Via Sepia Mutiny a depressing and heartening story about an abuse victim in Bangladesh. The depressing part is when a deranged husband bites off the nose of his wife and gouges her eyes out because of suspicions of infidelity. The heartening part is the reaction of large segments of Bangladeshi society when the husband’s apologists attempt to use the accusation of infidelity as the justification for his behavior, and are rebuffed and rebuked.
Earlier this week we had a discussion about natural human impulses and how they relate to norms. I have believe that the reaction of this husband was an extension of natural human, and particularly male, instincts. In other words, there’s an evolutionary rationale for why men in particular are extremely sexually jealous of their mate’s infidelities. The rationale can be succinctly stated: paternity is theoretical in a pre-modern environment. When intersecting with patrlineal, patrifocal, and patriarchal social conditions, as is the case in Bangladesh (and arguably most of the world) the “natural” response by males and coalitions of males is to engage in vigorous “mate-guarding.” The offspring of females are assimilated into the male kinship network, and the male’s family is responsible for provisioning them. Any suspicion of infidelity must be met with extreme consequences to discourage “free-riding.”
In many barbaric societies this system is reinforced by broader group-level norms. Not only does the focal male-dominated kin-group enforce mate-guarding with extreme vigilance, but the female’s natal kin-group may also defer to the suspicions so as to protect its own “honor.” The dynamic can extend outward, so that enforcement of these norms falls not just upon the dyad of the two male-dominated kin-groups which have entered into an exchange of females. So you see cases where whole villages can come together and kill a woman who has defiled the “honor” of two families. This sort of norm enforcement is replete in the literature.
What’s going on in Bangladesh today? The cultural scaffolding for this sort of behavior is starting to melt away. I suspect the reasons for this are manifold. On cause is likely the necessity of some female participation in the modern labor force resulting in greater economic independence of women from either their husbands or their male relatives. Additionally we might be seeing the fracturing of kinship networks due to smaller family sizes and geographical dispersion. The material and ideological forces which militate toward the arrow of history pointing toward liberalism broadly understood is tearing down the set of norms which result in innumerable women being physically and psychologically destroyed by the web of “honor” which minds “traditional” societies together.
I believe that in many ways this strips away may of the layers of constraint to the point at which citizens of modern liberal democratic states exist in a world of male-female power relationships which more closely approximates that of small-scale hunter-gatherers. Removing away the social amplifiers does not negate the likelihood of violence of men upon women. The male instinct toward mate-guarding may remain, and males are on average larger and more powerful than women physically. But in the ideal situation these sorts of assaults no longer receive positive sanction. Rather, they are negatively sanctioned by society as a whole, and females may fall back on the protection of their natal kin-group and circle of friends, which is what human sentiment is predisposed toward (i.e., even if “honor” societies the relatives of females may sometimes enforce norms reluctantly because of their natural emotional attachments). Female infidelity in this scenario is not a concern of society, it is the concern of one male, and the nuclear family. This does not mean that tragedy is averted, but it does serve as a check on the impunity which men in many societies have felt in relation to their physical domination over women.