Upon hearing the word “family” a picture gets painted in our minds. Bonds that are stronger than love and friendships that go beyond life itself. Where one would look after each other to ensure each other’s happiness and prosperity; but this picture is merely art. Art that is nowhere near reflective of the actuality of families in our society.
Family as an institution serves to reflect patriarchy in society. Modern historians and sociologists describe a “patriarchal society,” as a society where men hold the positions of power and heads of governments. Time and again this institution has benefitted the male gender over other genders. This institution has functional purposes; to mold young girls into socially acceptable “women” and “housewives”, and to place in the belief of men having the “superior” ground. Where authorities and social structures like law, economy fall behind family plays into maintaining patriarchy.
Both eastern and western families have been traditionally known to have a function to play in society. The functions of extending the wide network of relationships, shaping individuals to traditional gender roles, maintaining superiority in society, etc. In different societies, the role of family was just this, especially in upper-class societies. In lower-class societies, families were extended to bring more workers and income in. The sweet loving happy family wasn’t a reality for a large population. Despite major cultural differences heteronormativity and patriarchy have been a common feature in both Western and Eastern societies. Both these families shared a common structure; the head of the family; “the father”, the soft-spoken housewife; “the mother” and children; a boy with all the freedom in the world and the girl who walked in the steps of her mother and never really belonged to her family. The traditional family lifestyle played on this structure and believed it to work.
The idealized peaceful and harmonious lifestyle we believe to know merely existed. In western society during the nineteenth-century families admired the discipline of the Victorian family. However, during this period though families suffered great tragedies with high death rates, lengths of marriage being less than 12 years, and much more. The admiration for the Victorian family mostly arose because of the strict authority of the parents over their children. During this era, spouses had little to do with each other and comparatively more with their children. According to historian John Boswell “In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in its middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married ‘for love’, but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences.”
Moving a little ahead in times, in the 1950s the prospect of an “ideal family” still escaped us as during this era men were emotionally removed from their wives, and often sought sexual adventures for themselves while setting a strict code of living for the spouse. While men were perceived to fight in wars women worked in homes and were forced to confine in the domestic role. Women’s identities were diminished to this role, if their existence went beyond the “housewife” it was overlooked and often perceived as rebellious.
Late- Modernists like Anthony Giddens and Ulrich beck recognize that people have more freedom now in terms of family relations and arrangements. However, they do not believe that freedom is as postmodernists would like to believe. Underlying patterns and experiences influence how family forms. A 2004 survey showed among U.S-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husbands. Up until the 1970s married women couldn’t function legally using their “maiden” names. The percentage of married women with different surnames than their husbands is higher though there seems to be no probable end to this tradition.
Family in Eastern society, especially Nepal plays a similar role in society. New relations are usually connected through the male side (patrilineal). The living style is traditionally patrilineal with the wife moving in with her husband’s family. This style matches with the idea of the woman being the caretaker. Adults often continue to live in the same household as their parents to start their own families. There is usually limited privacy in these multigenerational houses. The administration of patriarchy begins very early, mainly through socialization. Families in Nepal have a “Malik” (manager). He is supposedly the head of the family and is responsible for it. His position of authority gives him unchecked power. This can be observed as even when wife or children are responsible for all the work the ‘Malik’s stamp of approval remains of the highest regard. He is to be looked at when any family member disobeys or does anything that seems to be wrong. In Nepali society, while women are supposedly respected for their power and prestige, they seem to be dependent on their husband and/or father for their provisional income and decision-making. Their role of the caretaker very so often takes over their whole identity. Even though both the genders are equally represented in the constitution women continue to face different struggles in the workplace, such as having limited opportunities for managerial positions and the gender pay gap. It is also argued that women work a “triple shift” which includes doing paid work, domestic work, and emotional work (being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children). The load of the house stays on the women while the males are subjected to non-domestic chores. Assets remain in the name of the husband even in homes where both the spouses work. This also means, in the impoverished and uneducated demographic if women are separated (widowed or divorced) they can find themselves to be destitute. Such ruthless consequences leave little room for them to fight back against injustices and abuse. Anthropologists have also reported that wife-beating is considered acceptable in village life and need not be explained or justified.
The factor of religion plays a major role in maintaining patriarchy and oppressing women. It is believed that due to Hindu religious values women tend to have an attitude of resigned acceptance of the difficulties of life. According to Women’s rights activist Sujata Paudel “Due to society’s preference for boy children—rooted in religious customs and traditional beliefs—it is important for the wife’s firstborn child to be a boy. If not, she may have to give birth to many children waiting for a boy to come.” In the Hindu religion, sons are perceived as valuable as not only are they responsible for taking care of the parents and family but also performing any significant rituals. This perception makes it seem necessary and valuable to have a son, further diminishing the importance of women in society. Some ethnic groups do not even view women as human and respond to the birth of a daughter as having no significance. In Hinduism, there existed the ancient and outlawed tradition of ‘Sati’. The practice was where a widow was expected to sacrifice herself by sitting on top of her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Ancient Hindu customs viewed Sati as a symbol of closure to a marriage. It was promoted as a voluntary act in which, as a sign of being a dutiful wife, a woman followed her husband to the afterlife. Based on the belief that a Hindu marriage is not dissolvable, it stays alive even beyond death.
Conservatives today would argue that the harmonious family life is falling apart but ultimately the idea of the perfect family is found to be an illusion. This institution’s functions are to assign gender roles, oppress women, and maintain patriarchy. Different societies have found their own way to continue these roles. Despite being born in the same families, the lives that women and men live are nowhere similar. Through traditions and cultures that are followed in a family, a patriarchal hold and abuse of women still rings true.