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Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

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By Anjum Altaf

Feudalism never existed outside of Europe. Scholars of South Asia use the term ‘feudalism’ to refer to something that in its classical form in late medieval and early modern Europe was something quite different.

That in general is the tenor of the comments I have received in response to my assertion that women in South Asia suffer under the persistence of feudal values. This is a very old debate and I don’t really have a quarrel with the criticism. It has a place in scholarly exchanges but in popular parlance in South Asia the term feudal has acquired the status of a short-cut description for a particular set of values. This set of values is well recognized and understood by participants in a discussion.

I could very easily have cast the whole argument without any reference to feudalism at all but would then have had to spell out aspects that are grasped instinctively by reference to the term. We are talking, in effect, of the contrast between two sets of values that can, without any loss, be simply termed ‘old’ and ‘new’.

These contrasting values can be appreciated quite easily by reference to monarchy. While there can be a fierce debate as to whether anything like feudalism ever existed in South Asia, none can disagree with the assertion that monarchy did. It may not have been an exact replica of the monarchies of Europe but that is not material to the argument.

The claim is that pre- and post-monarchical social values are expected to be different. These differences stem from the major features that characterize the transition – divine right to electoral accountability, subjects to citizens, courtiers to civil servants, etc.

Of course, the break is never clean and values almost always and everywhere lag the change in institutions. But, in the case of South Asia, we are advancing a stronger claim to the effect that we are not really in a post-monarchical world entirely – we have quasi-monarchies wrapped up in democratic costumes.

This may be too strong a claim for some but it would be hard to deny that vestiges of the monarchical order are everywhere to be seen. How else would one account for the persistence of dynasties and the kind of groveling that was depicted in the photograph of a Sri Lanka minister paying homage to her President?

Following from this is the argument that these practices persist because an essential feature of the social structure of South Asia – the dependence of the many on the few for access to basic rights and services – has survived largely intact. The transition from pre- to post-monarchical regimes was not accompanied by any kind of social leveling similar to what transpired in Europe. The patron-client formation remained and adapted itself to the new institutional forms, representative politics and market economics, implanted from above by the departing colonial rulers.

Subservience is an obvious accompaniment of patron-client relationships as is dynastic rule. The others are those mentioned in the post under discussion – loyalty, honor, and a peculiar sense of property in people. We are quite aware that both men and women were considered property under slavery while neither is in preset-day capitalist economies. Between the two, there is an in-between stage where women are considered akin to property much more than men. Add the fact that the body of a woman is the repository of honor and we have the predicament we described in contemporary South Asia. It is not really essential whether these values originate in a feudalism that is akin to or different from the feudalism of Europe. What is relevant is that these are values that remain alive in our region.

Some readers have suggested that the arguments presented above are unnecessary and the phenomenon under discussion could be attributed much more simply to patriarchy, an arrangement in which power is disproportionately controlled by men. I would argue otherwise. Patriarchy is an almost universal phenomenon and reading Joyce’s stories in Dubliners one can readily grasp that relations within the household in the Ireland of the time were quite as patriarchal as in other parts of the world. But this patriarchy did not extend to the public treatment of women as property associated with the honor of a family.

This is also not to argue that women in the Ireland of that time, or for that matter of today, were not seen as objects of sexual attraction inviting unwanted attention and harassment. The plot of ‘Two Gallants’ from the same collection of stories makes that abundantly clear. But the scornful, vulgar view of ‘other’ women, much like that seen in contemporary South Asia, was not equivalent to the association of family honor with a woman’s body and thereby her treatment as property to be guarded zealously quite independent of any other interest in her person as an individual.

This potent combination, a vestige of old social values to which men want to hold on, continues to torment women in contemporary South Asia. These old values are in conflict with new ones in which women wish to be liberated and to exercise choice on equal terms with men in the ownership of their bodies. This conflict is at the root of the peculiar nature of violence against women in South Asia which is quite different from the violence that continues to exist in other parts of the world.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. 

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