Violating the Hindu Norm of Husband-Wife Avoidance

Article excerpt

Until recently, anthropologists focused so much on uncovering cultural patterns that they de-emphasized the anomalies and irregularities that they found (Freilich, Raybeck and Savishinsky, 1991: 1). Fortunately, it is now increasingly recognized that cultural rules are not fully shared but are often contested by individuals and social groups (Clifford, 1986; Derne, 1992a; Freilich, 1991; Mines, 1988; Stromberg, 1986). Morris Freilich (1991) argues that the recognition that individuals often break social roles should lead anthropologists to study deviance as a specialized field. Studying deviance involves changing our orienting questions. Instead of trying to understand what generates social norms and why people conform to them (Homans, 1964: 810, 814), the study of deviance focuses on understanding why people violate social norms. This article brings this focus on deviance into family studies by considering why some Hindu men violate the norm of husband-wife avoidance.

Scholars who emphasize cultural conflict usually emphasize how subordinated groups contest the rules that constrain them. In Hindu India, social norms demand that interactions between husband and wife be limited to prevent the blossoming of close ties which might threaten the harmony of the joint family a a whole (Carstairs, 1957; Das, 1976; Luschinsky, 1962: 65, 342; Sharma, 1978, 1980a: 3-4, 1980b: 219; Papanek, 1973; Kakar, 1981; Mandelbaum, 1988: 5). Recognizing that this norm subordinates women by forcing them to be passive and silent in the presence of a husband who might be able to advance their interests, feminist scholars have argued that Hindu women often reject the norm of husband-wife avoidance in order to cultivate a loving ally in their families (Bennett, 1983; Das, 1976; Luschinsky, 1962; Raheja and Gold, forthcoming). Instead of focusing on women who buck the norms that subordinate them, this article emphasizes that some dominant upper-caste Hindu men sometimes rebel against norms that demand that they have only limited contact with their wives.

Interviews I conducted with upper-caste Hindu men reveal that a substantial minority of men violate the norm of husband-wife avoidance. But why do some men rebel while others conform? I argue that older men are more likely than younger men to be close to their wives, that younger sons who have had experiences interacting with their elder brothers' wives are more likely than their elder brothers to violate norms limiting husband-wife interactions, and that mobile men and college-educated men are more likely to break social norms than less mobile, less educated men. These findings suggest that a greater range of socia experience empowers men to reject social rules.

Experience liberates by acting as both a cognitive and a social resource. Those with little experience follow social roles because they have nothing but their culture to guide them, while for other men experience provides a sense that the have options. In India, moreover, experience is a powerful social resource that empowers: Those with experience can point to the wisdom of accumulated years to justify deviating from social norms.


In 1986 and 1987, I did fieldwork and conducted intensive interviews with 49 upper-caste, upper-middle-class Hindu men in Banaras, an important North Indian city. In open-ended, semi-structured interviews, I asked men about joint-family living, arranged marriages, restrictions on women outside the home, and interactions between husband and wife, focusing on their interactions in their own families.

The men I interviewed are caste Hindus from Brahmin (20 men), Kshatriya (8 men) Vaishya (17 men) and Shudra (4 men) castes. They range in age from their twenties to their seventies. Eighty percent of the men live in households with more than one married couple, about half in households with three or more married couples. I interviewed both junior and senior members of joint households(1). …