Patrilocal and Matrilocal Custom: Gender Discrimination or Pragmatism?

Feminists are often found to have serious issues with the patrilocal societies in which the girl moves to her husband’s place after the marriage. In their worldview, it’s a sexist and discriminatory practice in which a girl is expected to act differently compared with what a boy is supposed to do. Not content with criticising patrilocal societies, they also have issues with matrilocal societies in which the boy moves to his wife’s residence after marriage and sets up the household. Throughout the recorded history, most of the societies are either patrilocal or matrilocal. Their imaginary world of freedom in which the boy and girl move to an independent place of their choice doesn’t exist except for a fraction of people living in truly modern society. True to their nature, they never bother understanding the genesis of a practice and the practical necessity of it. Before we proceed, it’s important to note that most of the complex societies are patrilocal while only a small number of societies are matrilocal.

But why there was a need of establishing the system of having patrilocal or matrilocal society when couples could decide the location of their residence on mutually agreed basis? Won’t that kind of freedom eradicate this inequality of residence? First, their understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals is not true for traditional society in which marriage is a religious and social obligation. Though marriage is between individuals, its ramifications are social in nature. Consider a society in which there are huge number of children being born out of wedlock due to rising rate of failed marriages and the property disputes arising due to it. There can be many such social consequences of a personal relationship, so society needs to set and define the rules of marriage. When we are members of any society, we also belong to a lineage and family. The most fundamental duty for a human is to ensure that his progenies are born so that the lineage doesn’t die. The importance of lineage is so important that Hindu laws used to consider the adoption of a child who was sole male child of his parents as illegal because that will render his parents without any successor.

Based on different factors, different societies had different nature of lineage such as patrilineal and matrilineal. Again, no freedom to decide the lineage except for exceptional cases because for a stable society, rules are mandatory. When the lineage is clearly defined, it also defines the rights and obligations of both the parents and children. For example, as a son knows that he belongs to the lineage of his father in patrilineal society, he immediately understands his obligation of looking after his parents, protecting the ancestral property and enhancing the wealth of family. It’s understandable that in modern urban society, many people have little to no ancestral property which is an aberration. But imagine a scenario in which child doesn’t have a lineage, how will he inherit the wealth of his ancestors from both the paternal and maternal sides? Consider the conflicts which he/she will have to deal with contenders from both the paternal and maternal sides. But when lineage is decided, he knows that he will inherit the wealth of his father along with his brothers.

Within this framework, we can now seek to understand the importance of defining the rules around place of residence. Consider a boy A belongs to a patrilineal family where he inherits the wealth of his father in the village. He wants to marry a girl B who says that she doesn’t accept the patriotical rule and wants to stay in her ancestral village after marriage. There is a practical difficulty of how will boy A manage his own property and use it for generating wealth when he is residing in a village where he owns nothing? But if the boy belonged to a matrilineal society with matrilocal rule, the problem wouldn’t have emerged as there was still a defined rule of succession and inheritance around it. In traditional society where most of the people found their livelihood in the place of their residence, it was simply absurd to expect him to move to a new place and start all over again because his wife desired so. Thankfully, people understood these things intuitively back then. The rules around place of residence also ensure that both sets of parents will be taken care by different set of children and their spouses with mandatory obligations instead of the utopian notion of freedom.

The ones who are truly committed to the modern way of life, these rules have become obsolete due to the changing reality since both the husband and wife work in places different from their birthplace and take decision based on these factors. But not everyone is committed to such way of life and the vast mass of rural India is still traditional where such rules are absolute necessity to maintain the order and stability in the society. If we start dismantling each of the rules which holds our social structure while the underlying economic structure remains unchanged, we are inviting great troubles except for feminists who care about none except themselves.

Published by Satish Verma

Read. Contemplate. Write.

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