In the past two weeks, this column has tried to understand why is it that China and South Asia (historical India) account for a 92 million out of the 100 million “missing women” of the world. Patriarchy is common to all historical societies yet it is the civilisations of these two regions which have developed this ghastly tradition and not others. While the reasons may be numerous, it seems that there was something common in particular forms of feudal culture which developed in these two civilisations which have promoted this particularly vicious and murderous form of patriarchy.
This column had argued that both Confucianism in China and the various forms of social stratification influenced by the Caste system in South Asia were unique feudal social forms which had easily adapted themselves to capitalist economic relations. In fact, it was precisely among those social groups which were integrating most with the capitalist world, that ideologies of “tradition”, “indigenous culture” and “religious purity” (all code words for feudal mentalités and ideologies) were growing fastest. At least, this is the experience of South Asia. It is difficult to ascertain the situation in China but there is a clear revival of Confucian ideas in Chinese society which parallels the revival of capitalist relations.
Both Confucianism and the South Asian feudal form made sons the ideological centre of the family and social order. Without sons, families would not only dissolve in the material sense (in that there would be no one to pass on the property to) but would also lapse spiritually into a sort of limbo since the spirits of the dead needed to be constantly placated by sons in their prayers. While the material importance of male heirs to continue private property in both feudalism and early capitalism was a universal phenomenon which gave strength to patriarchy, in these two Asian civilisations, the moral – spiritual importance given to sons made them semi-divine and reduced women to sub-human levels.
As these two civilisations have encountered and adopted capitalism as a system to organise their economic world, they have continued to use their extant feudal social stratification with its ideologies of loyalty, obedience and lack of free-will to organise society. These feudal ideologies lead to the continuation and spread of a feudal mentalité. This mentalité has at its core the idea of inequity, dependence and filial piety, the exact opposites of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – the slogans of modern emancipation. These ideals are seen as a moral beacon for people to live a good life and compete for political loyalty and social acceptance with the morality of modern emancipation. Inequity, dependence and filial piety provide excellent tools to discipline working people to the needs of their employers and to the authority of their Governments. It also continuously divides working people into primordial identities and weakens their political unity. In these, and many other ways, this feudal mentalité provides a strong ideological foundation for capitalism in these countries.
But when this feudal mentalité is mixed with capitalist economic relations, it leads to an erosion of the supportive and protective features of feudal social relations. While feudal mentalité has inequity, dependence and filial piety at its core, it also provides sustenance and support to those who live in its fold. But capitalist economic relations dissolve the supportive and protective aspects of feudal relations, whether it is between humans or between humans and nature. Only the repressive and regressive aspects of inequity, dependence and filial piety remain.
For example, the feudal form of marriage remains intact in both South Asia and China as it provides both a source of capital accumulation for the groom’s family as well as provides it with a life-long supply of unpaid domestic labour and the tools of biological reproduction. Dowry (a feudal form of property transfer) gets transformed into a capital accumulation strategy by the groom’s family. This form of capital accumulation would be called “primitive accumulation” by Marxists and is similar to what the pirates and colonial plunderers used to do in the 17th century. Those forms and practices of feudal marriage are valorised and strengthened which provide economic gain to the grooms family and thus give feudal patriarchy a particularly sharp and inhuman edge in its contemporary, capitalistic avatar. It is instructive that in both India and China (as well as much of Asia and the Arab world) the feudal form of family continues and thrives under colonial, semi-colonial and capitalist contexts.
The feudal mentalité already predisposes people to view all those who are non-elite, non-male in sub-human categories since this mentalité is based on inequity, dependence and filial piety. When the market economies’ need to accumulate capital is interwoven with this mentalité, it turns all those who are categorised non-elite, non-male as mere instruments of capital accumulation. It converts them into veritable “animals with tongue” (the famous Aristotelian categorisation of farm animals as “animals without tongue” for cattle and horses and “animals with tongue” for human slaves) for the feudal-in-mentalité-but-capitalist-in-currency man.
It is for this reason that millions of parents view their girl child as a pure (mere?) economic liability and not as a human being. It is also for this reason that many of the successful schemes to counter femicide are based on such pure economic reasoning. In India the Central and State Governments have come up with myriad schemes which give economic incentives to parents for keeping their girl child alive. Often the amount promised in such schemes is also calculated, quite unabashedly, to equalise the purported monetary loss that the family would suffer due to the presence of the girl child. Alternatively, many schemes threaten disincentives which would negate the economic gain the family would make by doing away with the loss-making girl child. Even the awareness generating publicity campaigns stress on the economic benefits of keeping the girl alive in the modern economy. In all these cases, the government and policy makers are acknowledging, albeit indirectly, that girls and women are nothing more than economic units for their families.
The interesting, and tragic, aspect of mentalities is that it provides such a complete and closed world-view (what philosophers term Weltanschauung) that even its actual victims are psychologically comfortable viewing the world in its terms and acting on the basis of its moral codes. Therefore the inexplicable acts of mothers killing their daughter’s and aborting female foetuses; and mother-in-laws inflicting the very same injuries they suffered on their daughter-in-laws.
It appears that unless this specific feudal mentalité and its culture is attacked and destroyed it would be difficult to end this continuing genocide of women. An interesting vindication of this position comes from China, where in the period of the unfortunately organised “Cultural Revolution” the sex ratio jumped in favour of women, only to fall again, equally drastically, with the beginning of the capitalist restoration in the 1990s. It is impermissible to return to the barbarity of China’s “Cultural Revolution” but its basic premise – of an all out attack on feudal mentalité and its cultures – is correct and we today need democratic methods of organising a similar “Cultural Revolution”.
Before I close this article, I would like to point out that in this fight against feudal mentalité and its cultural expressions, women will find lower caste men, ethnic minorities and tribals to be their natural allies. A political praxis which does not naturally lead to an alliance of women, lower castes, minorities and tribals, is prima facie, a wrong political praxis since their enemy is the same. It is also important to remember that victory in this battle is equally crucial for elite men who are otherwise incapable of breaking out of their golden cages merely through their armchair pursuits of drawing room chatter and high theory.
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post dated 7th May, 2008.
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A google search would show hundreds of thousands of internet resources and news reports on the killing of women. I am here linking a newsreport from today’s Times of India which illustrates the argument I have given above.
“Things have changed and improved a bit. We do have girls around now,” Inder Singh says, while admitting that baby girls are killed even today in the village. ” Kya karein? [what to do?] A good match for a girl means lots of money for her dowry.”
A good blog with lots of news reports and documents relating to femicide in India.