Sunday, September 26, 2010

From ‘Let your Father Come …' and ‘Let Your Son Come …’ to ‘Let My Brother Come … ’ and ‘Let My Son Come …’

Many have heard mothers say this to their erring children, ‘let your father come … ‘ and many of us have heard of family violence where daughters-in-law tell their ailing-and-not-liked and sometimes troublesome mothers-in-law, ‘let you son come …’. Is it that these women are not able to speak in a straight language or they lack the confidence to say what they are any way doing, parenting and being a party to discrimination against or abuse of the elderly? Why do they need to speak through their spouse? We have also heard of sisters-in-law threaten their brother’s spouse with a statement beginning ‘let my brother come …‘ and mothers-in-law tell their daughters-in-law, ‘let my son come … ’. Why these women cannot sort out their issues on their own instead of waiting for the brother or the son to come and teach a lesson to his spouse? Does it have anything to do with economic value attached to the person or to their ability to own their actions? Why all of them have such a high level of dependence on the male family members? Why do they compete with one another to establish a greater claim to the male family members?

Let me jump off to one of the possible reasons. An understanding of multiple forms of violence against women and girls – in intimate relationships and from strangers in their daily lives – show how they have been institutionalized and affects every aspect of a woman life from infancy to death. These aspects include citizenship, reproduction, health, sexuality, employment, entrepreneurship, culture, poverty, social care, property, crime, status in family … the list is unending. All these, in my opinion, contribute to the situation that I described above, which makes women’s existence dependent on the wishes of the male family members and makes women compete with one-another in order to exist.

Another reason for such a situation is economic. Yesterday, I was in a seminar on the issue of women and land with women many of whom know the relationship among women land and violence first hand. Experiences of these women established (not suggest) that violence against women and girls and poverty among women is an ‘engaged relationship’. The former being a tool to keep women in state of poverty and poverty is one of the key reasons for women’s servility. While high probability of violence in the domestic and public sphere, in general, affects women’s ability to be present in the public sphere, use opportunities and develop their human capital, ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence create a sort of ‘genetic-cum-collective’ lack of confidence among women that keeps them silent about the beatings, rape and emotional abuse, makes them internalize male supremacy, compete with one-another for a greater dependency stake, and prevents them from questioning the status quo in which men’s labour is recognized but women and girls’ labour is not. The overall impact of violence keeps women poor in all senses and economic poverty increases the risk of exposure to violence enormously.

Murder of women by their spouses alone or in complicity with the family, in particular, murder of widows by the marital family members more than often have roots in land and property. Sometime, the reasons for murder are such that a direct relationship between poverty or economic deprivation and violence cannot be established as a prima facie fact. It is true that poverty or economic deprivations are not the only reasons for women’s vulnerability to violence but poverty or economic deprivation are key factors. These are important factors that must be examined when trying to understand and address scale of violence against women.

Let me discuss here some of the  ritualized and institutionalized forms of violence that are used to keep women economically impoverished and dependent on men of the household or community:

Halitza[1]: In Jewish tradition, according to the Torah, if a man dies without leaving children, his brother must marry his widow in a ceremony called yibbum or levirate marriage. A widow in Sephardic Jewish communities cannot remarry till her husband’s brother relinquishes all claims to own her. In Halitza ceremony, that is a public event, the woman kneels before her brother-in-law and removes a special handmade shoe from his foot. She is then required to spit on the ground next to him and recite several verses from Torah. The ceremony is humiliating for both and mocks the brother for not taking on the sister-in-law. Though yibbum is on decline and most widows go through the Halitza ceremony now, it is practically an institutionalized practice to keep the family wealth within the family.

Widow/Bride Inheritance[2]: This is a form of yibbum among the Luo of western Kenya and many other tribes like Luhya (Kisa sub-tribe). The widespread practice of widow inheritance establishes the male ownership of women’s reproduction, her labour and property and wealth that may be created through the woman’s unpaid labour. Through widow inheritance the dead and alive husbands and their family continue to demand reproductive and productive capabilities of women against the bridewealth paid at the time of marriage with the deceased brother. Luo widows are known as ‘wives of the grave’. Because they do not cease to be the wife of the deceased rather through inheritance widows remain obligated to their husbands and their family and in exchange they are promised social and economic support for themselves and their children. Refusal by the widows often includes disinheritance and being thrown out of matrimonial home. This practice in one or the other names continues to exist in Nigeria, Uganda, India and many other countries.

Lattha Odhna or Chaadar Daalna[3]: Many Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speaking audience of Hindi cinema would be able to recall a film titiled, 'Ek Chadar Maili Si' which came to the cinema halls in 1986. Directed by Sukhwant Dada, the film  is an adaptation of Rajinder Singh Bedi's Sahitya Akademi Award winner Urdu novella, 'Ik Chadar Adhorani'. The story is about a woman , Rano, who is forced to marry her brother-in-law, 10 years younger to her, whom she regarded as a son, through the ceremony of chadar daalna. such levirate marriage or niyoga between a widow and an unmarried younger brother in law continues to be alive in certain parts of India (Punjab and Haryana). Re-marriage of widows was never a norm in India and the possibility of going back to the parents' home has not been an option for the Indian women. They are taught to leave their marital home only on their death-bed. The practice ensures that any land or property owned by the deceased husband stays in the family.

Adoption of a male child from the husband’s family[4]: More in the past than now in India and many other parts of South Asia and Asia , if the widow did not have any male child from her deceased husband, she is made to adopt a nephew of her husband.

Widow Cleansing[5]: This practice also dates back centuries and is, till date, widely practiced in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Angola, Ivory Coast, Congo and Nigeria. A widow is expected to have a sex with a male relative of the deceased husband in order to maintain access to family property and land. In practice, this custom any man from widow’s marital village or the deceased husband’s family, usually a brother or close male relative of the deceased husband, to force her to have sex with him. This is also linked to a belief that that if the widow does allow ‘cleansing’ her husband’s spirit will not be free. This practice established the woman as being haunted by spirits, as unholy and mentally ill and in some communities this is further extended to say that a widow who has not been cleansed can cause the whole community to be haunted. Now there are professional 'cleanser men' to rape widows because in many places, a widow must go through cleansing ritual before she can be inherited.

The above practices are not directly linked to the state of affairs described in the first paragraph in all contexts but they exemplify the modus operandi of patriarchy that instils a deep sense of dependence among women. A deeper examination of some of the apparently non-economic motives shows the inter-breeding of economic and non-economic issues. For example, such a large number of women are being killed, tortured and mutilated for bringing shame and dishonour to the family. But consider why women and girls are burdened with the safekeeping of family honour. Women's vulnerability to violence derives not only from the poverty but also from the potential they hold to be empowered individuals. One of the ways that potential can be crushed is by employing tools that socially disempower and disfranchise them. Making women and girls’ symbols of family honour puts on them the burden of keeping the honour, as it has been defined by patriarchy, intact. The definition of family honour invariably has its roots in historic political and economic exclusion, sexism and other discriminatory practices that keep women outside of social, political and economic empowerment opportunities. The definition of family honour leads to socio-cultural conditioning of women and girls that prepares them for marriage as accepted by the patriarchal system of a particular place, child-rearing, house-keeping and other unpaid care and economic roles. This conditioning creates a façade that women have an important role in the family in maintaining the family honour themselves as well as by scrutinising other women’s conduct, and it keeps the sense of empowerment far from women.

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