why females agreed to this?  By then men had almost complete control over tools for production of wealth like land,agricultural implements, weapons,domestic animals etc. It was also men who went out to wage war to capture more land and slave labourers.Women  might have perceived that their interests is best served through alliances with men, not with other women.

 Feudalism was slowly replaced by Capitalism due to the scientific revolution and advent of mass production of goods. Joint families got disbanded as they could not survive the new economic system.  Women who were small scale producers of goods with in the joint family system became either confined to household work or had to go out to work in factories. As production became more and more mechanised the importance of physical strength in production diminished. But still women who did the same work as men were under paid by the Capitalists.  Thus even though Capitalism helped in reducing gender discrimination by allowing women to sell their labour in the market, it was at a lower wage and  the unpaid house work and child rearing still remained the sole responsibility of women. When ever family needed more of her unpaid work, she had to sacrifice her paid work.

 Change in economic system to Capitalism also resulted in change in political system. More and more Nation states were formed and monarchies were replaced by democratic system of  governance. Initially only the rich men were able to contest or even  vote. Great struggles by working classes and women forced the ruling capitalists to allow universal franchise.  Legislators passed many gender sensitive laws.
 Thus now in most of the countries legally there is not much gender discrimination. Even there are positive discrimination for women in many ways. But still women are discriminated widely in the society though much less than before.
 Study of animals shows us that female to female alliances and alliance with like minded oppressed males are important in creating more egalitarian societies.
  Let us hope that such an alliance of oppressed classes can create not only a gender-equitable but also a social-equitable society in near future.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Untold stories of Antharjanams

"Antharjanam- Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman" is an unique book by several counts.

 It is a translation from Malayalam,of a collection of memoirs of a woman's life in a Namboodiri family,the upper cast,brahmin landlords of Kerala, during 1920s and 30s It is written by Devaki Nilayamgode who started writing at 75th year of her life. She never had any formal education. But still she was able to recreate history of her childhood in simple words.

    Story of Namboodiris is in many ways the story of power and decay of Patriarchy. Only the eldest son was allowed marriage with women of same cast. He can marry many women too.The rest of the males had a loose marital relationship called 'sambandham'with women of lower caste,the Kshatriyas or Nairs. The pupose of this rule is to ensure that the wealth of the family is consolidated,not divided. Thus many Namboodiri girls were forced to marry elderly men,while many others could not find a spouse. The children born of sambandham were not allowed inside the homes of their fathers or even to eat with them.

Devaki Nilayamgode begins the book like this:

"I am a 75 year old antharjanam [Namboodiri woman] from Nilayamgode Illam..........Achan was 68 when I was born, I was his 12th child. During Amma's next confinement,Achan passed away.....I do not remember seeing Achan."

 This matter of fact style using simple words is seen throughout the book.

About her birth she writes:

" In those days birth of a girl in illams was not considered auspicious. As soon as a woman became pregnant there were special poojas for a baby boy.If the child was a boy,the servants ullulated and announced the happy event. If a girl the irrikkanammas conveyed the news with soft knocks on the door and muted whispers.. I was born on .......... . There were no joyous shouts that day,only soft knocks on doors."

Even though Namboodiris were rich landlords, children, especially girls were a neglected lot. How feudal Patriarchy treats them is clearly illustrated by Devaki Nilayamgode here.

 "When breast milk was not available, children were not given cow's milk.This was not becasue of shortage at the illam,in fact there was plenty of it......Milk thus collected was never meant for children.It was used to make ghee in which lamps were lit at the temple and to make buttermilk to prepare Kalan, a curry served at feasts in the illam. A small amount of ghee is stored away to serve Namboodiris[men] at lunch...... at night when little children cried of hunger they were given a gulp of butter milk.That was the nature of child care in those days.Everyone believed that the light of the ghee lamps glowing in the temple was enough to ensure the children's health and prosperity."

 The author describes the cruel neglect of her ailing younger sister that lead to her death like this:

 "Amma [by that time a widow],forced her eldest son to inform the men of the family about her daughter's condition. Ettan reluctantly approached the Namboodiris who had assembled in the hall for their banter with her request for medical assistance.In reply they laughed at him and passed caustic remarks. He returned unsuccessful to her."

The fact that girls born of sambandam, though of lower caste lke Kshatriyas and Nairs, enjoyed more comforts than Namboodiri girls living in shackles of patriarchy is well illustrated by this passage:

" After lunch, Subhadra and Bharathi [cousins of the author though borne off a Nair woman] came to the illam..... For us their very presence was a source of perpetual wonderment.They had knee length hair,wore colorful blouses,and zari bordered mundu with an upper cloth,plenty of gold ornaments and perfume as well.
It was on seeing them that we girls suddenly became aware of our own uncouth appearance.My elder sister was almost as old as Bharathi,but how different she looked.Her hair was not properly brushed.She did not wear a blouse,had neither a zari bordered mundu nor any jewellery.....
 But what overwhelmed me was something else. They lifted my younger sister and me onto their laps and embraced and caressed us.Until then no one had touched or caressed me like that.Amma never did such a thing.The situation was same in all illams--children were never fondled.Fathers very rarely saw their daughters...... In fact in those days it was considered wrong to give special attention to one's children."

The in human way widows were treated is dealt by the author like this:

"Nothing was considered a greater sign of misfortune than the sight of a widow. It was believed that the husband's death was caused by the ill-fated allignment of stars in the wife's horoscope.So widow was guilty of a criminal act from the moment of his death......Perhaps it was the horrifying  state in that widows lived that prompted all the women's prayers,poojas and fasts for the longevity of their husband."

Devaki Nilayamgode do not lose sight of the prevalence of oppressive caste system. Though Antharjanams had a difficult lives amidst the rich upper class illams , the poor lower caste servants had no respite from humiliation from the Namboodiris. Here is a description of a feast were food is given to lower caste woman-servants.

'When antharjanams had eaten,it was the turn of the helpers waiting hungrily outside to be called for lunch.......What awaited them inside were the used and dirty banana leaves on which the half-eaten food of the antharjanams still lay spattered.Some would turn the leaves over so as to have their rice and curry served on the 'clean' side,only to find that the dust from the several feet traversing the floor of dry cow dung paste was stuck to the reverse........The servings were generous,of same quality as given to others. But the only stipulation was they had to eat of used banana leaves......... I always wish that these women were served on at least a torn piece of a clean leaf.........I wish now that I had had the sense to voice my protest,especially when I remember that one of those dirty leaves was indeed mine."

Marriage in those days was always a surprise shock to the girls. Nilayamgode's was no exception.

" My wedding took place when I was 15. However I learned of it only 2 days before it happened.Usually it was the maid who informed the girl. The servant invariably had no idea about either the groom or his house, and the bride herself found out only after the ceremony....

 Any doubt of infidelity is met by the punishment of excommunication of antharjanam. The Namboodiri involved is also punished similarly. Kuriyedathu Thaatri was an antharjanam who was ex communicated like this along with 65 prominent Namboodiris whom she named.

Nilayamgode mentions those events like this:

"They [antharjanams] mentioned her name in low frightened tones. Today when I look back,I wonder: didn't those poor antharjanams derive a mysterious sense of joy,satisfaction,and energy in repeating Thaatri's story endlessly? In their stories Thatri was always to blame. She was the fallen woman who had enticed and insulted great Namboodiris as well as Vedic teachers. But beneath the tone of accusations, I also detected a note of unconscious appreciation of Thaatri."

The author concludes her writing fully realising that the end of feudalism was a blessing.

"On looking back,I find little similarity between my present day life and the childhood I spend in my illam.How much and how fast things have changed! I can emphatically say that life today is better than ever before."

This book is an important work of social history. It illustrates how ill and primitive was our society just a few decades ago. The magnitude of gender/caste oppression in feudalism is clearly made out in this simple narrative. There is not much anger or self pity in the way of writing,but that makes this book more worthy of reading.