Sanjay Srivastava writes: The gender of institutions – courts, bureaucracies, schools, civic associations – is not much discussed and yet, it is fundamental to both the circulation of ideas about women, men and those of other genders.
As there are no specific requirements that men should wear symbols of marriage, making the connection between the discarding of the mangalsutra and the husband’s death normalises ideas about inequality in family relationships. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)
Recently, two connected media stories — about attitudes to women, marriage and domesticity — allow us to think about the peculiar nature of gender relations in a time of increasing public visibility of women. The first concerns observations by the Madras High Court regarding “proper” behaviour by women with regard to a symbol of marriage (the mangalsutra or necklace) and the second relates to a survey that sought to gauge attitudes towards gender in the context of the new National Education Policy (NEP) in Karnataka.
Commenting on the case of an estranged couple, the Madras High Court noted that the removal of the mangalsutra by the woman from her body amounted to “mental cruelty” towards her husband. The mangalsutra, the court went on to say, is only removed at the death of the husband. Turning to the survey of teachers, students and parents in Karnataka, two findings stand out. First, the overwhelming belief that childcare is women’s responsibility and, second, that they put up with domestic violence for the “good” of the family. Responses to the second aspect seem to suggest not just observations of “what happens” but also “what should happen”.
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The gender of institutions — courts, bureaucracies, schools, civic associations, etc. — is not much discussed and yet, it is fundamental to both the circulation of ideas about women, men and those of other genders. Beyond the immediate rationale for the High Court’s observations (that the husband ought to be able to obtain a divorce), there are wider issues that relate to institutionally-embedded attitudes towards gender relationships and roles.
As there are no specific requirements that men should wear symbols of marriage, making the connection between the discarding of the mangalsutra and the husband’s death normalises ideas about inequality in family relationships. A wife causes mental cruelty to the husband by discarding the mangalsutra — his “social” death — because (the observations would seem to suggest) the woman’s primary task is to be a good wife and display the symbols of domesticity. Men, on the other hand, are not under any such obligation and the “welfare” of their spouses does not depend on their behaviour. Given the deference that is both demanded by institutions — and offered to them — institutional pronouncements that reinforce gender disparities are particularly unfortunate.
It is unsurprising that the NEP-related survey in Karnataka has elicited opinions that suggest that a very broad cross-section of society thinks that women’s primary role is as wives and mothers (or, at least, that they should combine this with other aspirations) and that domestic violence should be tolerated for the “good” of the family. For ideas about what is “good” for the family (and, by extension, society), that emanate from powerful institutions and their functionaries, find fertile ground much quicker than those from other sources. As they are seen to be “above” society, courts of law enjoy a superior position in the hierarchy of institutions. They are frequently, if mistakenly, seen to guide social mores, rather than reflecting and, just as frequently, reinforcing them.
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The relationship between a society and its institutions is a peculiar one: The attitudes housed in the latter are just rooms in the larger mansion of social life. Yet we assume that the room stands outside the house. And not only that it stands apart, but that the relationship between it and the house should be one where the former shapes the latter. However, just as significantly, this has never been the case: If institutions have adopted changed attitudes towards gender, for example, it has been because of outside influence, including activism and academic research and writing. The comments of the Madras High Court and the attitudes of stakeholders in schooling in Karnataka reflect a breakdown of this relationship, one that is crucial for any social change.
Perhaps it is the hardening of an attitude that increasingly gathers around the idea that institutions of various kinds are sacrosanct — and any criticism of their functioning is the absence of proper respect for society and nation — that is at the heart of the thinking that rooms are houses in themselves. Or that, in the melee of social change that is among us — where, for example, there is some evidence that young women’s aspirations are changing — certain institutions become sites of protecting older structures of power. In either case, if it is change we are after, rather than a chimaera of change — where men can marry “modern” women who must both work but also look after the home — then we need to think of the gender of institutions.
What is the default gender of our institutions and what might this mean for the house we live in? And, how should we go about changing — if that is indeed what we want to do — the masculinity of institutions? One aspect of the media coverage of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka stories that becomes sadly clear is that while the talk is about women, it isn’t really about women at all. It is about their duties and the fact of their definition by the duties. Their duties are to their families, sons, husbands and society. And, in a strange twist, while courts are seen to stand above society, in the opinions issued by it (and reflected in the survey in Karnataka), women are seen to be below it. Their place is not to benefit from social life but to ensure that others benefit from it through contributing to social welfare that excludes them. They must occupy a section of the house that is open to all the elements.