Posts Tagged ‘Feudalism’

Women and ‘Feudal’ Values

June 19, 2014

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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Women and Men: Thoughts on the Nature of Society

June 18, 2014

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.

Rajapaksa

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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