The AFP reports that “the rate of suicide among the women in India was three times higher than in high-income countries, but tapered off among women who were either divorced, widowed or separated from their husbands” (June 23, 2012).
This situation has obviously resulted from male domination over the female, as it has evolved over a long period. The conjugal relationship, being the most extreme form of male-female liaison, contains within itself the perfected form of this coercion. Hence, the observation in the previous paragraph that tension is often released with separation between the two partners.
Engels calls monogamy (which has usually been for the women only) the world-historic defeat of the woman. It is a product of property, which itself begins with the appearance of the surplus product. And, paradoxically, the male subjugation of the female becomes heavier as greater productivity eases the living conditions, at least as long as he remains the principal agent of the provision of food and protection to her children.
Historically, productivity grew steadily in the Ganges Valley over the millennia, contributing, in turn, to the creation of an ever-stronger material base of the society. A social structure drawing strength from this base became even more resistant to change. And so its social customs and mores, including the pernicious ones, acquired the nature of social laws. They were, so to say, ossified. These included superstitions, child marriage, prohibition of widow’s remarriage etc.
The last, the prohibition of the widow’s remarriage, is perhaps the most irrational of the taboos from that age. The widow’s husband is taken to have died of her sins committed in a previous life. And the whole of her life on this earth, following the husband’s death, is an expiation for it. Many rich and powerful often took very young or child-wives too. So sometimes even a girl of three could become a widow and spend her life expiating not knowing what. Katherine Mayo, the author of Mother India, puts it thus: “The widow becomes the menial of every other person in the house of her late husband. All the hardest and the ugliest tasks are hers, no comforts, no ease. She may take but one meal a day and that of the meanest. She must perform strict fasts. Her hair must be shaven off. She must take care to absent herself from any scene of ceremony or rejoicing, from a marriage, from a religious celebration, from the sight of an expectant mother, or of any person whom the curse of her glance might harm. Those who speak to her may speak in terms of contempt and reproach…….” (pp 69-70).
The reformist movement of the 19th century, mostly in Bengal, which aimed at promoting the widow’s remarriage, starting with at least the virgin widows, did not attain much success. One of the hurdles here, apart from the difficulty of giving up any long-established practice, was the superstition of the widow bringing bad luck to her new husband. Anyway, mores die hard. I recall a Nepali friend, educated in a prestigious Western university, who told me that though he favoured the remarriage of the widow in principle, he always had a feeling of revulsion whenever he heard of an actual such marriage.
I have not understood this attitude of the Hindus towards the widow. The difficulty starts with the custom that when a girl marries, she has nothing more to do with her father’s house. So, the widow has to live in the house of her dead husband. There she is a burden, especially since the woman does not inherit property or anything from her husband. It should, therefore, be in her in-laws’ interest to marry her off. Maybe they do not do so because she continues to be regarded as her husband’s property, which his relatives do not have the power to give away. The logical solution would be the satee. If she does not choose it or is not permitted to choose it, the logical solution, one supposes, would be a miserable life.
The woman’s journey from the primitive community to a class society characterised by the private ownership of the means of production, has also carried her from free love to her husband’s ownership of her womb. As a consequence, she too is owned by her husband. As long as property exists, this state of affairs would continue, though it may be modified superficially with social progress in general. Her liberation cannot take place in any substantial way without the elimination of property itself. She shall own her womb, and its fruit, only when she will own the fruit of her labour, either individually or collectively. She will attain her liberation as a human only when the whole society attains its liberation through a workers’ revolution.
n The writer is a retired ambassador.