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Culture may be the great leveller

THE ASIAN AGE. | VINAY KUMAR SRIVASTAVA
Published : Aug 9, 2018, 6:42 am IST
Updated : Aug 9, 2018, 6:42 am IST

Studies point out that women of different families within the same group or even of different groups forge stable ties among them.

The problem is the hypocrisy in Indian society, a manifestation of the deep-rooted patriarchy
 The problem is the hypocrisy in Indian society, a manifestation of the deep-rooted patriarchy

Socialisation focusing on gender equality can alter the “mindset” of generations. Boys come to believe they are a different species because of the preferential treatment they receive, as families accommodate to their
idiosyncrasies

Patriarchy is not the correct term to connote “male dominance”, for it means “the rule of the father”. And, father is not universally male. Among the Nuer of Sudan, a “rich woman” can acquire a wife for “him[her]self”. She becomes, so said anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, a “sociological male”, who transfers bridewealth (in the form of cattle head) to another household to seek its unmarried daughter as “his” wife. The latter cohabits with an unspecified male. The children born to her are the legitimate offspring of her “husband”, whose lineage is obviously saved from oblivion.

Further, roles of fathers and mothers are not mutually exclusive. They may collapse as one in single-parents. To invoke a mythological metaphor: a single parent is androgynous, ardhnarishwar, half-male, half-female.

Thus the assumption that fathers are always male, and so “fatherly rule” is also “male rule”, needs scrutiny. To connote the latter, another term is required. I propose “androarchy” as a suitable term for situations where males, as decision-makers, exercise power, obtaining compliance from all, including women. Kinship theorists offer interesting insights into human societies. First, while women are essential for biological reproduction of a group in an androarchal society, men are needed in a female-right society not only for procreative functions, but also for organising control over property, for economic production, and defending the community and its territory against predators. That is the reason why female-right societies (which are called “matrilineal”, since the property is passed from mother to daughter) are constrained to keep men in their group for several social and economic purposes, besides impregnating their women.

If both the roles socio-economic and procreative are combined in one man, then the system would have “husbands”. The Khasi families of Meghalaya provide an instant example.

It is likely that brothers may be kept in for social and economic functions, whereas “husbands” or “lovers” would be “visiting”, expected to fulfil the task of procreation. This was the solution that the Ashanti of Ghana offered in olden times, and so did the Nairs of Kerala. Of umpteen societies that the world has, less than 45 have been identified as matrilineal. It is popularly said that matriarchy (or gynarchy) does not exist. What exists is the differential influence that women, particularly older in age, exercise on decision-making.

That happens in patrilineal societies as well. In their studies of extreme androarchy, like in traditional China, anthropologists have found that in many contexts, the authority-wielding men executed the decision that in fact was suggested by their women.

For a study of foundations of human behaviour, we often turn to the primate world. The genomic sequencing of chimpanzee DNA in 2005 revealed its 99 per cent similarity with human. The oft-repeated conclusion is: Chimpanzee is our nearest relative.

Notwithstanding the biological kinship between the chimpanzee and man, what sets them apart is “culture”. Culture makes us human. Now, we face a paradox. On one hand, culture is the genesis of human values, espousing the unity of all men and women; on the other, it promotes inequality, of genders, races, age grades and strata. A common assertion, presumably supported by historical and biogenetic research, is that the institutionalised male-dominance, what is called androarchy here, began with the emergence of agrarian societies. It happened because men owned land, they had physical strength to work so that they could produce for all, including the consuming members (and women were included in this category), and they (of the same kin group) were clustered at one place.

By contrast, women did not own land, they were bereft of the muscular prowess needed for arduous agricultural work, and because of marrying out, kin-women were all dispersed. Two assumptions underline this conclusion. First, pre-cultivation societies such as hunting-gathering are egalitarian. Second, kinspersons have “natural consanguineous solidarity.” These propositions can be systematically demolished. In a nutshell, the purported unity of male kin is a myth, although the internal fissiparity of a group is temporarily transcended in a situation of opposition with another group of a similar kind. The hypothesis that in a patrilineal society, women are isolated is also disconfirmed, because empirical studies point out that women of different families within the same group or even of different groups forge stable ties among them.

Unfortunately, scant attention has been paid to the study of friendship, especially among women.

Thus the idea of “extreme androarchy” is incorrect. Male dominance has an evolutionary basis, but cultural streams championing the cause of equality have time and again challenged it, since it is known full well that androarchy is destructive to all. Males live under the illusion of “omnipotence”. Women and children suffer from oppressions and denials. The panacea to this conundrum comes from culture. If it creates inequality, on one hand, on the other, it can also devotedly work toward its annihilation.

Charity begins at home. Socialisation focusing on gender equality can alter the “mindset” of generations. Boys come to believe they are a different species because of the preferential treatments they receive, as families accommodate to their idiosyncrasies. The social system has to begin with the thesis of de-sexualisation. Children are not boys and girls; they are human beings. Thus, they should be accorded equality at every step. In course of time, they will become different. We have to internalise the fact that difference is not inequality. Gender equalisation should precede gender sensitisation. For this the wherewithal of legal and social machinery is imperative. Then only the bulwarks of androarchy will be pulled down.

Culture can do miracles, provided the will has to be socially created and sustained.

(The author is director, Anthropological Survey of India)

Tags: patriarchy, male dominance, androgynous