Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

By Anjum Altaf

A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me:

He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.

This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows:

“He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.”

One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in South Asia.

Why might this be so, this stark difference of attitudes? The South Asian mind leaps straight to feudalism and, for once, it might not be wrong. Property and honor are the two of the principal attributes of feudalism and in nothing do they come together as potently or explosively as in the body of a woman. Property, no matter how unused, is to be protected, and honor, no matter how undeserved, is to be upheld. Even to steal a look at someone else’s woman could be asking for trouble.

One can explain the difference in attitudes if one believes that whatever feudalism emerged in Ireland following the Norman invasion of the twelfth century was gone by the first decade of the twentieth when Joyce was writing his early stories. In South Asia, on the contrary, it can be argued that the hangover of feudal values, if not feudalism itself, still shape attitudes and behaviors. The daily lives of women remain hostage to these values.

The persistence of feudalism in South Asia is, of course, a contentious claim. Many social scientists have argued that feudalism is dead and long gone, replaced by the values of a market economy. This, I believe, is an erroneous claim.

It can be convincingly argued that the ethos of monarchy continues to thrive in South Asia except that it is now everywhere cloaked in democratic garb. There is no other way of explaining the entrenched legacy of dynastic rule in almost all countries of the region. Nor can one explain the subservience of the ruled to the rulers without recourse to the continued survival of a monarchical culture.


The photograph above of the Sri Lankan Minister of Power and Energy, Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, paying homage to President Mahindra Rajapakse dramatically illustrates how subservience remains alive and well even within the ranks of the rulers. In the same vein, the following is to be noted from India as reported in the news: “Gestures perceived as sycophancy must be discontinued, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the newly elected MPs of the BJP, asking them to desist from practices such as touching the feet of senior leaders and offering to carry their bags.” (One indication that India is more advanced than Pakistan is that no such instructions could be expected in the latter – people strive to rise to the rank of bag carriers.)

Very similarly, forms of feudalism continue to survive in a market economy. One just has to look for them to unearth the neo-feudalism. The reason that both monarchical and feudal practices and values survive in South Asia today should be obvious – the hierarchical structure of social relations and the dependence of the many on the few continues unchanged. As long as a person is dependent upon another for anything, be it access to services, basic rights, or even good standing, the imperatives of patronage and the accompaniment of subservience cannot be dismissed.

It is informative to visit villages to see how modern neo-feudalism operates. The classic relations of feudalism defined by ties of mutual obligations have indeed disappeared – small peasants and landless laborers are no longer tied to particular landlords because alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector and in nearby towns and cities have emerged with the spread of the market economy. But the small peasant or landless laborer still does not have independent access to rights and services. For these, the intervention of the local big man is still needed although now the patron does not provide these in return for obligations on the manor. Rather, the services are often compensated through transactions more compatible with a market economy.

For more evidence of the persistence of the feudal value system, look no further than the primacy of its third major attribute – loyalty. Appointments to key public offices throughout South Asia are a dead giveaway (Presidents of Pakistan being a good example). If monarchy and feudalism were indeed dead one would expect to see a lot more emphasis on merit as a criterion for selection.

Democracy and the market are modern institutions superimposed in South Asia on a sub-structure characterized by hierarchy and extremes of social inequality. The imperatives of the latter determine values and drive behavior warping and distorting the institutions by their ineluctable force. It is no surprise that democracy is unable to deliver basic civil rights and the market unable to deliver a living wage to many.

There is of course a tension between the old and the new and the dislocations caused by the transition from feudal to capital values, the widening gap between acceptance and aspiration, is one reason for the increasing violence in South Asia. Almost all the marginalized struggling to improve their lives are its victims; women are just the most targeted ones because of their dual burden – they being forms of property as well as repositories of honor. Violence inflicted on women serves many more purposes in a feudal than in a non-feudal society.

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

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11 Responses to “Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society”

  1. Pallavi Raghavan Says:

    This was a really interesting post. And it also struck me that Joyce might also have recognized other critical political questions in South Asia– namely, conflicting political narratives based on historic differences relating to territory and sovereignty.

    On the question of feudal attitudes towards women in South Asia, I agree completely that the process of changing social norms is inscribed particularly painfully onto doubly oppressed women. At the same time, the ways they might choose to fight their oppressors may well vary: for some, public displays of obeisance and an apparent adherence to the patriarchal hierarchies they have to operate in, in order to gain some amount of economic and social alleviation, can be as useful a tool as choosing to directly confront these values..?

  2. Umer Farooq Says:

    Its a nice read, rightly highlighting one of the main reason of social deprivation of women of South Asia. Referring to what has said in Article i.e. South Asian Democracy; which is based on inequality and hierarchical classes rests on the shoulder of Feudalism along with Colonial legacies made it even more worse.
    On the same note the Patriarchal dominance on Religious Affairs further adds to the miseries of the women.

  3. Vikram Says:

    It should be recognized that the level of scrutiny and debate that this issue is receiving is also a result of partial demarginalization of women from the media sphere. In India, women made up only 12% of the workforce in 1995, by 2011 this was up to 25%. In the English electronic media, the figure was 32% in 2006.

    This has almost surely put a much sharper focus on the issues faced by women. Although patriarchy is important, especially since it makes hard to talk about issues affecting women in the public sphere, the most important factor is the quality of law enforcement.

  4. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Life at the bottom in South Asia. Any thoughts?

    • Vikram Says:

      I feel that Barry did not take her investigations and reportage to a logical conclusion. The person to be confronted here is the local party leader who provides Mr. Mewati his authority. This person should have been asked why his/her party tolerates or even encourages the presence of folks like Mewati into their organization.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Vikram: I agree that Barry should have followed up with the local party leader patronizing Mr. Mewati – she made Mr. Mewati more important than he is.

        At the same time, between ourselves, what would we expect her to find at the next layer? The calculus of party politics at the local level remains the same – to build or break vote banks. Most likely the perspective of the local party leader would have been the same as Mr. Mewati’s.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: There has been some outcome from the NYT report. Do you consider it significant?

        • Vikram Says:

          SA, from the perspective of the victim’s family, this is indeed significant. One hopes the investigation and trial reach their logical conclusion.

          At a broader level, I dont see how things can change if the electoral competition is so cutthroat, and people continue to vote (or be compelled to vote) along caste/identity lines.

          The limitations of India’s political system have deep roots in the political economy of its rural society, where dominant castes continue to be in a position to control the political choices of the mass (http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/asiwan/documents/clientAER-oct27.pdf),

          while at the same time demanding reservations:

  5. Vikram Says:

    SA, I sent a question to Dr. Anderson, not sure if she will respond. But I would like to get other people’s thoughts on the same.

    “It is my understanding that dominant castes are able to maintain control over the political behaviour of the landless and marginalzed mass because they provide employment on their farms, and assistance during personal calamities/emergencies. My question is, does the presence of alternative job opportunities (either in the village itself or vicinity), and the possibility of non-farm income from these sources precipitate a change in the political behaviour of the non-dominant population ?

    Although industrial employment opportunities in India are low, they are not completely absent. States like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana are bound to contain villages which are in the vicinity of industrial clusters, where non-dominant caste youth can potentially find employment in factories.

    Related scenarios can be found in Kerala, and some other areas of India from where non-elite youth has been able to find employment in the Gulf countries, remit large sums to their families, and effect a change in their socio-economic status. But I am not sure if this has led to a change in political behaviour.”

    • Vikram Says:

      Here is Dr. Anderson’s reply,

      “What you describe is certainly true. This is one reason why the Maratha farmers in Maharashtra dislike NREGA. It provides alternative employment opportunities and weakens the hold over the local labour.
      We have not done any study of an impact of a new construction project on the local rural area but it would be surprising if it were not true.”

      For the purpose of our original conversation, I dont see how the Indian masses are going to get rid of such abuse as long as they have to be reliant on landlords for employment. It comes back to the point about political inclusion becoming ineffective beyond a point without economic inclusion.

      Mr. Mewati would not have the kind of absolute and arbitrary power he has over the poor of Peepli Khera if they were not compelled to work on his, and his clan’s fields for a living. This would make people like Mr. Mewati have little leverage over higher party functionaries, and less able to manipulate the democratic political process.

      Now of course, industrial capitalists can and do manipulate the political process in industrialized democracies as well. But for various reasons, this is not as effective as the manipulations of landholding groups over a captive rural population.

  6. Vikram Says:

    SA, another question. Since we are talking about power and justice.

    There has been an office of Attorney General in England since 1243. What do you the implications of such an office being created and sustained are ? How far does it go in explaining on why Western Europe and South Asia are such different places today ?

    “The position of Attorney General has existed since at least 1243, when records show a professional attorney was hired to represent the King’s interests in court.”


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