The gift and yoke of bastardy
Posted on January 24th, 2023

Malinda Seneviratne

Towards the end of the last millennium with some  countries worrying about glitches associated with Y2K or the year 2000, a magazine, maybe ‘Time’ or ‘Newsweek,’ asked world renowned people a simple question along the following lines: ‘what would make the world a better place in the next millennium?’  Maybe it was ‘next century,’ I can’t really remember. What I remember is the only response that struck me when reading through what scientists, artists, writers, statesmen and stateswomen, sports stars etc. had to say.  

‘The only idea that could save us is for women to run the affairs of the world.’  

That’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who in his biography ‘Living to tell the tale,’ writes at length about the women in his household, grandmother, grand aunts, mother, aunts, cousins and others, the things they did and did not do, the assertions and dismissals, idiosyncrasies and convictions, based on which he concludes, ‘they (women) are the ones who maintain the world while we men throw it into disarray with our historic brutality.’

Not just brutality, though. A fascination with the grand, the monumental, the ‘all-encompassing.’ They are gamblers, wagering on the ‘all’ and typically obtaining the ‘nothing,’ with women typically having to suffer the consequences of poor investment.  Women would no doubt add to this list.

But we are talking of ‘running the affairs of the world’ here. And reflecting on this, almost a quarter century later, I remembered a book my wife told me about around the time she was a postgraduate student: ‘The fish don’t complain about the water: Gender transformation, power and resistance among women in Sri Lanka,’ by Carla Risseeuw published in 1988. Couldn’t get my hands on it but my search did yield her ‘Gender, Kinship and State Formation: Case of Sri Lanka under Colonial Rule,’ an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1992 which does cover the material my wife and I discussed.

While there is evidence that the position of women, strong from the 5th Century BC to the 4th Century AD, had declined through the middle ages, Risseeuw contends that the traditional forms of family and marriage were largely independent of religion and the state or, if you will, administrative concerns.

It was the British who messed things up, she argues. Between 1795 and 1947, the British systematically brought the traditional forms of family and marriage under state control. An acting district judge named Berwick foresaw in 1869 that changes envisaged would lead to increased violence as well as women and children becoming even more insecure. He said that neither the uncertainty of paternity (in the existing system) nor women owning land and property were related to instability in the unions between men and women. He called the new laws ‘a bitter gift of bastardy.’

It was all about access to land, not just for the British but local ‘elites.’ All men, by the way. It was not about some moral indignation regarding relations between men and women, but a fundamental inability to understand the complex culture of inheritance (matrilineal and protective of women) and moreover a need to wrest control of property. The marriage and divorce legislation in effect complemented the draconian Waste Land Act (1840) and other ordinances that followed (1841 to 1907).

The British not only ensured the considerable downgrading of the status of women in marital unions but also enabled men to take control of property. In the new social and economic order women were paid less than the (underpaid) local workers. They were forced into an entrenched in certain employment categories, further concretising the gender-based division of labor.

Risseeuw summarises thus: ‘Both sexes were confronted with immensely harder work conditions. There were advantageous opportunities for a minority, which was predominantly but not exclusively male, with a tendency for males to take over female domains if they became lucrative. Thus slowly women found themselves in the least beneficial sectors of paid labour and trade.’

[By the way, those Kolombians and Kolombian Wannabes who lament that the British ‘left’ (they did not, as even a cursory consideration of political economy would show or, simply, an acknowledgement of the fact that the US Ambassador operates as though she’s some colonial Viceroy) would navel-gaze if they read Risseeau, never mind looking around and reflecting on what the British gave and took].

Despite all this, in conditions of violence, humiliation and insecurity that were largely non-existent before Dutch and the British hordes imposed their religions, their morality and their laws to facilitate plunder, women still ‘maintained’ their respective worlds. Then and now. In this island and in other lands where such impositions were similarly executed or were home-grown as the case may be.

Now it can be argued that it is not prudent to extrapolate from household to community or beyond, to country and a global order, even though the affairs of the world, especially things economic, is exactly that. The word economy is derived after all from the Greek words ‘oikos (house)’ and ‘nemein (manage),’ But more than all this, considering the historic disarray that male arrogance, ignorance and unforgivable brutality has caused, it almost seems silly not to consider very seriously the proposition articulated by Marquez.

We can blame the invaders. Sure. They plundered. They perpetrated genocide. They did their best to erase culture. They drenched our lands with blood. They burnt libraries. They razed temples and kovils to the ground to build churches. They enslaved bodies and minds. They put in place systems that could ensure continued extraction of value that fed their economies and people.

We have not corrected all that. Men, in particular, have continued to exploit laws and institutional arrangements the invaders put in place to further strengthen inequalities and obtain advantages.

We are in a social, economic, political and environment crisis that cannot be fully blamed on others. A key part of it is patriarchy manifested in multiple ways in the society we live in, the institutions we swear by and do nothing to rehabilitate, and the ridiculous laws we uphold. There’s a yoke of bastardy we have yet to unburden ourselves from. Indeed, we swear by it and leave it out of discussions on system change. Our daughters pay the price. Our sons too. 

[‘The Morning Inspection’ is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

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