That it would take the Supreme Court of this country to tell the men of the country that what they want is immaterial over a woman’s freedom of choice comes as no surprise. That the men of the country will pay heed is a different matter.
Last week, the Supreme Court bench was listening to the plea of a woman who had accused her husband of cruelty and wanted a divorce. The wife said she did not want to reside with her husband. The husband insisted he wanted the wife to live with him. In response, the bench, comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta stated, “She is not a chattel. She does not want to live with you. How can you say that you will live with her? You (man) cannot force her." The bench told the lawyer of the man, “How can he (man) be so unreasonable? He is treating her as a chattel. She is not an object."
“How can he (man) be so unreasonable? He is treating her as a chattel. She is not an object."
The man’s assumption that his wife’s decision to not live with him was immaterial is in a nutshell all that is wrong with most modern Indian marriages. While ideally marriage, should be a partnership based on equality more often than not, it is far from that. There is the imbalance of gender-skewed patriarchy that impinges from the socio-cultural milieu one has grown up in that seeps into a marital relationship. There is a financial imbalance that often comes through in the disproportionate incomes, or the complete lack of income of the wife who often is a homemaker and therefore financially dependent upon the husband.
And there is the imbalance of gender roles, which makes the wife the deemed caretaker for not just the children from the marriage but also the elderly in a joint family situation.
And there is the imbalance of gender roles, which makes the wife the deemed caretaker for not just the children from the marriage but also the elderly in a joint family situation. The emotional labour in a marriage is primarily done by the wife. Adding to all these imbalances in the equation, is the imbalance of expectation and subjugation. Often, thanks to social conditioning, women themselves hand over all agency to their spouses. At others, they have it wrested away. Is it any wonder then, for the most, men in a marriage do consider themselves as the primary partner and their wives, as the honourable bench stated, “chattel.”
An earlier recent instance is a case in point. In the Hadiya case, when the Supreme Court bench asked Hadiya to name any person she wished to be appointed as her local guardian. To this, Hadiya had stated that she wished her husband to be her guardian. The bench had replied then, “A husband cannot be a guardian of his wife. Wife is not a chattel. She has her own identity in life and society. Even I am not guardian of my wife.”
“A husband cannot be a guardian of his wife. Wife is not a chattel. She has her own identity in life and society. Even I am not guardian of my wife.”
For centuries, in fact right up to the 19th century, the common law of England had ‘coverture’ which stated that on marriage, a woman's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, only an unmarried woman under these laws had the right to own property and sign contracts in her own name. Coverture still continues, symbolically, when a woman takes on her husband’s surname and drops her own maiden surname.
Coverture derives from the issue of paternity, and the real chance of paternal investments in offspring which could not be one’s own. To ensure paternity as authentic, a woman was given into a man’s keeping as a bride in patriarchies across cultures around the world. That gave the man proprietary rights over her.
To quote from a study, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For Chattel by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly,
“By 'proprietary,' we mean first that men lay claim to particular women as songbirds lay claim to territories, as lions lay claim to a kill, or as people of both sexes lay claim to valuables. Having located an individually recognizable and potentially defensible resource packet, the proprietary creature proceeds to advertise and exercise the intention of defending it from rivals. Proprietariness has the further implication, possibly peculiar to the human case, of a sense of right or entitlement.”
The rather medieval notion of the wife being the property of the husband to do as he wishes might not be legally tenable anymore, but it does persist in the majority mindset. This is perhaps, most obviously tracked down to the patriarchy of the culture where a woman when married goes to her husband’s home to live, and in some communities even has her first name changed after she gets married. A virtual erasure of sorts, of her identity from birth, taking on a new identity after she becomes someone’s wife, is done by this change of name and the taking on of another surname. It is this new-found identity of the wife that will now override all her previous identities. And it is this identity of hers as a wife that will have her identity subsumed to that of her husband’s.
A virtual erasure of sorts, of her identity from birth, taking on a new identity after she becomes someone’s wife, is done by this change of name and the taking on of another surname.
When does marriage become a union truly of equals? When do a man and a woman in a marital partnership recognise that both of them have the right to independent decisions about how they wish to lead their lives, and that learning to accommodate the other’s wishes willingly for the sake of marital harmony is not the same as being compelled to accept the other’s decisions because of the overwhelming influence of the patriarchy that still holds sway. Till then, we must hope, that the words of our apex court are read widely, and perhaps paid heed to.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV