Not in the Name of the Mother

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David's Promise to Bathsheba, drawing, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
The mother is often reduced to a nobody by institutions.

Recently one of my friends shared with me an image of a certificate of registration issued to her by a reputed Indian university after she enrolled herself for her PhD studies at the university. The certificate states that she is the daughter of Mr so-and-so. I was rather bothered by the fact that the certificate acknowledges the candidate as the daughter of her father, who passed away five years ago, but not the daughter of her mother, who accompanied her to the university on the day of the registration. 

The registration form, however, had asked for the names of both parents of the candidate, and both names were provided accordingly. Nevertheless, the certificate of registration issued to her carried only the name of her late father and not that of her living mother. The university officially recognises that the PhD candidate is the daughter of a man who is dead. Unfortunately, and sadly, it does not recognise her as the daughter of the woman who gave birth to her and is still alive. 

Aware of the futility of the question, I asked my friend in part seriousness and part jest, why she did not insist that the university mention her mother’s name instead of her late father’s on the certificate. “The binding grand narrative of our patriarchal society … what else!” she bantered, in a tone of sadness mixed with vexation. She further added, “how unfortunate it is that in society a long-dead father continues to retain all claims of fatherhood regarding his children on legal documents while a mother, who is alive, has none.”

Other than her birth certificate, no other document of my friend carries her mother’s name. The story of my friend is the story of every Indian and perhaps most people across the world. Our society, religion and culture have depersonalised, eclipsed, obliterated, and reduced the mother to a nobody. The act of not recording the name of the mother, be it by universities or other institutions, in one’s legal documents is an extension of this despicable process of reducing her to a nobody. 

Madonna of the green cushion
Our society, religion and culture have eclipsed, obliterated & reduced the mother to a nobody.

How can the Indian society that grew up on the Law of Manu, also known as The Manava-Dharmasastra or The Manusmṛiti, which reduces a woman to a person of no significance in family and society, grant a woman the right to the parenthood of her children?  In chapter 5: 147-51 of the Law of Manu, the unrelenting patriarchal voice of the lawgiver affirms categorically that “A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in (her own) house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons.’ Giving a woman the right over the parenthood of her children is unthinkable in a society that has not yet weaned itself of the gender-based teachings of Manu. The patriarchal male-chauvinist voice of Manu declares firmly that a woman “should not have independence” and that she “should not try to separate herself from her father, her husband, or her sons, for her separation from them would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.” Therefore, how can Manu’s patriarchal society regard her as a person with an identity, personality, independence and rights of her own? Manu reduces her status to that of a mere housemaid emphasizing that “she should always be cheerful, and clever at household affairs; she should keep her utensils well polished and not have too free a hand in spending.” Arguing that “when her father, or her brother with her father’s permission, gives her to someone, she should obey that man while he is alive and not violate her vow to him when he is dead,” he asserts not only her supposed inferiority to men but also her insignificance. What right can a housemaid have over her husband’s children that she gave birth to? None! Therefore, going by the Law of Manu, a mother has no right to have any claim of parenthood over her children. 

a woman “should not have independence” and that she “should not try to separate herself from her father, her husband, or her sons, for her separation from them would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.”

The purportedly progressive and liberal Western world nurtured to a great extent by the Judeo-Christian worldview is no less patriarchal. A closer look at the biblical narrative of the genealogy of Jesus corroborates the patriarchal presuppositions of Judeo-Christian society. As per the common practice among ancient Jews, the gospel of Luke 3:23-38 and Matthew 1:1-17 present the genealogy of Jesus along the line of the supposedly worthy masculine ancestry. Jewish genealogies rarely mention the names of mothers. Hence, Luke presents the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph to Adam through forty-two generations of his male ancestors with no mention of the name of any woman. It is as if only the male progenitors of Jesus have any claim over his earthly sonship. 

Gospel of Luke
Luke presents the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph to Adam through forty-two generations of male ancestors.

Matthew presents the genealogy from Abraham to Joseph through twenty-seven generations with the inclusion of the names of five women. However, Mary is the lone Israelite woman among them, and the lone woman with a good reputation. The remaining four are non-Israelite women with blemished reputations– Tamar (a woman who pretended to be a prostitute and solicited sex with her father-in-law), Rahab (a prostitute), Ruth (a sexually liberated widow), and Bathsheba (a woman taken in adultery). Mathew’s intent in including the names of the four women of disrepute in the genealogy was to establish the notion that Jesus, God incarnate, who came to redeem the sinners, chose to be born into a family of sinners as a mark of his identification with the sinful humanity. However, what is noteworthy in Mathew’s narrative is the fact that he converges all the sins of Jesus’s human ancestors into women alone and absolves all his male ancestors. Both genealogies proudly try to link Jesus to Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, and David, the greatest King of Israel. The incarnate Son of God was made to fit into the patrilineal genealogy aligned with a patriarchal view of history and faith.  

Bathsheba

As per the book of Genesis 2: 23-24, woman “was taken out of man,” and hence, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The notion of both the man and the woman becoming one flesh is an ideal and romantic concept. However, when it comes to St. Paul’s translation of this concept into practical life it gets a predominantly patriarchal colour. He tells married women to be subservient: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5: 22-24). As he advises married men saying, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” one cannot help noticing that the concept of man and woman becoming one flesh in the Old Testament times has become tantamount to a woman losing her individual identity by assuming the identity of her husband by the time of St. Paul in the first century.

According to the principle of ‘coverture,’ an old legal doctrine from English common law that originated in England, and later travelled to America, a woman did not have a legal identity. At birth, she was covered by her father’s identity, and after marriage, she was covered by her husband’s identity. In line with the aforesaid biblical argument, after marriage, a man and woman are no longer two distinct individuals but a single, unified legal entity; and that legal entity is the husband. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), tells us how this deceptively romantic-sounding notion of ‘coverture’ strips the woman of her legal identity and reduces her to a nonentity. “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” Coverture also strips her of all her rights as a person because under this law, “a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself.” After marriage, legally, a woman becomes part of her husband’s self; she becomes a nonentity; in fact, legally, she does not exist; ironically enough, only her husband exists. She owns nothing; she has no rights, not even over her children. What is worse is that she has no right over her own body.

married couple in 1780
'Pleasures of a Married State' published in London, 1780.

With the passage of time, patriarchy has somewhat loosened its grip on society, especially on women. Women are slowly reclaiming their space, rights, privileges and their identity that patriarchal society denied them for centuries. However, the state of women in society continues to remain rather disheartening even today, because our world is still predominantly the world of men, and our worldview continues to reinforce the pre-eminence of men in all spheres of our life.

For example, consider the prevailing Indian (though largely Hindu) practice of married women having to wear the mangalsutra, the sindoor, the bangle, and the toe ring– cultural and spiritual symbols to ensure the welfare of their husbands. Their husbands, however, are not required to wear any of these to ensure their wives’ welfare. A woman’s welfare, identity, rights, privileges, aspirations, feelings– do they matter? Though they matter more than ever today, they don’t yet matter as much as the matters of men. Therefore, why would a university acknowledge the mother’s name on a student’s certificate of registration? It has to be in the name of the father, even if he rests in peace, and not in the name of the mother, who is joyfully alive.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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