Newsletter Sep 2011 - Apr 2012

This August, Saheli completed 30 years of its existence - a period broadly paralleled by journeys of many groups and individuals, and indeed the women’s movements in India. After the high emotional quotient of the last few months – devastated by fire and resurrected by the solidarity and love shown by so many individually and organisationally – we thought it was time to come back to the basics. So, we organised a discussion on 16 September 2011, on one of the most contentious and most common forms of social organising: the family, based on marriage.

Is there no escaping the family? As feminists, even though we are aware and critical of how oppressive family and marriage as institutions are to most women, we find that our campaigns, legal and otherwise, keep centering around the family in order to protect women, decrease vulnerabilities and negotiate for more space/rights, etc. within its structure.

While there are compelling reasons to make these interventions, they have been far from enough to change many ground realities. Women still live in/are conditioned to tolerate violent homes, marital and natal; women’s domestic labour is still unrecognised; son preference still rules the demographics; adoption continues to be seen as an unusual option while new technologies like IVF and surrogacy become the new tools to perpetuate the biological family and its lineage. Despite blurring debates around biology, sexual labour and social morality, women’s rights within the family are still subject to the dynamics of community and identity.

In addition, the decriminalisation of same sex relationships and the consequent assertions of alternate sexuality and gender identities is causing new anxieties around the notions of family/marriage. Consequently, two diametrically opposite dynamics, or should we say, two parallel dynamics, have been triggered: continued pressure for ‘compulsory and appropriate heterosexual marriage’, and contrarily, a rising but certain demand for rights to same sex marriage and other legal securities.

In such a complex scenario, we felt that it was critical to get back to feminist debates on family and marriage. So we decided to have a discussion on ‘30 years of continuing to be conflicted over the family: Re-starting feminist debates’ wherein we hoped to address many questions that ghost much of our work. The compulsion of the times is for us to think out of the box and to once again explore the institution of family and marriage, to explore/assess the alternatives we have experimented with, or imagine social units that are not hierarchical, in which care and love are not contingent on domestic work, subordination and property.

Since our preparatory meetings themselves were peppered with anecdotes and narratives which drew the discussions in many different directions, we decided that would be the best way for us to start. Armed with slips of paper and pens, we began the meeting with everyone noting down some of their key understandings of the institutions of marriage and family. This was interesting and useful as it drew from a variety of lived experiences of being part of different kinds of families, marriages and intimate or sexual relationships.

Anusha Hariharan opened the discussion with notions of coupledom and replication of the structure of marriage in other non-marital relationships. The issue of gay marriages raised the concern of ‘normalising’ but also the need to look at a vast spectrum of other identities, especially class. Marriage is also a way of acquiring financial and monetary security and therefore the issues of property rights, etc. become important. And what happens when world views do not match or when world views match but marriage becomes the “only way out” to get something else. Anusha also raised the need to look at structures and institutions with regard to marriage, the need to reform laws, to tackle the issues of adoption, care giving, etc.

Akshara Ravishankar expressed her discomfort about making generalisations about marriage and family. They both take many forms so there are obviously many layers and levels of discussion. But there are unchanging tags of morality and norms that become part of or the basis of ‘normal’ marriage that we need to talk about. We also need to make a distinction between the ‘need for marriage’ and how we engage with it on a day to day basis. She felt the same way about family – that it is a community structure, a support system, but with many oppressive aspects.

Shalini Krishnan felt that the structure of family becomes a method to control and constrain sexuality and individuality of both the sexes. Family honour can be paralyzing especially for women where killing is the extreme form of violence used on women but control is more insidious and omnipresent. Women do forced labour in marriage and family with no social or monetary recognition. Another interesting aspect she spoke about was how a range of ‘self-interests’ dominate the family. Both individuals and family can be selfish and controlling on how the behaviour of the other impacts itself.

Eg. The family has severe expectations of how different members must behave and members have expectations/rules/.norms on how family, loyalty, etc must be played out. In the long term these conflicts harm relationships and often the so called ‘dignity’ of individual members is lost under that of the family.

Priya Thuvassery felt that family imposes responsibility which can be both good and restrictive. Freedom of staying away from the family is valuable but still the issue of honour of the family looms on the mind. For women, the eternal question of ‘when will you marry’ is another constant pressure. Also, any deviations from the norms of marriage or family are still not accepted. She shared an incident from her office where a male unmarried colleague was expecting a baby but was not granted his paternity benefits – neither delivery expenses nor leave. Thus even workplaces reinforce the notion of ‘marriage’ on the notion of ‘family’.

Deepti Sharma felt that family is too much of a burden. Women’s role is largely limited to maintaining and following rules and regulations set by the family unit to ensure that tradition gets imposed through religion, rituals, food, clothes, etc., and that property goes to the ‘right’ person i.e. the male descendent. How does one maintain individuality within this and claim one’s rights without ‘disrupting’ the status quo or being labelled ‘selfish’? She also felt that the primary purpose of having children was for them to look after their parents in their old age, whether they like it or not – they just have to do it! She pointed out that nowadays, she sees this responsibility invariably falling on single women, queer women or women in not-so traditional marriages. Unfortunately, given the lack of a support structure in many people’s lives, single people also bank on the family in times of crisis.

As for marriage, Deepti stated unapologetically that it is ‘a rotten, regressive institution’ that needs social, cultural support and thousands of laws to maintain and sustain itself. So why do we opt for/support this flawed system? Why not let it fall and destroy itself? It is failure of society and of all of us ‘progressive’ types as well that alternatives could not be explored or sustained beyond a point. Also, where are the feminist debates on this? Such structures, she felt, are subject to so much social pressure (irrespective of what your ‘social’ is) that there is little scope for rebellion in marriage or for that matter even in alternative structures – the underlying tension is that you must fall in line and not break the rules.

Radha Goswami brought an interesting twist to the proceedings. She has got married for the second time, and she says she did so for her children and reasons of logistics -living with her lover in his official staff quarters was not accepted by the authorities. At a personal level, she said did not feel the need to legalise her relationship except for the above reason. She feels that support and control, unconditional love and manipulation are two sides of the same coin in family and marriage. But control exists across all kinds of relationships – traditional or otherwise but love and understanding can be developed – have potential of existence. But she said how as a single parent family, her daughter had always felt that they were not ‘a family’. “My children were pretty relieved when I got married,” she said, “as now they could call my partner, ‘step-father’.” Wondering aloud about the apparent ‘inevitability’ of family, marriage and their oppressiveness, Radha said we should think about how this inevitability can be made supportive.

Savita Sharma felt that marriage or marriage-like set ups are needed for security in life. Her first marriage did not work out, but before she could get into a real live-in relationship, she still needed a divorce. And through it all, Saheli was a huge support. But the crucial issue is to develop faith in a relationship. This does not automatically come with law or a legal marriage – one has to make space for it in the relationship, and that needs effort. Speaking for herself she said she got into ‘family-mode’ after adopting a daughter, and since then the roles are somewhat traditional and the format replicates marriage, even though her relationship isn’t one. But she still finds this relationship

better, with more freedom and equality than she believes a marriage could have given her. As for her daughter, Savita said she tells her to find her own way and interestingly, her daughter says that one should be like Meera Bai, who chose her own family.

For Satnam Kaur, the structure of family is such that there is too much inequality and fixed responsibilities and lot of expectations. Finding space for oneself especially if one is single is difficult. You are taken for granted most of the times and not asked about your own choices.

Lata Singh started with the poser that we talk about alternatives but we keep falling back on the family, as traditionally defined. When we talk of responsibility, how much freedom do we have to decide about certain things. After years of seeing people experiment with different forms, she said she wonders whether a commune system can help, or in fact, change anything. This is because responsibilities do not leave any space for you. One gets exhausted negotiating relationships and responsibilities. What about one’s loneliness and need for companionship? When are we, as feminists, especially aging ones, going to address that issue? Lata also raised the issue that even when we try to create alternatives, we still make norms that can be equally suffocating.

Jaishree added that like many others she also feels that there are a lot of expectations within both marriage and family, and if we want some space for ourselves we are called selfish. You just have to continue working relentlessly to get acceptance, whether its inside or outside a marriage.

Vineeta Bal started with the example of Hindu Undivided Family. The karta, the senior most male member of family has power and control though he also has responsibility for the welfare of the family as he sees it. Existence of karta makes sense because most traditional families bank on blood relations in matters of crisis rather than on friends. How can one think of alternatives? For people like us who are less tradition-bound than the rest of the society, can friends be the family? One can choose one’s friends and not family - that is an advantage! However, even among friends there may be many unrealistic expectations essentially making that structure like a family. So the alternatives also pose questions. Ultimately one has to figure out through experience and evolve ways of living.

Vani Subramanian carried the discussion forward by saying that even for those of us who try to bring change within the notion of marriage, you may be transgressing but you are not actually shaking up the structure, you are not really breaking the rules. Also, as feminists, we need to be concerned about what the social anxiety for women to ‘settle down’ in marriage, i.e. what compulsory marriage is doing to women, as well as all those who don’t fit into the fixed and normalized roles that men and women are meant to play. There is also an emotional element to the whole thing, isolation and almost compulsory, or rather, inevitable interdependencies which don’t necessarily create healthy equations. And as we’ve seen in countless instances of women in bad marriages and violent/oppressive households, many of these isolations are exaggerated by the notion of preserving the privacy and social reputation of the family. And none of that is healthy for anyone.

Sadhna Arya pointed out that the experiences shared in the meeting are based on the dominant notions of marriage and family and despite the movement’s critique of the family and marriage very little has changed. Most of us criticize these institutions but are also entrenched in them. We have been unable to find alternatives. So the need is to better these institutions and that has been very difficult because of the power of patriarchy that is entrenched ideologically and materially. In the west, highly individualistic societies and ways of living have had their own complications.

Nidhi Agarwal came back to the point of negotiations within family and marriage, both from within and outside. There is both support and dependence in family. But she also felt that family and property are deeply linked and the material basis of these institutions needs to be understood.

Nalini Bhanot, though not present in the meeting, had sent us her thoughts. Her concern was about how we can envision alternatives to the family when there is no state or institutional support for children, sick people or the elderly, then inevitably it is the family that is banked upon. Many present at the meeting concurred with this concern – a present day reality in many of our lives! So, in this rambling style each one of us took turns sharing what we thought about marriage and family…until it was time for our fabulous discussion facilitator Uma Chakravarti to land up and take this further with us.

Uma Chakravarti came into the discussion at this point and argued persuasively that in order to understand family/relationships/kinship we need to look at these in a historical manner. History has always been about who had power: caste, class, seniority needed to be looked at together with the rise of kingdoms. History is beset with the normalization of the elder male as having power. We have been trying to push the boundaries but classical historians and the age old narrative has been very strong. We have critiqued family but there is not enough critique of property. We have tried to understand the role of violence in maintaining patriarchy, but we need to work more to take the notion of equality forward. Love marriages did loosen the hold of caste and marriage a little but otherwise whether, love or arranged nothing much has changed. And it is because the property systems were not challenged. She pointed out that the base of society has been heteronormavity, and it is from this foundation that household economy is built. That is why it is important to understand these structures.

Discussions on family and marriage are complicated because they involve emotions, interests and power, all together, all intertwined, she continued. That is why we always feel that no discussion is enough. But we need to remember that family is a material/property system that reproduces itself through its ideology and material basis. So unless we address the whole structure we are not addressing anything. When you add caste to the plot – the system crashes. For example, the Manusmriti describes Kalyug as a time when sudras and women will not fulfil their prescribed roles or when they shall be ‘out of control’. Emotion has also been dealt with very cleverly in religious texts and traditions. It is full of rules and regulations, punishments and penalties. This needs to be identified by us or else we cannot challenge it. Also we need to make a choice about what we want to keep and what we want to discard. We need to link up many oppressions that exist within both institutions - we can’t struggle against it alone. Here, Uma also raised her problem with gay/ lesbian marriages, the growing concept of ‘my blood, my child’ and the way in which they replicate heterosexual marriages and notions of family. 

Deepti argued that we probably find ourselves in this position because the women’s movement has spent so much time improving women’s position within the family, so maybe nothing much moved in terms of exploring alternatives. “And if we don’t get our act together fast enough, we’re going to drown with this whole ‘gay marriage’ thing!” she declared. “And anyway, why are alternatives also termed as ‘family’?” Clearly, this is because we are trying to get some space for ourselves without changing the basic structure, and because we have not thought of alternatives really. For example, vows in a typical Hindu marriage are all about reproduction – some changes were made in these vows but again ‘within the system’. In folk culture too it is that ‘Joru’ and ‘zameen’ (wife and land) should remain under man’s control. The basic ritual of kanyadaan too implies the handing over of a pure virgin woman from a father to a husband and his family. Since the questions surrounding women’s right/access to ancestral property are also not resolved, dowry becomes a tangled issue. We still need to fight for equal rights for property.

Radha said that the famed Mary Roy case (entitling Syrian Christian women to ancestral property) did change some things for some women, but we were not able to carry the campaign further to include other women.

In the context of alternatives of family, Uma mentioned concerns surrounding ‘end of life’ care – a term used by Rohini Hensman in the context of people without children. The discussion that followed focussed on property laws, denial of property rights to women, issue of wills and families contesting property sharing with women in the family, especially with regard to the lack of support systems and lack of struggles for such social security by any progressive movements.

There is also the issue of idealization and glorification of family and the normalization of heterosexual monogamous marriage. Control over women’s sexuality, mobility and labour have been critical issues that women’s movements have attempted to address through various struggles. We have fought for and effected some changes in the institution of marriage, mainly through expansion of rights through legal reforms, thereby enabling relative autonomy and lessening gender inequality. Yet for the most part, both institutions remain that of control – on the sexuality, mobility and freedoms of women. Beginning with campaigns against dowry related violence and domestic violence, the issue of violence on women within the family has been a critical issue that women’s groups in India have consistently worked on. Our own work moved on from here to link this violence with the denial of women’s rights to family and community’s property. The issue of property rights could not be taken very far. Though, through our campaigns on personal laws and for an egalitarian civil code the issue of lack of property/economic rights was raised. The most important argument used for the property rights of women was by linking it with unpaid domestic labour put in by women in both their natal and marital families. By 1990s the aggressive use of community, religion and culture to control women made us understand the linkages of patriarchy and religious forces to control women through marriage and family. Since then we have been confronted with the stranglehold of religion, caste and community over women through cultural norm and laws especially in the case of inter­caste and inter-community marriages. The violent response to marriages of choice in the last few years, popularly known as ‘honour killings’, and the rise of khap panchayats have once again put the spotlight on the insecurities of women’s lives within families and communities. Declining sex ratios has been another area that opens up the issue of violence on girls and women within the family. Social obligation of marrying daughters and dowry deals in marriages actually result in subordinating the woman’s position in the family and eventually stripping her of her identity. The glorification of our role as mothers and bearers of future generations in family leads to greater control over women of all ages in the family and any deviation from these normative patterns face retribution, violence, or inevitably, greater control and repression.

Many of the issues that were raised during the discussions have been on our minds and have impacted our work and campaigns over the years. Many threads of the discussion reverberated with the interviews from our study on the impact of religion, caste and community on family and marriage (Talking Marriage, Caste & Community: Voices from Within, 2007) Almost everyone at the meeting talked about family and marriage as structures integral to our lives with negligible space for real, radical rebellion. At the same time family has also been a support system one can and does bank on in the absence of others. We also shared our disheartenment at several social alternatives we explored but failed to consolidate. But it is clear that we do need to get going, at a personal and political level to create legitimacy and space for non-family/marriage structures so that marriage does not remain the only popular option.

But as feminists we have tried to address these dualities of family and fought against these contradictions in our personal lives and relationships. We also strive to break the silence that has shrouded non-heteronormative relationships and ‘family’ forms. This is not to say that the notion of being part of a ‘queer family’ is necessarily liberating, . And yet, hetero or homo-sexual, queer or straight, square or round, as feminists, we are destined to remain the black sheep of some family or the other. Rebelliously, if not happily so!