A Subtle Shift of Power

In reasonably traditional/orthodox Indian marriages, the bride’s first name is also changed. The ‘also’ is to underscore the point that the last name gets changed almost always. The first name of a person, I have always believed, is very important to her. If that is indeed the case, I am surprised that some Indian women are happy/OK with this name-changing business.

Its not just names we are talking about here. Indian weddings come with dowry, customs that ridicule the bride’s family, how the groom is the King during and after the wedding, and a whole lot of other male chauvinistic cultural elements. As an anecdote, during a recent wedding, a North Indian friend of mine was shocked to see the groom taking photographs of a group of the bride’s brother’s friends. He was shocked to see the men of the family taking care of cooking and serving a traditional meal at another religious occasion. I guess South India is a little more progressive/liberal regarding these gender roles than the North – but its all still pretty much the same.

My first reaction has always been that of guilt and sadness about how the entire setup is not “fair.” This kept haunting me for a while, and I had questions regarding whether I’d personally be up to being fair when it came to my turn in a similar setup.

On deeper thought, I noticed something else in an ideal male dominated relationship. This is mostly seen where the man is dominant, but is also a mature and loving person, who genuinely cares for the relationship. Of course, it also involves a woman who submits voluntarily, consciously, and with full consent. In such a case, somewhat counter-intuitively, the lady holds the key. She holds the power. She is the one who can end it all. She can stop giving, stop accepting anytime. The day she says “enough!,” – the male dominance ends.

Why does it end? It ends obviously – as the giver has stopped giving. But thats not the interesting part – The interesting part lies in the expectation of the stop-event happening. Any thoughtful dominant person knows that the power exists as long as the submissive is happy. This apprehension of the submissive not remaining submissive anymore always keeps the dominant keeping the submissive’s happiness as first priority.

This doesn’t mean that the submissive can walk out anytime and the dominant is left nowhere. If the dominant has a lot of choices in life, in relationships, other more important things happening in life – this might not matter at all, and he might wait for the next submissive to come along. But if the relationship is something that cannot be done without, that cannot be broken easily, like a marriage – oh boy! the dominant is in quite a situation.

I suspect that Indian marriages is aware of this equation; of this imminent shift of power. and is probably one of many reasons why they are statistically more stable than others. Interestingly, BDSM literature also emphasizes on this virtual power that the dominant holds, and a possible power-shift towards the submissive, just whose knowledge is enough to keep the balance, and of course, increase the “fun.”

I have seen this work in relationships from both sides of the fence, and of course, none of it has been as clear cut, or as ideal for easy analysis. But I still see this shift of power leading to the dominant appeasing the submissive in various capacities – in everyday life – in major decisions.

PS: Genders here are incidental – it could always be a dominatrix who is apprehensive.

12 thoughts on “A Subtle Shift of Power

  1. Good food for thought .. I dont have much to say.. I need to start experiencing all now… 🙂

    Personally we both have balanced power.. Sometimes it shifts towards me and sometimes otherwise..

  2. I have been working on a post for my blog titled (tentatively) “A crime to bring up your daughter in the Indian tradition” that talks of how the girls get a raw deal in Indian tradition. They are expected to be good daughters/good wives/good daughters-in-law/good mothers, and in the process if they have to give up their cherished dreams/beliefs, they are supposed to do it. And this weird idea continues to this day, perpetrated under the name of “preserving family values”. Sad. Indian tradition/culture is very hypocritic in that we talk of how our culture “respects women”, but our treatment reflects the exact opposite. An evaluation of how well a culture treats a woman goes far beyond what the attire for woman is in that society.

  3. Pretty serious thoughts here bro. But what I think is throughout the relationship (in marriage), there is no set Dominator and Submissive. They keep changing and so both the individuals at any given point of time are aware of the fact that the power might shift and I guess that knowledge and the fact that the individual has been both dominator and submissive, keeps the balance of the marriage. And I personally think that also adds to keep the marriage more alive than it just being a routine thing!!

    Some more thoughts on the ritual of marriage itself – Even though it is all male dominated, so many times it is from choice I guess. I remember one relative of ours who did not do the “kanya dana” – because they felt that their daughter has chosen to live with this individual and they have to do their marriage so that their union is recognized by the society, but their daughter was still theirs and they were not going give her away as “daana”. Which I felt was quite commendable. I also have been at marriages of friends where the groom absolutely refused for his feet to be washed by his father-in-law who is elder to him. I have heard this groom in fact say that the parents are doing a honor to him by letting him marry their daughter and that their daughter loves him so he should wash their feet and not vice versa. So, even thought overall it is a male dominated, groom is the king kind of ritual, I feel like there are a few that are different, coz people like you are there and you think differently and act upon it. Also I would add upon the fact that “Havyakas” are much more liberal in South India.

    Another thought that comes to me regarding this ritual is that so many times even if the bride and groom might not actually agree with the “treatment”, they just go with it because it pleases the elders and it is just for that day!!! After that everybody knows that – Women Rule!!! J

    Behind every successful man there is a women.

    I am the boss of this house and I have my wife’s permission to say so.

    (WHEW!! That was a long comment. After a long time Samba has some competition from me.)

  4. Tradition boy Tradition!

    But I’m afraid there is much more to it. Teja is right in pointing out some of the subtle power equations in relationships. i feel power equations are a ubiquitous phenomena in all gregarious animal species from ants to lions to men.

    I’m afraid I need to go into a li’l of negotiation theory here. Let’s for a moment assume that relationships are a deal, albiet those of a much more complext nature than business deals. So let us call them social deals. The primary power in a negotiation comes from what you have to offer. The secondary power, which is often more significant than the former comes from the ability to walk out. What is ability to walk out? Michael Porter of Harvard calls it BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Arrangement). The stronger the BATNA, the more power you wield in terms of ability to walk out.

    Let us apply the BATNA principle to a cultural scenario like marriage. Let us assume that we are talking about a community practising dowry and let us also assume, pretty reasonably that dowry is an evil practice. What the BATNA the girls family wields. At best they can look for a ‘better’ guy. But no matter what, they have to end up coughing up the dowry amount almost as a rule. This is the effect of tradition. Tradition builds a saet of boys’ families that are used to accepting dowry and a set of girls’ families that are used to paying dowry. When you have such a strong protocol established by tradition, a demad-supply scheme also gets generated in the process. In this scheme, the demand and supply and sufficiently met by each other. Let us examine what happens to a girl’s family that refuses to pay up in such a perfectly matched ‘marriage’ market. This girl will simply find no takers. If she has to find takers, there has to be a wave among many more like minded gril families. So many of them to influence the demand supply equations. In short a revolution has to happen. Now let us look at what is the BATNA for the boy’s family. Probably they have to settle for a ‘lesser’ girl. But still they get to pocket thier dowry.

    Whose BATNA is better?

    There is more to come up over this!

  5. This is a continuation of my previous comment on the same topic.

    Coming to the mechanics of domination in BDSM or otherwise…. No one becomes the ‘dominated’ by choice. Everyone loves to call the shots. If someone lets you dominate her, it is because she can’t find people she can dominate or she doen’t like the ones whom she can. And among all the dominators available to her, you are best in terms of what you offer her. But if you push her too hard, the quality of your offering (business, love, sex….) deteriorates. When you cross the limit, the deal you offer becomes no longer acceptable and you lose the deal as well as domination. There is a parallel to this in job market dynamics. As part of the job contract, a job aspirant agrees to do what he is told to in exchange for money. In a way the employee becomes subordinate to the company’s interest. But if the company’s interest puts an unacceptable level of pressure on thge employee, the employee quits; Well, he quits assuming that he gets a better deal elsewhere or has other sources of sustainable income. But there are ways to make the employee come to terms even with unacceptable expectations. One – you can form a cartel with your fellow employers in the industry, who face similar labor problems and you can make sure that all of them treat their employees atleast as badly as you do. Two – You can make sure, probably with the government’s help,that a sizeable population in your land finds it impossible to make a living without working for you or your fellow employers. And you, as an employer, can always do away with unhappy employees if you can find job aspirants who are more desperate than your existing employees and who can take all your nonsense without complaining. This is how desperation wins battles for both parties – desperate men and their exploiters. An employer can win these battles even more effortlessly, if a system that ensures desperation is put in place. If such a system is not in place, the dominated starts calling shots, atleast some if not all. I don’t see why the same line of reasoning cannot be be extended to marriage, relationships and sex.

    The theory above and What puzzles me is the origin of these power equations and the history of their being biased completely toward one side. For example I don’t see a reason why the system of marriage could not have been biased in favor of the girl’s family. This could have been either accidental or intentional! If it had been intentional, it would have been enforced by the families of boys by dangling a carrot of some sort to the families of girls. This carrot might have been – economic security, social protection and solution to the problems of the weaker sex. As most jobs in the ancient world were physical jobs, men were naturally more qualified to perform them and hence become economically independent. A system of discrimination against women in employment set in. Consequently, a system of women not perfomring economic activity came to practice. So, a girl of employable age came to be viewed as an economic burden. Lifting this burden off the girl’s parents came to be viewed as a favor. In course of time this favor became a paid social obligation. And that’s how the idea of male domination in the institution of marriage became effective. Because women were relatively weaker than men in terms of physical strength, they became a target for stray men seeking sexual favors, forcibly or otherwise. Statistics reveal that women hate such advances from strangers and prefer men they love to strangers as partners in sex. The male community and the parents of young men made good use of this weakness to call shots in the marriage market.

    In essence, I figure that most of these traditions and power equations are enforced by sets of individuals effectively acting as a cartel, wittingly or otherwise and near uniform behavior across the individuals in each cartel. One of the interesting fall outs of this phenomenon is ‘victimization of one victim because of the existance of another’. I explained in my last comment about how tradition enforces dowry. One victim of dowry fails to fight the practice because many more highly willing victims exist and their presence renders our unwilling victim toothless. I end with a point that not many individual battles can be won by fighting as individuals. The society we social animals inhabit has come to exert its collective will over us individuals.

  6. Touche Samba, Touche. I will post my replies to your comments in another detailed post.

    Till then – keep writing – commenting – thinking.

  7. a poem that so wonderfully touches the topic discussed in the blog came to mind. It is titled Maiden Name by Philip Larkin…Google it and enjoy!

  8. and the problem is .. what exactly ? Person A choses to submit (making egenric statements like this is dangerous , still.. ) Person B chooses to dominate and either party can potentially change his/her mind anytime . So ?

  9. written in 2005; care to revisit it again now? 🙂 Will just say that every man (not referring to every1 who has a dick, those “guys” just make up the number anyway) needs a strong woman. And every family needs a hub around which it can revolve. I feel the woman is much much better at this. The man just cannot have his feet on the ground every day.

  10. “Any thoughtful dominant person knows that the power exists as long as the submissive is happy. This apprehension of the submissive not remaining submissive anymore always keeps the dominant keeping the submissive’s happiness as first priority.”
    You would have made a good therapist:)

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