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Is A Wife Only A Body, And A Marriage In India Only About Procreation?

Posted: April 7, 2021

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A recent case in which the Madras HC ruled that PCOS cannot be termed as impotency makes me wonder – was this another case of male entitlement and the compulsion for procreation in a marriage?

A married woman made a plea in the Madras HC to quash a petition that her husband had made for annulment. His reason was that since she suffered from PCOS, “due to her medical condition, she was not fit for co-habitation or giving birth to a child.”

For this, the husband had also invoked Section 12 (1) (a) of the Hindu Marriage Act which states that “a marriage can be annulled if it cannot be consummated due to the impotency of the respondent spouse,” which in this case is the wife, whose PCOS meant that her menstrual cycle extended to 25 days in a month.

But the question to ask is – is marriage a bond formed solely for procreation? Is this not creating unfair pressure on the woman?

Let’s unpack the term ‘trivial’ grounds

The Madras High Court in the present case observed that “the term ‘PCOS’ by itself cannot be termed as ‘impotence.

Thankfully, the Court also re-iterated the fact that PCOS is a common health condition found among the present generation of women, going on to state that marriage is not only about a bond for satiating the biological needs, but also about companionship.

An observation that is praiseworthy and ought to be shouted out to society at large, but the emphasis is laid here on the fact that this ‘companionship’ ought to be passed down to the next generation through ‘their children’. Unfortunately, this only re-enforces the belief that a marriage is supposed to be for procreation.

The judge also made a second observation, that “the present generation wants to end marriages on frivolous/ trivial grounds.” This was uncalled for.

The present generation realizes that a marriage cannot be a lifelong compromise, and should not be enforced just for the sake of societal validation. Locking a couple into a marriage is detrimental to emotional health.

Further, ‘trivial’ is a relative term. What might seem trivial to us may be an important issue for someone. Then why make a sweeping statement, which is accusatory towards a generation at large?

Can impotency be associated with women?

My biggest grouse with the court’s observation, in this case, was the fact that despite the husband having invoked Section 12 (1) (a) of the Hindu Marriage Act, which clearly states impotency as a ground for annulment of marriage, the Court went on to say that the husband has not stated the wife’s “inability to give birth to a child” as impotency. This is also contradictory to its earlier observation.

Does this case not bring to fore a serious lack of understanding or rather the refusal to understand female health issues? Further, is this not another glaring example of male privilege in a marriage?

What is the definition of Impotency? It is a common problem among men characterized by the consistent inability to sustain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse or the inability to achieve ejaculation, or both as stated here. While a woman can have sexual dysfunction, or vaginismus (a painful condition), which can result in her not being desirous of sex or her being unable to achieve sexual satisfaction, the term ‘impotency’ per se cannot be associated with women.

Does a wife ‘owe’ sex to her husband?

The endemic occurrence of marital rape and the vehement opposition to criminalising marital rape may make it seem so.

The man has claimed in the present case that he could not “cohabit with his wife as her menstrual cycle extended to 25 days in a month.” The possibilities here could be one of these:
~ A possibility in this case could be that the man has been conditioned by menstrual taboos so that he cannot bring himself to have sex with her when she is bleeding
~ This could be a reason for his secondary impotency with his wife; which is not the same a s actually being impotent, but just having a mental block due to her “25 days a month” periods.
~ The PCOD may be creating havoc with her ovulation, due to which she may have secondary infertility, and also it can be a painful condition in some ways, so she may be saying no, and also unable to conceive.

Which all comes down to – husband not ‘getting sex’ and has a problem, because, well, entitlement of an Indian husband.

If this is the case, is the inability to cohabit entirely the wife’s fault? All this also makes us wonder – was there any emotional connect at all, and is just the inability to “cohabit” and/ or inability to bear children enough to ask for an annulment? Is this what marriage is supposed to only be about?

But this brings our attention to a question that has been plaguing the institution of marriage in our country: does a woman have sexual agency in a marriage? Why is the onus placed on the wife to cater to the sexual needs of the husband at all times?

Absence of understanding of the woman’s psyche or her health

PCOS is a common problem among women in present times that needs to be managed but cannot be cured; implications can be managed with the right medical care and medication. But it is a common myth that women with PCOS cannot conceive.

I can say this with confidence, as I was diagnosed with PCOS in my teens and have been struggling with an irregular menstrual cycle for years, but I have birthed a child. Yes, I strictly followed my doctor’s advice from the time we were planning the pregnancy to the time I delivered.

There are plenty of other women I know who have embraced motherhood despite PCOS. So, it comes as a surprise to me that a man of today’s generation can have such wrong notions and an entirely wrong understanding of an ailment as common as PCOS. Like many men, he was clearly raised with the understanding that these are “women’s problems” and he should not concern himself about them. The result has been an ignorant man.

But it is this same attitude of the woman’s problem not being his concern that has made him entitled as well. Isn’t the attitude of the society, which puts immense pressure on the wife to keep the husband “happy” to keep the marriage going, to be blamed for this male entitlement?

Women are cut an extremely raw deal by society

Most married women in this country would remember that awkward conversation or rather lecture by their aunts and mother before the day of their wedding where they are told how they ought to “keep your husband happy and appear pleasing to him at all times.”

I doubt if the men are subject to such sermons.

This saga continues after the marriage, where you have the sister-in-law and the mother-in-law tell the new bride how she should dress in particular colors or a particular manner as her husband likes it. What about her likes, is anybody concerned?

A month or two into the wedding the most annoying question of it all starts, “when are you giving us the good news?” This question also is targeted at the poor wife. When there is a delay in the supposed good news the automatic perception is the woman is unable to conceive or she is suffering from a deficiency or ailment. The delay could be due to any number of reasons, including the couple not being ready for a pregnancy, or the husband having a medical condition but the wife is the one who is subject to the blame and taunts.

A few years ago, an elderly female relative was telling the other women gathered in the room, “women these days don’t think twice before labelling their husband impotent and seeking a divorce. It has become scary for boys to get married.” She wasn’t the only person I heard this statement from either. This statement like so many other societal assumptions we hear lacks veracity, and it reminds of that episode in the popular web series Made in Heaven, where the bride realizes on her wedding night that her husband is impotent, but decides to continue with the marriage than being associated with the stigma of being a divorced woman in India.

That is the truth of most Indian women, the social taboo and stigma associated with a divorced woman creates so much fear that they would live through an unhappy marriage than being divorced and happy. Though in reality, reasons for divorce as stated in this study reveal that 60% of divorces in India happen due to cruelty or desertion by a spouse.

The hypocrisy in the treatment meted out by society

Let us take the present case in hand, the husband has approached the court to annul his marriage because his wife is unable to cohabit or rather satiate his sexual needs, the court also has stated that the husband’s desire for cohabiting and his desire for progeny are valid. You cannot miss that tinge of sympathy towards the husband.

I cannot but think about the amount of sympathy and support he must be receiving from his family and acquaintances. Imagine a woman in his place, the first reaction would be to berate her for bringing her conjugal issues in open and washing her dirty linen in public. This will be followed by the deadliest advice of adjusting to the situation.

The worst example of this societal hypocrisy is evident when it is automatically presumed that the wife’s infertility is the reason, the couple doesn’t have children. Most men do not even agree to have themselves medically examined and their families encourage this behaviour. Why this need for encouraging the patriarchal perception of men being faultless?

Should having children be the main aim of a marriage?

The common belief in our country that marriage is for taking the ‘vansh’ forward has to change. Marriage should be essentially about companionship and the willingness of two people to share their life. Whether or not to bring children into the equation should be the couple’s decision entirely.

A marriage, like in the case before the Madras High Court where the husband is ready to annul the marriage because he considers his wife’s ailment of PCOS an inability to bear children. It is clear that he has no concern for her physical discomfort or wellbeing. Does such a marriage have an emotional bond? Are such marriages worth being kept alive? Should the country’s women be placed in such a deplorable position in the institution of marriage? Is it not time for us to seek answers for these questions from the society’s self-appointed moral guardians?

Image source: a still from the film Astitva

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