Universality of discrimination and subordination

Universality of discrimination and subordination

The discipline of anthropology, since its inception, has been concerned with the dichotomy of local and global, idiographic and nomothetic, and universal and particular. This dichotomy in the beginning helped in explaining the evolution of society by locating the particular against the notion of universal. To some extent, any discipline that claims to be scientific in outlook must possess a universal, generalising character that can be law generating. In this respect anthropologists have always advocated micro-level studies with macro-level implications, which in turn helps in locating cross-cultural studies in a broader
theoretical framework. The notion of gender discrimination and its universality also reflects the basic tension of the discipline.

Another dichotomy that helps in understanding the universal character of discrimination is that of public domain and domestic domain. It has been argued that patriarchal ideology has divided the entire world into two specific domains with specific roles, rules and regulations. The public domain is largely meant for the male members of the society where they can negotiate their roles and establish their supremacy over the ‘second sex’. On the other hand domestic domain is largely restricted to the female where they work as primary care-givers.

In the domestic domain however, women are not entitled to take decisions pertaining to family matters which is largely taken by the males. This dichotomous view has been criticised sometimes for being ‘western’ in outlook. It is said that it originated in the western modernised world and has been generalised to other societies without taking into account the specificities in those societies. This calls for a revisit to the entire debate of public-domestic domain and take a re-look through the lens of idiographic, particularistic, contextual knowledge which has become a hallmark of anthropology since the advent of functional paradigm and re-instated in the post-modern ideology, though not entirely but partially.

Karen Brodkin Sacks breaks the monotony of universality by exemplifying the Iroquois society where the dichotomy of domestic-public is not found and women enjoy an enormous amount of decision making power in domestic, political, religious and economic spheres of life (Sacks, 1970). Similarly, Leacock has shown that among the matrilineal Native North-American Montagnais-Naskapi the division of labour between male and female members of the society is such that women are not dependent on their husbands .

Their economy is based on reciprocal division of labour between the sexes. In such societies there is no hierarchical division between the public sphere and domestic sphere, both the sexes produced goods that are necessary for livelihood. The above mentioned examples and many other similar cases reported by different scholars have revealed that there are societies where social relations are based on the principle of egalitarianism and men and women are placed equally in terms of their contribution to the society. However,
even such cases do not account for superiority of women over men and the egalitarianism mentioned is only partial and not total.

Status of Women in Tribal Societies

It is a general conception that tribal societies are more egalitarian than the nontribal societies or caste societies in the special context of India. It is a fact that tribal societies are not stratified on the basis of caste, but one might ask, that,what is the position of women in such societies and how is it different from other non-tribal societies? The answers to such questions are rather tricky and by no means straight forward. Considering the ethnic diversity in India, tribe is not a homogenous category rather it is heterogeneous based on language, geographical area, physical features, social organisation etc. This heterogeneity stops us from giving a sweeping answer about the position of women in these societies. If one wants to understand the position of women in these societies then one must understand that how work is divided between the sexes, who owns that work and to what extent it is considered important by the society.

A shear division of work between male and female members of the society does not mean that women will be treated unequally, but the importance that is accorded to that work is more suggestive. It has been argued that position of women in societies with different economic and social organisation is different. Those societies where hunting and food-gathering/shifting cultivation is the basic source of sustenance accord better status and autonomy to women since collecting forest produce is considered important for sustenance. Also women in such societies are more autonomous since they have control over some resources and its distribution.

As societies progressed from hunting-gathering to settled agriculture status of women started deteriorating since the ownership of land and its transfer followed the principle of lineage and such lineages were dominated by males. As Engles has rightly pointed out that the ‘world’s historic defeat’ of women at the hands of men began with the emergence of private property. In this context tribal societies must also be seen as societies in transition or transformation since they came in contact with the so-called ‘outside’ world. This has led to the emergence of the concept of private property instead of common property resources and dowry in place of bride-price which in-turn led to deteriorating women status.

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