Recent Trends in Family and Marriage Institutions

Ms Kiran Moghe

It is indeed a great honor to be invited to be the Chief Guest and be asked to deliver the Keynote Address for the National Seminar on “Recent Trends in Family and Marriage Institutions” being held at the Shrimati Sushiladevi Deshmukh Mahila Mahavidyalaya, Latur  on the 12th of December 2014. In a society which denied women and the oppressed castes the right to education for thousands of years, institutions dedicated to the education of women, such as this college, deserve special mention and appreciation.

I am deeply grateful to the organizers for bestowing this honor on an activist like me, who is not an academician in the strictest sense of the word. I believe that by doing so, your college has acknowledged the role played by the secular progressive women’s movement in our country, and in Maharashtra in particular, in taking forth and building on the legacy of Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and numerous other social reformers and thinkers who critically assessed the situation of women, and launched struggles for their emancipation. The women’s movement both in pre-and post-Independence times has played its own role in informing academic discussions on various social institutions, especially those of the Family and Marriage, and contested many theoretical claims regarding them. The experiences of the women’s movement and the issues that it threw up has in turn led to a large amount of research and enriched academic debates and discussions. I will therefore use this occasion to share with you some of my recent experiences as an activist, hoping to elicit discussion and debate on some of the emerging trends in these two institutions that form the core theme of your Seminar, viz. Family and Marriage.

The Indian Family and the role of women in it has been circumscribed by two basic structures – that of Patriarchy, and Caste. While each is in itself an oppressive structure, exerting control over the everyday lives of women in a myriad of ways, their combination has created an impregnable fortress that has imprisoned women for generations. A highly popular song during the early years of the women’s movement aptly summed up the situation – ह्या देशाच्या बायांना, आया बहिणींना सांगाया जायाचं हाय गं, एकी करून आणि लढा पुकारून ह्यो तुरुंग फोडायचा हाय गं (We want to tell our mothers and sisters of our country, that we have unite to break the prisons of our lives)”; and the second line was even more evocative.. ह्या तुरुंगाच्या भिंती भिंती मध्ये हाय लेकीसुनांना चिण्ल्यालं (the walls of this prison are soaked with the blood of daughters and daughters in law).

The Hindu patriarchal family has been studied by several scholars (V.K.Rajwade, A.S.Altekar, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, A.H. Salunkhe and many others) and is well described in the autobiographical writings of many women, the best example of which is Tarabai Shinde’s illuminating essay “Stree Purush Tulana” (1882) and I need not go into its details here. The Indian family is a graded system where the position of women is determined by their relation to the hierarchy of men; thus some women have some power relative to other women, but not to the men in the family. The wife is like a piece of property, epitomized in the ritual of ‘kanyadaan’ during the marriage ceremony. The system of patrilineal succession that emerged in the post-Vedic period required strict control over women. It also required the birth of sons, which even today is sought to be achieved through elaborate son preference rituals, and now, with modern medical technology. But most of all it denied them autonomy – both in terms of control over productive resources (for example, land) as well as the practices of daily life. With the development of the caste system, the caste purity of the jati could not be ensured without control over women’s sexuality. The Manusmriti is replete with descriptions of the dire consequences for women who breach the limits of caste barriers. Marriage is thus simultaneously a system of ensuring the continuation of the male descent line (vansha) as well as one’s caste status.   Such a system could not have existed without the use of force. Violence is therefore inbuilt into the Indian family. As Uma Chakravarti describes it, the mechanism of controls operated on women through three devices and at three levels: the first was ideology (the wifely codes of stridharma and patrvratadharma), the second was the right to discipline and keep women under control granted to their kinsmen, especially the husbands, and the third was the power of the king (the state) to discipline and punish errant wives (adultery by women was viewed as a major social crime). (Uma Chakravarti, Gendering Caste through A Feminist Lens, Stree, 2006).

One would imagine that with the advent of the Indian Constitution in 1950 that enshrines the modern values of liberty, freedom, democracy, equality and social justice, the Indian institutions of marriage and family would have undergone a change. With the spread of education in general and of women’s education in particular (through institutions such as the one we are gathered in today), more and more women are leaving the four walls of the traditional Indian home to seek both education and employment that will permit greater autonomy and control over their own lives. However, it appears to be an uphill struggle both physically and mentally as they battle old vested interests that continue to safeguard both patriarchal and caste hierarchies from this onslaught of modernity.

It is in this context that I want to share with you my most recent experience as an activist of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (the Akhil Bhartiya Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana) with whom I have worked for more than 25 years. A reference to the work we have done to support young women who face intense opposition to their assertion of the basic values of human dignity and self respect in a column in a popular Marathi newspaper (Prof Manohar Jadhav, Soon Molkarin Aste?, Sakal Saptarang Supplement, 16 November 2014) resulted in an avalanche (more than 450 in the first week) of phone calls. Incidentally the calls continue, but now I have stopped counting them! Even an activist like me who has been working on these issues since 1986 was astounded by the size of the response. But even more disturbing was the nature of the problems they described. I have documented some of them in the course of my telephonic (and subsequent personal) discussions with these women, and the following part of this paper is based on these narratives.

The calls came thick and fast from all over Maharashtra. In the first few days they literally came every minute, making it impossible to even speak at length to each of them; nevertheless I tried to record the names and numbers and subsequently contacted them and took details. The callers were the women themselves, their parents, brothers, sisters, other relatives, friends, and some sensitive men and women who empathized with the issue, and supported our efforts. It was clear that Vijayshree’s (the protagonist in the article) story had found deep resonance with their own lives and experiences. Some, including some fathers and brothers said they had tears in their eyes. One young woman said she had been contemplating suicide but the story had inspired her to struggle change her situation. They called from all parts of Maharashtra, remote rural areas in Vidarbha and Marathwada, from the suburbs of Mumbai; there was even a call from Vancouver, Canada. They belong to all communities and represent the entire caste spectrum. Many are well educated, working professionals, with equally educated and employed husbands. Their stories are the same – of physical and mental violence, of anguish and pain, of the systematic destruction of self respect and dignity by husbands, parents in law and other family members. Many are located in their natal homes as they wait in desperation to find a solution. Even the very act of speaking out was empowering – in one case the young woman told me that no one in her matrimonial home had spoken to her for several months!

I cannot share all their stories with you for lack of space and time – though it would be instructive, especially for students of Sociology. But I do want to recount some of them, if only to reiterate how the Indian Family continues to be a site of violence in a myriad of ways, and the manner in which human rights are being violated within the home.

It is not therefore hardly surprising that the both the title and the story in the article echoed the experiences of these young educated women. Perhaps even domestic workers are treated with more dignity and respect?

And so on and so forth….engineers, doctors, lawyers, graduates and postgraduates, and those who may not be so fortunate to have the opportunity for higher education, but who nonetheless seek to be treated as human beings, and not, as one young woman put it, “to be called a dog (kutri) and thrown out of the house with your bag and few belongings.”

It’s actually a familiar narrative, something that many of us as activists of the women’s movement heard regularly in the eighties as women’s organizations were being formed across the country. But these were the earlier years, when women’s rights were still being debated. In many cases, the women were  relatively uneducated, with no means of livelihood, pushed into arranged marriages by parents who felt they were burdens to be rid off. But much water has flown under the bridge since then – and the most important change has been the spread of education. What is striking is that in fact, education appears to have a differential impact – for women, it raises their levels of consciousness, creating a sense of self worth, but the continuing patriarchal mindsets of the matrimonial and also the natal family leads to increasing conflicts that remain unresolved. It is not that any of these women have rejected the institution of marriage; in fact most of them yearn for the “Happy Family” model that is advertised by multinational companies wanting to market Fast Moving Consumer Goods. Their parents do not understand why despite spending anything between 5-25 lakhs (the higher the educational qualifications, the greater the wedding expenses) in an effort to make their daughters “happy”, they continue to face tensions, and insults which they bear quietly, hoping that “things will sort themselves out”.

Thus it is quite clear that domestic violence has been institutionalized to maintain the patriarchal and caste structures and is very much a part and parcel of the Indian Family and Marriage. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that more than 50% of the cases of violence against women registered with police stations are to do with domestic violence, but unlike rape and sexual assault, this aspect of violence is rarely focused on by the media, perhaps because it deals with the underbelly of the family. A recent study (Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India, International Centre for Research in Women and UNFPA, November 2014) records that “52% women reported experiencing any form of violence during their lifetime and 60% men reported perpetrating any form of intimate partner violence against their wife/partner ever. Among the various forms of violence, emotional violence was most prevalent, with 41% of men reporting using it and 35% women reporting experiencing it. Following emotional violence was physical violence, with 38% of the women reporting experiencing it and 33% men reporting perpetrating such violence. 16% women reported facing economic abuse.” The women who contacted me were clearly experiencing similar situations.

The passage of the Domestic Violence Act in 2005 after a protracted struggle by the women’s movement has led to some more reliefs for women, in terms of getting civil court orders to restrain violent behavior and the right to residence, maintenance for children, etc, but as with most legislation, implementation mechanisms are poor with frustrating delays. The older S498A of the IPC which treats physical and mental harassment of women as a criminal offence is under persistent attack by conservative forces that claim “misuse” of the law by women. There has been a clamour by so-called “men’s rights groups” that have proliferated with the help of certain sections of the legal fraternity to make the section non-cognisable, bailable and compoundable, thereby making it virtually ineffective. A recent Supreme Court order (Hon. Chandramauli Prasad and Hon. Pinaki Ghosh, 14 July 2014) has virtually amended the law and converted into a non-cognisable offence, arrogating the powers of Parliament. A sustained and vicious campaign in the media that is not informed of ground realities has resulted in a false notion that the laws intended for the protection of women are misused when it is actually a case of under-use. Poor implementation of laws, lack of necessary infrastructure, budgets and personnel, combined with irresponsible and unfounded anti-women statements by members of the judiciary, administrators, political personalities, etc actually weaken the support mechanisms. In practice, the modern state is equally feudal in its approach to women. As modern values of freedom and democratic rights for women gain acceptance, the need to exert ideological control over women becomes imperative if status quo is to be maintained.

There are various ways in which this ideological control is sought to be wielded. Much of it is through the stereotypical images of women in advertisements, films, and television serials etc that are constantly beamed to us. Features about successful politicians are careful to mention that they always make sure their husbands and children are well tended to. A woman President is extolled for her large bindi and long sleeved blouses. Then there is the interview of a woman CEO of a large soft drinks multinational who ‘dies with guilt’ over the compromises she makes to balance her career with her

  • She is a BA, DEd. Her husband is a lecturer and so is her father; her father in law is the Principal of a college. She has been married for 6 months. The family insists that she does all the domestic work in the house; every few days all the unused pots and pans are taken down and she has to scrub them even if they are not required. She is told that she does nothing, only eats and sleeps. When she spoke to me, she was terrified and did not want any intervention; she simply wanted to know how to cope with the situation. What advice would you give her?


  • She is a BAMS doctor and so is her husband. She has no father and her mother brought her up and educated her. She has been married for a year. She worked in a hospital and used to give her entire pay packet to her husband, from which he gave her Rs 1000 every month for her personal expenses. Once she gave her mother Rs 200 out of that amount, after that he stopped giving her the Rs 1000! Now he has thrown her out of the house, and she lives with her mother. He told her he would take her back provided she behaved exactly as he told her.


  • She is a BSc, BEd, he works in a private multinational company. They have been married for 4 years out of which she is in her natal home for more than 2 years. The moment she became pregnant, he rented another room and took her to stay there. For 8 months she lived alone, cooking on a stove with two pots and pans. He did not even give her the utensils gifted to her in her marriage. He used to buy her a packet of oil, salt, some spices and some rotting food-grains, and bring her some vegetables every few days. Then she went to her natal home for her delivery. He did not visit her. She went back after a Caesarean operation. When her baby was 8 months old, he kicked her with his boots on her back, despite the fact that she had undergone spinal anesthesia. Today she lives with her parents, wondering what to do in the future.


  • She is an M Pharm. He is an MBA and works as a Manager with a private bank. She is living with her 3 month baby with her parents. They have a domestic worker in the house, and the mother in law deliberately calls her by the same name. He gives her no money to spend; once when she cleaned their house he gave her Rs 500 and she overheard him telling his mother that he had given her Rs 500 as “wages”.


  • She holds a MA degree, he is a Head of the Department in a University. They have been married for 15 years. He is constantly suspicious of her natal family and has now put a false case against her maternal cousin, accusing him of having molested his own daughter, just because the cousin had helped her in the past. She feels her daughter has been unnecessarily dragged into the matter, and consequently defamed. She is caught in a bind, between a husband who shows no trust and a natal family that has been insulted and shamed. Whom should she turn to for support?


  • She is a MA, BEd. Her husband is a software engineer. She gets no money from her husband for her own expenses. She decided to take tuition classes in a room located on the roof top of their house. She has a 3 year old daughter who needs to be looked after during those few hours. But her parents in law make it a point to go out during that period, so she is unable to concentrate on her students. She is scared because her child was sexually abused by a neighbor’s adolescent son some time ago.

Categories of Violence (ICRW Study 2014)

1. Insulted a wife/partner or deliberately made her feel bad about herself
2. Belittled or humiliated a wife/partner in front of other people
3. Did things to scare or intimidate a wife/partner on purpose, for example, by the way you looked at her, by yelling and smashing things
4. Threatened to hurt a wife/partner
5. Hurt people your wife/partner cares about as way of hurting her, or damaged things of importance to her.
Economic abuse
1. Prohibited a partner from getting a job, going to work, trading or earning money
2. Took a wife/partner’s earnings against her will
3. Threw a wife/partner out of the house
Physical violence
1. Slapped a wife/partner or threw something at her that could hurt her
2. Pushed or shoved a wife/partner in anger
3. Hit a wife/partner with a fist or with something else that could hurt her
4. Kicked, dragged, beaten, choked, or burned a wife/partner
5. Threatened to use or actually used a gun, knife, or other weapon against a wife/partner

family life. Rituals of Karva Chauth and Vat Purnima are glorified, even though the husband may be a regular wife beater, cheat and liar. Son preference is indirectly promoted by advertisements that encourage savings by stating that “ladki to pyaari hai, lekin bojh bhari hain.” Gender stereotypes are reinforced when banks advertise loans for a son’s education and for a daughter’s wedding. There is a constant and subtle pressure on women to conform and make sure that even if they step out for education or careers, they maintain their traditional roles within the family.

But of late, the ideological onslaught has become more direct with the rise of conservative forces who are gaining political ascendancy. Restraining women’s freedoms by resorting to violent attacks on them for wearing certain types of clothes, or making friendships with men of their choice, or frequenting public places that were hitherto the domain of men are increasing day by day. We must note that the underlying argument is that women are responsible for growing violence against them because they are crossing the limits, the maryada that has been set for them. It is not men, or structures of patriarchy and caste that are the cause of violence, but the waywardness of women, just like what the Manusmriti said hundreds of years ago.

It is here that I wish to draw the attention of this audience to the utterances of a certain lady who has become a highly popular guest orator in Maharashtra, especially for the Vidyarthini Manch programs in several colleges in the past few years. Her 60 minute speech warns of the death knell of the Indian Family. However, the blame is squarely on the ‘Mothers” who indulge their daughters, permitting them to attend tuition classes instead of learning to cook at home, wear revealing clothes instead of the Hindu symbols of ‘kumkum’ and bangles, crop their hair, etc and encourage them to be fearless and bold. What is most alarming is the manner in which she advocates complete supplication before the husband. I am scared of only one man, she says, and that is my husband, describing how she quakes before him as she hands him his evening cup of tea. Her advice for a successful marriage is simple – if you behave as if you have no intelligence, your family life will be highly successful! The key to a successful marriage is to bow before your husband’s wishes. This may sound hilarious, but according to her, if the husband is angry, a wife should simply drink water (and presumably swallow all the insults and her own anger with it?).  She berates those women who expect their husbands to help them in domestic chores, and scolds men that they no longer keep their women in check. A successful woman is one who is a “good” daughter, home maker, wife, mother and a cook. As a child a woman is dependent on her father, as an adolescent on her brother, after her marriage on her husband and finally as a mother, on her sons.

This is a clever strategy of popularizing Manu by giving him a more palatable and acceptable female garb. There are repeated references to households with single sons, so that son preference goes hand in hand with small families. And there is a persistent and underlying theme of violence – an errant daughter or wife ultimately deserves a beating.

Her entire speech is a frontal attack on the Constitution of India. Women can gain nothing from the courts, she claims, and neither should women claim equal property rights since it will only result in alienating her brothers. Education is secondary compared to religion. Science has ruined religion. We may note that the principle of Karma(embedded in the Bhagwad Gita implies that women who face domestic violence must accept it as a result of their past sins, and therefore cannot resist it by any means. The ideological trap is complete.

I will now turn to the other aspect of the Marriage system, which is that of the arranged marriage, the most common practice in India. The ancient texts describe 8 forms of marriage, which differ primarily according to whether they involve the practice of kanyadaan or bride price. The most acceptable form of marriage was the one where the father handed over the bride with gifts (Brahma). Marriages that involved taking material gifts from the groom were considered “Adharmya”; they were also those that were to be performed by the so-called “lower” castes. Included in the “Adharmya” types were also the ones which involved forcible marriages without the consent of the bride. It is interesting that the system of “Gandharva” marriage, which is essentially a self-choice marriage, is also considered “Adharmya”, because it reduced the authority of the parents. The main characteristic of the Indian marriage is that it is endogamous, restricted to a particular circle that is distinguished from others, in this case, the jatis of the caste system.  The practice of “matchmaking” refers more to matching the lineage and kinship, rather than the personalities of the young people in question. The nature and quantum of the dowry forms a part of this practice. These decisions are taken by elders, and those who are actually being bound in marriage are expected to fall in line and “adjust” in order to preserve the honour and status of the extended family. Self choice marriages, often called “love marriages” are therefore considered deviant behavior, even if they happen within caste, as they often do in modern times.

We must note that such arranged marriages included the obnoxious practice of child marriage that was abolished after a great debate in our country at the beginning of the 20th Century. Our Constitution forbids discrimination on the ground of caste, creed, gender, place of birth etc. In 1956, in the face of much opposition, a law embodying this non-discriminatory secular spirit of the Constitution came into force abolishing parity in caste/ religious community as a compulsory condition for the validity of a marriage. This gave an added boost to the question of mutual choice in forming marital relationships.

Having gone through all these struggles, however, our country today witnesses a situation where a choice made by a young couple in this matter still confronts a great deal of social and familial opposition. As the mobility of women increases with spread of education and also with women going out to participate in different kinds of work, of course, the opportunity for choosing a life partner for women also goes up. But this also whips up a backlash within society generated by forces of conservatism afraid of losing control over its women.

Not only do we find more instances of the family intervening to pressurize the girl to withdraw from her choice, especially when there is an inter-caste/ inter-community/ inter-class relationship, but cases of such young couples becoming victims of heinous crimes committed in the name of ‘family honour’ are also increasing in different parts of the country. Although there is no separate data being maintained on these crimes, it is estimated that at least 333 serious crimes were committed in the name of “honour” during 2012 (AIDWA Submission to Supreme Court, July 2013). Maharashtra has seen some of the worst such incidents including the deaths of Asha Shinde and Manisha Dhangar (2012), where the young women were killed by their own fathers, or the horrific blinding of young Chandrakant Gaikwad (Sategaon, Nanded, 2008) and the murders of Dalit youth at Sonai (2013) and Kharda (2014). Unfortunately, the late Justice Verma’s clarion call to the political class to declare crimes in the name of honour as “Crimes” in  his Report goes unheeded What is needed is a comprehensive law to deal with such crimes, punish those who perpetrate them and protect the couples.

All forms of conservatism in all communities target women’s rights and insist on marriage sanctioned by the family and the community. But the present situation is even more dangerous because there is an attempt to politicize the issue for vote gathering, as we saw in the campaign against so called “Love Jehad” which is nothing but a figment of the imagination of Hindu right wing forces. Unfortunately this communal rhetoric is given respectability when it is uttered from otherwise secular platforms. The lady I mentioned above actually mentions how there is a rate card for abducting Hindu girls from different castes, and of course the higher the caste the greater the amount offered. This vicious campaign is now being extended so that in Tamil Nadu, some virulently right wing parties are accusing Dalit men of hatching similar conspiracies to abduct so called “upper caste” women.  The point to be noted is that such campaigns gain momentum just before elections, clearly pointing to the ulterior motives involved.

We are now well into the second decade of the 21st century, and the rulers of this country talk of a vibrant India that will lead the world. But we cannot lead in the 21st century with ideas from the Middle Ages. Our Constitution makers led by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar took great pains to assert the modern values of democracy, secularism and equality as founding principles of our country. The road to women’s freedom and dignity lies on this path, and that is one we, all men and women, must tread on.