Posts Tagged ‘Marriage’

Sex in Perspective

January 23, 2014

Hollande. Royal. Trierweiler. Gayet. Tharoor. Pushkar. Tarar. A person hospitalized. Another dead.

France and India popped up in the news simultaneously for similar reasons and certainly not at our bidding. True, we had compared the countries before on the blog (Dynastic Succession: What is the Difference Between India and France?) but there was no intent to push the matter further. Now that fate has intervened, however, let us leverage it for comparative speculation on other issues of general interest.

To recap, our message on political institutions was clear enough – dynastic succession was acceptable in France at one time but not so anymore; In India it remains very much the norm, something both the majority of the rulers and the ruled take for granted. The question we asked was what this said about the peculiarities of democratic governance in India – was it just the old monarchical system in a new guise? Our answer was that such was indeed the case – in India, we could still promise the people cake and get away with it; the guillotine was barely a glimmer on the horizon, Kejriwal notwithstanding.

We can now proffer some observations on the differences between France and India in the social domain of family life. It is inconceivable, for example, that a First Lady in India today could be the kind of live-in partner there is in France (although this might not have been all that impossible in the age of monarchy, something that William Dalrymple could be read to suggest in his excellent survey India: The Place of Sex – an interesting thought on the nonlinearity of history that we set aside for another occasion).

We can hazard some broad generalizations about marriage. We might say, for example, that compared to India, the institution is on its way out in some countries in the West, if not yet in France – more people are living together in unregistered unions than in those sanctioned by formal or traditionally contracted marriages. Marriages, when they are contracted, are done so at a later age in France than in India. And, family sizes are smaller on the average in the former compared to the latter.

Sex is related to marriage – ‘responsible’ sex being one among the reasons for marriage since procreation out of wedlock had various strikes against it and contraception was not reliable enough – but, as everyone knows, it has a life of its own. And when it comes to sex matters are not simple anymore. That is because sex, unlike marriage, is not an institution but a potent human instinct.  And that leads to both more similarities and more differences across countries.

The similarities stem from the fact that basic human instincts – the fatal attraction of older men for younger women, for example – give rise to virtually the same desires and temptations across time and space. How many times have we heard or read the same story that is in the news these days. Some things just don’t change – only the characters that embody the stories are new, which, perhaps, accounts for the abiding interest in the oft-repeated phenomenon.

The differences, on the other hand, emerge from the circumstance that the nature of relations between the sexes is culture specific in the sense that there are local norms pertaining to the extent of control or discretion that is called for in the exercise of sexual desires before, during, and after marriage. What, for example, may be considered appropriate sexual behavior for college undergraduates or a recently widowed woman with teenaged children?

Not only is the nature of the relationship culture specific, it varies across sub-cultures which makes this a subject on which one cannot generalize at the level of India let alone South Asia. In fact, I would be reluctant to generalize even at the level of a neighborhood in a large cosmopolitan city. The one thing to avoid would be to prescribe how someone else ought to behave based on the set of moral values to which I subscribe. My values are just my values – they are neither the only legitimate values in the world nor are others obliged to pay any heed to them. One ought certainly to be true to his or her values but there is no logical basis for judging others from the perspective that they provide.

There is thus a great deal of relativism in matters of sex. When individuals contemplate a partnership they would have some sense of the norms applicable to their relationship, the ease or casualness with which the union might be dissolved, and the dignity and options that would be available to them afterwards.

Despite the relativism though, there are some universals involved in matters of sex. For example, there seems little variation in the condemnation of sex without consent, or under false pretense, or involving individuals not old enough to be cognizant of their own well-being. But there is more beyond these obvious hard lines as the fallout from the recent incidents in France and India seems to suggest. It is that relationships involve some modicum of trust – albeit varying, with ‘till death do us part’ not taken as seriously as it once was – and that violating that trust hurts no matter what the expectations with which a particular partnership was established. Valérie Trierweiler, who herself displaced Ségolène Royal in the affections of François Hollande, ended up in hospital in a state of shock when an even younger woman entered the picture. Sunanda Pushkar could not survive the trauma of the thought of betrayal.

With pleasure on one side and pain on the other, discounted differently as they might be in different places, how is one to get away from the universal calculus of pain and pleasure? Many questions arise. How does one tradeoff one’s pleasure against another’s pain? How much room is there for relativism in the drawing up of this balance sheet? Is this a subjective determination that is almost always biased in one’s favor under the heady dictate of a powerful instinct?

Is it this subjective determination, increasingly freed from externally imposed constraints, that distinguishes one type of person from another not just in matters of sex but more generally? Could one make the case that a resolve, even within vastly varying moral systems, to not hurt others, by word or deed, would lead to a better world?

The minimizing of aggregate pain seems a desirable social objective, more so in a world today that is rife with the indiscriminate inflicting of misery on millions. Perhaps this is the compassionate element of the Buddhist and Jain worldviews that one ought to re-examine with care. But would this restraint have some downsides of its own? What might we need to give up to achieve a world less selfish and less prone to accumulate satisfaction at the cost of others? And have we ventured too far along the road to turn back now?

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Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

May 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. (more…)

On Values: The Example of Marriage

November 21, 2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage.

The principal conclusions are the following:

  1. Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity.
  2. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. (more…)

Similar and Different: Why Marriages Fail?

March 29, 2009

This is indeed a remarkable coincidence.

Inspired by a great first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities and its contribution to our conceptual understanding of similarities and differences, I had remarked in the last post on the value of literature and of a good teacher. I had ended by noting that I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on the recommendation of Vinod, a participant in our discussion.

Lo and behold! All I had to do was go back to the book to encounter an equally great and relevant opening sentence and a great teacher leading the reader through an exquisite process of reasoning.

Here is how Chapter 9 (Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle) begins:

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And then the great teacher (Jared Diamond is Professor of Geography at UCLA) goes on to communicate what that great first sentence is telling us:

By that sentence, Tolstoy means that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

How quickly we come back to attributes again; here we look at them through the lens of compatibility. People are compatible in some attributes and incompatible in others; they are never totally compatible or totally incompatible – formulating relationships (in this case marriage) in an either/or framework would lead us down an incorrect path. (And, of course, people can work on minimizing their incompatibilities – that is what adjustment and compromise is all about.)

Professor Diamond then generalizes this insight:

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate causes of failure.

And then he uses the Anna Karenina principle to explain a very important phenomenon pertinent to the theme of his book (The Fates of Human Societies). The question Professor Jared wants to answer is the following:  Of the 148 large mammals (weighing over 100 pounds) that were found in the wild why could only 14 be domesticated (bred in captivity) by human beings? The approach he uses is to look at the attributes the wild mammals shared and the ones in which they differed.

Let us go over only two of his examples to get a sense of the analytical method. Horses were domesticated but despite innumerable attempts the Zebra could not. It turns out that the Zebra has a particularly nasty disposition – more zoo-keepers are injured in America every year by Zebras than by tigers.

Attempts to domesticate cheetahs failed despite repeated attempts over thousands of years. It turns out that the cheetah, unlike many other animals, shares the human attribute of not wanting to mate in front of others:

In the wild, several cheetah brothers chase a female for several days, and that rough courtship over large distances seems to be required to get the female to ovulate or to become sexually receptive. Cheetahs usually refuse to carry out that elaborate courtship ritual inside a cage.

There are many more fascinating examples but you can get the point of how the Anna Karenina principle can be applied to all sorts of things in life once we start thinking of things in terms of their unbundled attributes.

Now we can think of Indians and Pakistanis as large mammals and reflect on their individual compatibilities and incompatibilities. (It might even be an interesting exercise to think of the respective attributes of large mammals on the one hand and Indians and Pakistanis on the other!)

Or, alternatively, we can think of the Indo-Pak relationship in terms of a failed marriage because of some particular incompatibilities they were unable to reconcile (what might these have been?). The marriage ended in a bitter divorce. What are the ex-partners going to do now? Not rest till they destroy each other, or learn to co-exist as civilized individuals for the sake of the children (who might be the children?). Can they go about allowing each other to build their new lives? Perhaps get to the point where they can pay each other a cordial visit once in a while? An evening of daal chawal, gulaab jaman, paan masaala, a few old Lata tear-jerkers, a Bollywood DVD, perchance a peek at the old family album now covered with dust?

We will pick up on this theme in a later post.

PS: For the links between humans and mammals, see here.

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