Early morning logged into facebook (terrible habit I know!) to see my newsfeed about a case of polyandry (woman with multiple ‘husbands’/not partners) from India, reported in the British tabloid The Sun. It was astonishing to find a well known journalist (incidentally male) post this news with the caption, “Don’t miss this story from India: Young mum’s sex rota with five husbands – who are all BROTHERS!” The discussion underneath this update was all about how polyandry is a practice in certain tribal societies but that it is obsolete and irrelevant and should be abolished. There was a mention of some linkage of this practice to female infanticide and foeticide. Before I proceed to vent, I must say that, with all the good English language training in an Irish convent school in India (and overall elitist English medium education) I had to look up what ‘sex-rota’ means. I know why the nuns didn’t mention that word ever! But learnt today that sexual activity/intercourse/fuck is passé. The Sun tells us its sex-rota. I will defer to their English language skills.
Didn’t realize that people read ‘the Sun’ with such interest. I used to tell my students in England and Ireland that quoting from ‘the Sun’ or using it as a reference in their essays, would earn them a fail. I have been vindicated, again! A news about polyandry is sensationalized to such an extent that you wonder if you read it right, given the normalized practice of bigamy/polygamy (men with multiple wives). Men having more than one wife is not something that anyone has a problem with. The very fact that this news about multiple husbands, the way it has been worded and the discussion that I saw, only reconfirms worst kinds of patriarchal attitude towards women. I kept asking myself what is so ‘deviant’ about this news that merits such attention from a British tabloid and then from an Indian male journalist. The fact that the woman dares to have 5 husbands (all brothers); the fact that her mother also had 3 husbands and they are still a happy family; the fact that she doesn’t know who the father of the child is? I realize these may be just secondary in deviance. The real issue is the ‘sex-rota’. The woman gets to choose every night a different man and a different sexual experience. The article is more about the sexual behaviour of that one woman, not about the men or the practice of polyandry itself, the complexities of family life, property distribution etc. Hang on…didn’t I say, it was the Sun!
Heteronormative families and the violence they continue to inflict on women is considered relevant, normal and acceptable. I have been reading Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like A Feminist. She rightly mentions how the current Indian family has three interlinked features: patriarchy (gender/age hierarchy that favours men), patriliny (property passing from father to son) and virilocality (wife moving to husbands home). Any practice which does not fit the norm is deviant: polyandry, matriarchy, matriliny all are now considered obsolete and irrelevant. The ensuing discussion about this news I read on facebook also called for abolishing the practice of polyandry (both men and women recommending it). Importantly, those commenting confused monogamy as the opposite of polyandry! Monogamy ensures equality that polyandry doesn’t, really? Perhaps they mean, ‘equality’ in terms of a boring sexual experience for both partners? (don’t get me wrong, monogamy is not all so bad!). Another comment linked polyandry to female foeticide and infanticide, although the story of this woman and her family choices have nothing to do with these practices! Now we all know polygamy, by similar standards, has nothing to do with fewer males around. That would be an easy excuse to marry more than one woman and then abuse them all in one form or another!
The sensationalisation, quick judgment and policing of social norms which ‘appall’ our sense of what is right is also one of the real problems these days, another being the silence on cultural norms that oppress women. Obviously, neither the Sun, nor my esteemed journalist friend would post the story of a man having sex with multiple wives/partners. That would be too ‘normal’, mundane, boring. My facebook friend (incidently from Kashmir) was referring to it as a story from India, and the Sun ofcourse called it an ‘arranged Hindu marriage’. I was wondering if they were also alluding to Draupadi in the Indian/Hindu epic Mahabharata, who had 5 brothers as husbands. I hope there are other messages they take from India/Hinduism/Mahabharata than the ‘sex-rota’ (that wonderful new word) of women with 5 brothers as husbands! That, is in fact one of the more liberating messages about female sexuality, coming from the Mahabharata in what seems like a highly patriarchal story otherwise of men and their fratricidal wars over land. Well, for what it is worth, it is in the Mahabharata where women also exercise choice and control over their bodies. Kunti could have multiple celestial ‘partners’ to father her children, Yashoda was more venerated as Krishna’s mother while Devaki, the biological mum was reduced to a footnote in the story, Ganga chose to stay in a marriage only as long as she was not questioned and Satyavati ensured that her progeny would be royal heir!
And while I am at it folks, THE SUN is not the right place for insight into social mores and cultural practices anywhere under and beyond the sun!