Deconstructing the Treatment of Women as Property

Engagement of women in active paid employment has increased more than tenfold in the past century in the United States. Much of it can be attributed to the feminist propaganda spread by the government to keep the economy of the county afloat while all able bodied men were deployed on the front in the European continent during World War II. This was an interesting campaign to empower women and to encourage them to pick up tasks typically done by men. As empowering as the ‘We Can Do it’ poster with the lady, her red lipstick and bicep were, it’s interesting to see how war crimes against women took another half century to be considered human rights violation by the UN in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1993. Almost 30 years later there are still violations against women that are yet to be criminalised.

Crucial to this understanding is the concept of consent and the complete lack of regard for it, especially in the case of women, in Indian culture and society. Consent is the active agreement or permission given by an individual. To deprive someone of the right would be to imply that they are not rational independent individuals or are less capable of making their decisions. This is both dehumanizing and demeaning, especially when this right is taken away from a whole gender, under pretenses of protectiveness and tradition. Arranged marriages, on most occasions, operated on the very idea of denial of consent. It is traditional in South Asian culture to arrange a marriage, completely foregoing factors like the active enthusiasm and consent of both parties involved, hence paving the way for further violations of consensual sanctity in the relationship. This is one of the main links between marital rape and arranged marriages. Hegemonic familial structures enabling non-consensual marriage ensure impunity to the abuser and further encourages perpetration of intimate partner violence, a toxic cycle with one factor aiding the other, thus cementing patriarchy.

It is these heteronormative oppressive family structures that are so deeply entrenched in every sector of our society, that the concept of consent is considered almost invalid after marriage. In a marriage where the consent of the women is taken for granted, what are the chances of there being such considerations for sexual relations which are now considered a duty of the wife? (Bhat). The legality and legitimacy of a marriage is consummation and hence the lack of it is reason enough for an annulment, legally. This demonstrates how the foundation of a marriage is the establishment of further conjugal relations, irrespective of active adult consent. In such a case, laws against marital rape can be overly disruptive, almost threatening to the contemporary, patriarchal, oppressive family structure. Laws are a guideline, a structure, a means to achieve the ideal society that the nation aspires to achieve. It is quite revealing that there are so many policing hegemonic family structures.

An astute example of this would be the Restitution of Conjugal Rights, which ensure that a man, by law, is assured full access to his wife’sbody, regardless of the women’s consent, she is duty bound to provide him with legal heirs. Even by the judiciary, women’s bodies are seen as property of the men, for a particular use case and duty bound to their service, penalised for establishing sexual autonomy which in such structures, is completely eroded for women. More often than not, courts have refused to even comment on the issue of marital rape. The only incident where criminalising this offence was even briefly spoken about was The Verma Committee in 2013, which was set up after the Nirbhaya Rape Case for starting a discourse on new laws to ensure women’s safety, recommended removal of section 375 exception 2 which allows marital rape, but was eventually dismissed by the legislation 1.

Beyond the law, we can also identify and isolate these ideas in other cultural contexts available to us, as part of Hindu mythology, for example. The idea of women being treated as a property of the husband has been an issue almost as old as the genesis of our culture. In the ancient Indian epic of Mahabharata, Draupati the wife of the esteemed Pandavas is gambled away by her husband. She then goes on to challenge the validity of such a gamble as she raises the question of a wife being a man’s property and whether he had any right to place a bet on her. This was the first time, or the oldest record we can find of this notion being challenged 1(Luthra).

In Ramayana, Goddess Sita, after 14 years of wrongful imprisonment by her abductor, is rescued only to return to her kingdom where she is asked by her husband to walk through fire to prove her sexual purity. This further demonstrates how central women’s sexual ‘purity’ is to Brahmanical patriarchy.

The oppression of women to this extent where something as foundational as consent is taken away for them is a deep-rooted need to police women’s sexuality. Motherhood is a biological fact whereas fatherhood is a sociological construct1 (Menon), this can be very revealing when explaining why patriarchy has a need to police and control female sexuality and ensure that it was actually their progeny. This further introduced concepts of ‘purity’ and a new power dynamic into the institution of marriage. To ensure there was no habituation of sex in females.

This can be further demonstrated by how allegations of rape of married women are taken lightly or are considered arbitrary in a lot of cases. This is largely attributed to habituation of sex, that is naturally assumed in a marriage and how it restricts the ability to prove whether such a violation took place or not, as procuring physical proof like the extremely popular and inaccurate test of the presence of the hymen. This is to show that the testimony of the victim is never considered enough which can be very telling in terms of how deep rooted patriarchy is in our judicial and legal frameworks. To further avoid these habituations of self-awareness and sexual autonomy, girls are often left uneducated, illiterate, made to learn household chores and taught to be docile and obedient, in the hopes that they will grow up to be obedient, compliant women, who are easily dominated in the power dynamics in a family structure.

Marriage in India is seen as the ‘other’ for rape, the solution to rape, the way out. The discourse on institutions like marriage and patriarchy, and factors like sex and power that play an imperative role in their dynamics. It highlights the prerogative power of the state or the assumption that institutions like marriage assure security to the women on account of the superior status of men being secured by their supposed ability to offer such protection. Protection implies that women are material possessions that need to be safeguarded like the boundary wall around a house or jewellery and other valuables in a sealed metal vault. It suggests the idea that females should be protected because they are someone’s’ or in relation to a man, rather than because of their sanctity as another thinking, feeling human being, making up almost half of the world’s population. This also explores twisted and misguided constructions of gendered subjectivity and kinship. It is this notion that the institution of marriage protects women and safeguards them, that is problematic as it, coupled with the irrelevance of consent, enables intimate partner violence and makes it so rampant and commonplace. It is this notion that bestows impunity onto the perpetrators and the lack of consequences further encourages this oppressive and abusive behaviour. This forms an almost inescapable cycle that arrests women’s sexual autonomy completely and forces them to be dependent, second citizens without equal participation in decisions and choices with respect to themselves or others. It completely dehumanising and objectifying a capital possession to be owned, often demonstrated by terms used to refer to women like ‘arm candy’ and ‘trophy wife’.

In conclusion, although both the institution and the issue of forced marriage and marital rape are often observed do exist singularly, it is astute that both these issues indicate the lack of consent in South Asian culture, among the South Asian diaspora more broadly. When a relationship like marriage is solely established for the purpose of having legal heirs to carry the family name forward and establish conjugal relations, without? The presence of actual enthusiastic adult consent, it cements the way for further violations in consensual autonomy in the future without any legal, cultural or social remedy.

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