Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

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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9 Responses to “Women and ‘Feudal’ Values”

  1. A. Ercelan Says:

    well put. economic structures obviously matter to human outcomes. a wadera may not now have his historical powers but ‘wadera shahi’ remains a good term to define much power without much accountability, including loyalty to a person rather than an institution of collective legitimacy.

  2. Ishtiaq Ahmed Says:

    The general blanket term patriarchy is not enough to understand the way women are viewed and treated in South Asia. Perhaps cultural feudalism is a better term to understand this phenomenon as the author persuasively argues.

  3. Harbans Mukhia Says:

    Voila, while the tenor of the argument by dear friend Anjum Altaf is beyond question, like any sweeping argument it leaves many spaces blank, besides the question of terminology. ‘Feudalism’ is not the only problem with it. Quite apart from the questioning of the very concept of feudalism even in European context by scholars like Susan Reynolds and several others, I think the counterposing of ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ (though not used by Altaf), ‘monarchy’ and ‘democracy’ has problems. The chief problem inherent in all these and more such is the counterposing of continuity vs change as each other’s negation. The French Revolution brought about change in world history. Then historians like Francois Furet began to ask, “Was there a French Revolution?’ and demonstrated encompassing continuities with the past. The Soviet Revolution of 1917 brought the world to its penultimate stage of development in Marxian schema. 70 years later found that not much from pre-1917 had altered. I have in my old age come to the realisation that the sociological concept of continuum in preference to counterpositioning has much to recommend itself. Continuum has space for mapping change as well as continuity. If the Srillankan lady is touching the President’s feat; Sri Lanka has also had women PM and President, with probably men touching their feet. Our own Jayalalitha would kick a man bending to touch her feet; he must prostrate himself on the floor to be noticed by her !!!
    But mercifully in social sciences, there is no last word, no ultimate truth out there for us to discover. Contestation and disputation and discussion is our raison d’être and it is beautiful. Thank you Anjum for initiating it.
    Harbans Mukhia

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Harbans Mukhiaji: Thanks for your comment which has opened up the discussion – the focus is now squarely on continuity and change. I have a number of observations I would like to offer for your consideration.

      I agree that we should avoid binaries (e.g., ancient/modern) as negations of each other. As I mentioned in the post, there is never a clean break. This is especially important because we were talking of values which almost always lag changes of a material nature. (There are exceptions, of course, and it might be useful to keep them in mind – the invention of the birth control pill in the US in the 1960s could arguably be tied to the rapid transformation in sexual values. John Updike could serve as a good guide to this period.)

      I also agree that change takes place in a continuum. At every moment in time there is the vast majority that is, willingly or unwillingly, content to go with the flow. But there are also people at the margins invested in change and others equally invested in forestalling that change – a very loose image can be elicited by reference to the terms moderates, radicals and conservatives. (It should be remembered though that the radicals are not necessarily forward-looking. They could very well be interested in a change that takes society back to some mythical golden age of their imagination.)

      Through these interactions in the moment, the status quo alters over time. The more important point to note, however, is that change is not one-dimensional. It is multi-dimensioned so that it is quite possible for some dimensions to alter and for others to remain the same. In that sense, it is misleading to say of the Soviet Revolution that 70 years later nothing much has changed. It would be fairer to say that some things have altered a lot and others not much at all – serfdom, as it was then, is no longer to be found nor is dynastic rule. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, survives.

      My argument is that change actually does happen although we might disagree as to its extent and causes. The values that pervade the Lahore of today are very different from remembered values of 40 years ago let alone the values of a cosmopolitan Lahore before 1947. If we agree on that, we can go ahead and talk about the implications of those changes for societies, women, minorities, etc.

      I feel you missed the point when you referred to Sri Lanka also having had female leaders with males touching their feet. In fact, you agreed with my contention that the practice of subservience has survived in South Asia. That is because the social structures that give rise to it have not changed. Gender was not relevant to this particular argument. We have seen that in Pakistan during the reigns of Benazir – she too had many willing and happy bag carriers.

      • Harbans Mukhia Says:

        Very fair, to say the least. But let me return to the problematic of continuity vs change. The Greek Heraclitus–6th-5th century BC– is credited with two statements saying the same thing: change is the only thing that is permanent and you can’t put your hand in the same river twice. Great statement, but it firmly puts continuity and change in binary boxes, sharing nothing. The fact is that while the water of the river into which you had put your hand has flowed away, the river still exists and flows. One of the problems of looking at change in terms of a dramatic break — a revolution — is that it overlooks the imperceptible change that accumulates every day in every sphere of our lives gets lost in that vision. Marc Bloch the great historian of ‘feudalism’ divides his study of the Feudal Society into two feudal ages and observes that while the society lived by a consciousness of changelessness, in reality the change was so enormous that if persons from one age visited the other, it would be unrecognisable to them. But this change had occurred over a few centuries, quietly, imperceptibly. It was cumulative. Also gets lost is the enormous continuity even after a ‘revolution’ had occurred. My examples of French and Russian Revolutions were merely illustrations of it. Of course my silly statement that nothing had changed in Russia after 70 years is a gross overstatement.
        If we then look at continuity and change in a continuum, we are able to see layers of both in any society at any point of time. That was basically the point I was trying to make: that we ought to see how much has changed in South Asia including on the gender issue and how much of it is continuing. Looking at one part and overlooking the other gives us a partial picture at best. A good part of the correspondence here appears to me to fall into this trap.
        As for feudalism, one of its chief problems is that it is on one hand a catch all category and on the other a residual category, quite apart from its West European provenance. We all know what feudalism is not; we do not know what it is. At least I do not.
        And thanks, Anjum for taking my bit so seriously; no one else does.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Harbans Mukhiaji: If I take you seriously, it is not doing you a favor but entirely for selfish reasons. Every interaction adds to my understanding at no cost and with a great deal of affection. What more could one ask for in a world that has changed so much within our lifetimes!

          I agree with you that change is not dependent upon cataclysmic events. There is the kind of accretive change that takes place literally under our noses without our being conscious of it. It is perhaps only our need, when we become aware of it, to attribute it to something that makes us look for distinct turning points in the past.

          However, the fact remains that there can be two ages so different that if a person from one visited the other, it would be unrecognizable. Would it be fair to say that for the aspect we are considering, the place of women in society, that kind of a break is more noticeable in the West that in South Asia?

          I would like to reiterate that we are talking not of material changes but those in world views. To take you river example, the ancient Greeks would have treated rivers as sacred; for the modern Greeks they are just natural phenomena. In India, however, the Ganges still retains its sacred associations.

          As you will surmise, we are struggling with these issues. We had a similar discussion on the notion of modernity and it took us about ten posts with intense discussions to move beyond a very muddled starting point. In the end we dropped the use of the term ‘modern’ altogether and ended with this question: “So, finally we have arrived at the question we want to answer: What is the core set of South Asian values that have been evolving over time and how have they changed?”

          The post is here: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/04/04/more-on-the-modern-south-asian-%E2%80%93-2/

  4. santaremipblog Says:

    Without the slightest intention to deny ANY of the feudal realities of contemporary Pakistan (some of them self-experienced), as an Occidental woman I should highlight that Occidental women are only SEEMINGLY much better off.

    – Indeed we have earned our theoretical freedom, yet do we really enjoy it? Is it possible to enjoy freedom when Occidental women are expected to “enjoy” their triple-burden and perfectly handle family/maternity, as well as professional life, as well as a healthy body-spiritual life?
    – Indeed we are not forced into pre-arranged (child) marriages, then why is divorce soaring in the West?
    – Indeed we enjoy the freedom of controlling our bodies and sexuality, then why is natality crashing and abortion, infertility rising?
    – If we enjoy all the freedoms of the French Revolution and of the two Waves of Feminism why is the scope of anti-depressants and anxiolytics widening (blooming)?
    – If we have liberated ourselves even of God (“God is dead!”, isn’t he?) then why do we flock to shrinks and psychiatrist?

    There are no doubt, feudal realities in Pakistan… many of them I have experience hands-on. Yet, the much-liberated modern Occident is also ‘blessed’ with its own feudalities.

    Different and invisible feudal realities wrapped in postmodern pseudo-gods and superimposed top-down cultural-trends. It is precisely their INVISIBILTY within their shiny package, that makes them so unpredictable, slippery and duplicitous.

    As a chain reaction, this causality makes them so difficult to comprehend, study and uproot. …soul-raping, mind-washing, robotizing, de-humanizing, de-feminizing, Panoptic-Orwellian…

    So, the traditional interrogation: WHICH IS BETTER? West or East?
    The debate is hotter than one might think!
    – A colleague argues that we at least have what to eat in the West. At first sight he is absolutely right, yet does he know what the dessert is? Overmedication, antidepressants, weight pills, tranquilizers (and the list is long).
    – He also argues we have freedom to spend out life as we wish, as we are liberated. Perfectly right, on the surface.
    One: do we have Time? Or has Time become the robotized Westerner’s enemy?
    Two: in light of the above-mentioned invisible Orwellian realities, do Westerners (especially Western women) indeed enjoy freedom?… In the true sense of our Enlightenment forerunners of the French Revolution?

    Does INVISIBLE duplicity (Western human rights violations) prove more deceitful than VISIBLE atrocities?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Santaremipblog: I feel you misconstrued the argument in the post. It is certainly not about which is better – West or East. That kind of confused argument was made by Imran Khan in 2009 and was soundly criticized on this blog:


      The post was also not intended to imply that occidental women were better off or living in some kind of paradise (if they were there would be no need for an ongoing feminist movement). The point was to stress that there were some problems faced by women in South Asia that were very different from those of women in the West – honor killings or dowry deaths could be taken as an example.

      In addition, you have made some assertions that I disagree with. Why do you characterize low natality or high divorce as problems? Why should a woman not have a say in the number of children to bear? Why should divorce be a right exercised only by men? Would you want a woman to spend her entire life in an unhappy marriage rather than moving out and trying again?

      • santaremipblog Says:

        The purpose of the post was not intended to debate which is better or worse: East or West.

        Its sole purpose was to highlight that Occidental women ALSO face FEUDAL subalternities, feudal oppressions and feudal human rights violations that are Different to those faced by Oriental women… different in their invisible treacherousness.

        LOW NATALITY + DIVORCE: they do represent an alarm signal, (not inherently a problem in themselves), as they represent the tip of the feudal iceberg / pyramid / structure, a deep and deeply rooted set of feudal rules, mentalities and/ or taboos of the Occidental feudal – masculinist society.

        Far be it from me that woman should NOT have a say in the number of their children. I could never that. Far be it from me to argue that divorce should be exercised only by men.

        On the very contrary: as I mentioned, woman indeed SHOULD be able to control their sexuality, corporeality and their private-public life. They “should” yet are they able to? This is my message.

        So, this tip of the iceberg nevertheless mirrors that they are not YET able, due to a still masculinist, feudal – masculinist world of the West

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