Ownership of Women

Of all the reasons to burn an effigy of Richard Gere, it seems odd that kissing Shilpa Shetty is what finally does for him. A line from The Guardian’s report caught my eye:

Groups of men burned and kicked effigies of the actors in protests across India [my emphasis].

This reminds me of an issue highlighted yesterday over at Pickled Politics, concerning the status of women in Indian society, and the anxiety among traditionalists groups who see the breaching of caste and and community boundaries as a threat to the patriarchical status quo.
Sunny also links to a mea culpa from Shashi Tharoor (former candidate for UN Secretary-General):

… by speaking of the declining preference for the sari amongst today’s young women in terms of a loss for the nation, it placed upon women alone the burden of transmitting our society’s culture to the next generation … And this was unacceptably sexist: after all, my column only called for the sari’s survival, never demanding that Indian men preserve the dhoti or mundu.

I have encountered these double-standards before. While interviewing youths of Asian heritage for the documentary Sex, Lies and Culture, we often reached an impasse in the conversation when it came to the question of whether the same standards of conduct were applicable to both sexes. In one case, a young man actually endorsed the assault he was subjected to by the over-protective brothers of a girl he had been dating, secretly (“well, basically, they threw me down a couple of flights of stairs.”) He said that, had he found out that someone had been dating his sister, then he would probably have reacted in the same way. The overt message was that the men of the family, brothers and fathers, have a right to cast judgement on the behaviour of their sisters and daughters. And yet the demands that mothers place on their son’s behaviour do not carry the same moral weight.
This is not an attitude particular to Asian cultures. Within the UK, I still detect undercurrents of this same attitude. Often, when people hear that my sister has three older brothers, some comment is made about how that must be difficult for potential boyfriends… as if these brothers are some kind of obstacle. As if we have a right to interfere in someone else’s relationship. Clarice at Conceptual Reality detected a similar attitude in Mark Lawson’s recent radio play, Expand This, where a brother cannot tolerate the sexualisation of his (grown up) sister. The ‘ownership’ of women is implicit in wedding ceremonies, where the father (or male head of the family, when the father is absent) is required to ‘give away’ his daughter to some other man. The suggestion of a mother giving away her daughter, or indeed of of a mother giving away her son, is still laughed out of the room.
Finally, this attitude is also implicit in the coverage of Prince William’s break-up with Kate Middleton. The understanding is that, as a member of the Royal family, William has the right to sow his wild oats in any girl who is ‘lucky’ enough to catch his eye. Most insidious is the coverage of a groping he perpetrated in a nightclub, in which William’s Royal status is apparently justifcation for his behaving like a lecherous dickhead. Apparently, for a royal to cop a feel of your breasts is also a stroke of good fortune. Literally.

Even if women have formal political equality, there still exists in society an unspoken, second-order sexism. Yet another reason why there is a place for the ideology of political correctness, which can expose and shame these attitudes. They may be “Just a bit of fun, mate” or “Just a tradition, son”, but they can ultimately cause an erosion of self-confidence, and family conflict.

10 Replies to “Ownership of Women”

  1. Yes. It is interesting too how this point seems to carry much more weight when it is made by a male.
    The “protectiveness”/interferingness of fathers and brothers with regard to women’s romantic relationships rather than (or in addition to) presuming ownership, also seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement of, shall we say, the rather darker side of male behaviour towards women. The more general judgementalism I think is a separate issue.

  2. In the UK it works both ways, though. There is no shortage of women who interfere in the relationship their son has with a girl, usually with the objection that the girl isn’t good enough for her darling son.

  3. I think general parental interference affects both genders, yes. But I think the point Rob was making was about something a little bit more, and a little bit more specific than that.
    You wouldn’t say to a man with three older sisters, that it must therefore be difficult for him to conduct romantic relationships. Or would you?
    And I also don’t think that many sons find their chosen partners getting beaten up by their opposite-gender siblings. Relative to the numbers of daughters, that is.

  4. You wouldn’t say to a man with three older sisters, that it must therefore be difficult for him to conduct romantic relationships. Or would you?
    Oh yes! My friend has four older sisters, and he has a really hard time bringing a girlfriend to family occasions. Women can be far more judgemental of other women than men are of other men.

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