Has The ‘Fairer Sex’ Fared Well?

Posted on February 25, 2012

By P. V. Swati:

We live in times when there is so much greater awareness of women’s subordination and the emergence of active attempts to fight it. Women indeed have achieved rapid development in various spheres of life. Relatively, many more women have access to education in the country and are part of work spaces. But as far as the question of patriarchy and its relevance is concerned, these developments might have brought about many advances in all directions but they do not necessarily signal the end of patriarchal male dominated, but rather bring about change in the form of patriarchy.

Range of cultural and sexual norms constitute the everyday contexts for the exercise of patriarchal power and women actively aid, retard, negotiate and challenge these norms. As a prominent feminist scholar Sylvia Walby puts it, “patriarchy is a system of social structures and practices, in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women”. Here it is important to note that the structure and the subordination of women it imposes are both social in nature. It is essentially the patriarchal organization of society. Walby also emphasizes that patriarchy is composed of several internal interrelated structures. Instruments like family, religion, media and law maintain, perpetuate and legitimize patriarchy, making it appear natural, and hence, unchangeable.

It is important to consider that neither all men the agents of patriarchy, nor do all women resist its working equally. Focusing on the Indian social context class, caste and religion identities, sexual preferences and gender identities mediate the exercise of male authority, its working and resistance to either. Also patriarchy is no uniform everywhere and every time. Different societies have been using different social, economic, and cultural practices and structures.

Over the discourse of time patriarchy has been critically deployed chiefly to unpack the key constituents of authority and power in any social system, which automatically privileges men over women. Thus in a patriarchal society like India women have to struggle to be educated, to have property and to choose their partners in marriage. For men these choices appear more given.

As far as the question of relevance of patriarchy in the context of contemporary position of women is concerned, prevailing practices like preference of a male child, discrimination against girls in food distribution, burden of household work on girls and women, lack of educational opportunities for girls, restricted mobility for girls and women, domestic violence, sexual harassment at workplace, lack of inheritance rights to women and no control over fertility clearly mark the existence of the patriarchal nature of society.

To understand the contemporary relevance of patriarchy it is necessary to understand the relationship between men and women, and how a given society organizes the distribution of power, recourses and opportunities among them. Moreover, it is important to analyze the way these patterns of distribution are justified. Specific to Indian realities, patriarchy has to be discusses in terms of the modes of production and reproduction.

The economic power of men and their domination of production was crucially linked to and determined by the organization of family and household. The household thus is an important constituent of both production and patriarchy. It is in this household that various identifiable concrete transactions take place between different members who inhabit this location, across sex and age division. Undoubtedly these transactions within a family are often are not egalitarian and just. Thus, family as an institution more often than not hinges on the maintenance of unequal resource positions between women and men.

In the contemporary rural India, for example, women lack access to land of their own. This makes them crucially dependent on men for their survival. The caste identities further govern their access to such primary resources. Even the accesses to common village resources, which in principle are available to all, come with excruciating conditions for women. She could be thwarted in her use of these resources or sexually assaulted by men of the dominant caste. Thus, the condition of access to village commons, in itself, does not guarantee that a woman could actually bargain a better position for herself within the household. The Indian household is thus fundamentally unequal in its distribution of resources.

In the urban context where a large section of women are now part of the working class, the cultural sense of women’s work still governs the perception. Women’s work is considered always and already of low economic value. This is because it is considered supplementary to the work done by men. In fact women workers are hired in these factories because they are seen as passive and natural subservient and incapable of forming trade unions and agitating for their rights and wages.

In this context it is important to note that a man is paid a ‘family wage’, since it is believed that he is the family’s sole breadwinner and needs to be paid an amount that would not only sustain him but his family as well. A woman worker, since she is not a breadwinner but only helping to make ends meet, could consequently be paid less. In fact it’s the result of this prevailing notion in most of the industries in India women indeed are grossly underpaid. Moreover, within the household their income is appropriated by men. Thus, women are fundamentally alienated of their labor.

But women face much more than just low wages. For them to remain in the public eye, and in public places, brings with it a measure of worry due to the constant threat of being sexually vulnerable. Her economic autonomy and independence are read as marks of her ‘single’ status. That is, she is viewed as someone without a ‘protector’ and hence easy sexual prey. The increasing rate of sexual harassment at work place is a result of these notions. Thus, under conditions of patriarchy, women’s labor both within and outside family is controlled and appropriated by men.

In the same manner as cultural notions undercut the effects of women’s economic labor while governing the modes of production on the whole and help to keep patriarchal familial arrangements in place, the reproductive capacity of women is appropriated by patriarchy in the same lines. The way female sexuality, motherhood and childcare are organized are the main point of focus here.

The production and punitive aspects of patriarchy are interlinked. In this context sexuality and reproduction are significant aspects of women’s lives that are completely regulated by patriarchy. Thus, women who are not fertile are derided and their civic status is mostly non-existent. Likewise, women who wish to remain single and refuse marriage, women who love other women, and women who would rather be men, are not allowed social visibility or any form of assertion. Thus, women who do not wish to rest their civic identity on their fertility and domestic status are ignored, humiliated and punished for being ‘astray’ and ‘unnatural’.

As far as motherhood is concerned in societies like India, childcare is essentially the responsibility of women. Mothering takes its meanings from social norms, as much as it does from actually existing practices of caring and nurturing. Thus, a bearer of male children is automatically valued over one who has only borne female children, or who is considered ‘barren’.

Moreover, pregnancy and mothering narrow a woman’s chances of being economically productive and this, in certain circumstances, could and does lead to a lowering of her bargaining position and even status in the household. But, at the same time it cannot be assumed that an economically productive woman is automatically valued. Her status within the family still rests on unquestioned and routinely accepted norms of mothering and wifehood, rather than on how much she contributes to the family income. Her contribution itself is not considered work, but an extension of her household responsibilities.Thus, notions of production and reproduction are crucial for the understanding of the patterns in which patriarchy operates.

So when posed with the question if the ‘fairer sex’ has fared well, the answer would still be that women’s inequality, gender roles and gender relations have been continuing governed by patriarchal norms. It has to a large extent has carried on its complex form and continued maintenance of women’s subordination. Undoubtedly patriarchy exists as the everyday experience of countless women demonstrates in spite of the advances they might have made in various directions. In order to work towards a better future, it is important to understand the nature, meanings and effects of this male authority in order to counter it.

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