Friday, August 19, 2011

The Monstrous Regimen of Women - One View Of An Historical Matriarchy


Adapted From:
Appearances, Being Notes of Travel

Here at Cape Comorin, at India’s southernmost point, among the sands and the cactuses and the palms rattling in the breeze, comes to us news of the Franchise Bill and of militant suffragettes. And I reflect that in this respect England is a “backward” country and Travancore an “advanced” one. Women here—except the Brahmin women—are, and always have been, politically and socially on an equality and more than an equality with men. For this is one of the few civilised States—for aught I know it is the only one—in which “matriarchy” still prevails. That doesn’t mean—though the word suggests it—that women govern, though, in fact, the succession to the throne passes to women equally with men. But it means that woman is the head of the family, and that property follows her line, not the man’s. All women own property equally with men, and own it in their own right. The mother’s property passes to her children, but the father’s passes to his mother’s kin. The husband, in fact, is not regarded as related to the wife. Relationship means descent from a common mother, whereas descent from a common father is a negligible fact, no doubt because formerly it was a questionable one. Women administer their own property, and, as I am informed, administer it more prudently than the men.

Not only so; they have in marriage the superior position occupied by men in the West. The Nair woman chooses her own husband; he comes to her house, she does not go to his; and, till recently, she could dismiss him as soon as she was tired of him. The law—man-made, no doubt!—has recently altered this, and now mutual consent is required for a valid divorce. Still the woman is, at least on this point, on an equality with the man. And the heavens have not yet fallen. As to the vote, it is not so important or so general here as at home. The people live under a paternal monarchy “by right divine.” The Rajah who consolidated the kingdom, early in the eighteenth century, handed it over formally to the god of the temple, and administers it in his name. Incidentally this gave him access to temple revenues. It also makes his person sacred. So much so that in a recent prison riot, when the convicts escaped and marched to the police with their grievances, the Rajah had only to appear and tell them to march back to prison, and they did so to a man, and took their punishment. The government, it will be seen, is not by votes. Still there are votes for local councils, and women have them equally with men. Any other arrangement would have seemed merely preposterous to the Nairs; and perhaps if any exclusion had been contemplated it would have been of men rather than of women.

Other incidental results follow from the equality of the sexes. The early marriages which are the curse of India do not prevail among the Nairs. Consequently the schooling of girls is continued later. And this State holds the record in all India for female education. We visited a school of over 600 girls, ranging from infancy to college age, and certainly I never saw school-girls look happier, keener, or more alive. Society, clearly, has not gone to pieces under “the monstrous regimen of women.” Travancore claims, probably with justice, to be the premier native State; the most advanced, the most prosperous, the most happy. Because of the position of women? Well, hardly. The climate is delightful, the soil fertile, the natural resources considerable. Every man sits under his own palm tree, and famine is unknown. The people, and especially the children, are noticeably gay, in a land where gaiety is not common. But one need not be a suffragette to hold that the equality of the sexes is one element that contributes to its well-being, and to feel that in this respect England lags far behind Travancore.

Echoes of the suffrage controversy at home have led me to dwell upon this matter of the position of women. But, to be candid, it will not be that that lingers in my mind when I look back upon my sojourn here. What then? Perhaps a sea of palm leaves, viewed from the lighthouse top, stretching beside the sea of blue waves; perhaps a sandy river bed, with brown nude figures washing clothes in the shining pools; perhaps the oiled and golden skins glistening in the sun; perhaps naked children astride on their mothers’ hips, or screaming with laughter as they race the motor-car; perhaps the huge tusked elephant that barred our way for a moment yesterday; perhaps the jungle teeming with hidden and menacing life; perhaps the seashore and its tumbling waves. One studies institutions, but one does not love them. Often one must wish that they did not exist, or existed in such perfection that their existence might be unperceived. Still, as institutions go, this, which regulates the relations of men and women, is, I suppose, the most important. So from the surf of the Arabian sea and the blaze of the Indian sun I send this little object lesson.

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

 I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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