In other words, if for most of the 20th century males had lacked most legal and political rights and were legally considered the property of their mother until they became the property of their wife, or if she died, their eldest daughter?
Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
Thank you for the A2A,.
Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that such a situation doesn’t even require me to imagine anything? Because a situation quite similar to this existed in India not too long ago.
I am from Kerala, a state in the south of India. I belong to a community called the ‘Nairs’. Traditionally they were mostly either noblemen or army chiefs. The societal subdivisions even within Nairs was quite vast and we’ll not go there so that we don’t leave the context of this answer.
A Nair Lady
Nairs followed a matrilineal system of inheritance. This meant that the family name was carried forward by the women of the family, not the men. Every child belonged to its mother’s family. To ensure that the family property never left the family hands, every child of every daughter had an equal claim to the inheritance as its mother. The children of the sons did not have any claim on the family property of their father, though. Their position was in their mother’s house. When a man died, his property got automatically distributed among his sisters’ children. Neither his wife nor his own children had any rights over a single penny that belonged to him. But they enjoyed the same benefits in their own family home. This was completely legal until the implementation of laws abolishing this system of inheritance in 1975 which was mainly pushed forward by discontented Nair men. You could read about this system here→. When the new law came into force, every sibling was entitled to the equal share of the property and after their death, the property passed on to their children. This completely dismantled the earlier system and the notion of the man being the sole guardian of the wife and children came into being. There was nothing of the sort until then.
We didn’t even have a ‘marriage’ culture in place until recently. ‘Marriage’ was just another rite of passage but that did not mean that the woman let go of her earlier identity and ‘moved over’ to her husband’s family and became his ‘property’. No. She would be taken to the husband’s home soon after the ‘wedding’ and would be returned home on the fourth day. After this, she would be a visitor at her husband’s home for any weddings or such social functions. She didn’t have any position otherwise in his family. And neither did the children. You can read (if you’d like to know more) about this here →
So women were quite powerful once upon a time. They were financially independent. And they enjoyed a special position in the family as the ones to carry the family name forward. The birth of a girl child was one of celebration. “Ah! The family won’t die down now.” A son was just…well…needed…because the funeral rites of the parents could be done by a son or by the son of a daughter only. And there were some functions where a son would be useful. Although the son was given equal importance as the daughters, his wife and his children were always ‘outsiders’.
So you can see how things were balanced. When this system of inheritance and social standing was heavily modified, many things were changed and many remained the same. Even now, we still carry our mother’s family name. We still have the symbolic ‘bringing the bride back on the 4th day after marriage’ custom. It was prohibited for a woman to accept any piece of cloth from an unknown man because when a man gave a ‘cloth’ to a woman, that meant marriage. Basically that was all a marriage was all about. So, even today, for our weddings, the symbolic ‘giving of cloth to the bride’ is an important function.
When it came to politics, again, the eldest child became the next monarch. When a woman became the monarch, her husband was not allowed to have any say whatsoever in the running of the kingdom. He would refer to her as ‘Your Highness’ and was now permitted dine with her or sit alongside her at court. He had the status of a nobleman at her court but that was just about it. Nothing more. This is explained in detail in the book ‘The Ivory Throne’ by Manu S. Pillai.
We had a rather fascinating and very ‘different’ societal make-up not so very long ago.