Caste, patriarchy and the surrogacy market in India

Feminists’ argument for promoting commercial surrogacy has limited value, keeping in mind the social reality of Dalits in our society. It doesn’t deconstruct the foundations of caste, class and gender.
Caste, patriarchy and the surrogacy market in India
Caste, patriarchy and the surrogacy market in India

Barbara Omolade introduces the notion of specialised commodification where, “every part of the Black woman” was used by the white master. “To him, she was a fragmented commodity whose feelings and choices were rarely considered: her head and her heart were separated from her back and her hands and divided from her womb and vagina” (Omolade 1994, 7). Black women’s sexuality could be reduced to gaining control over an objectified vagina that could then be commodified and sold. The long-standing interest in black women’s genitalia within western science seems apt here in that reducing black women to commodified genitalia and vaginas effectively treats black women as potential prostitutes. Similarly, current portrayals of Black women in popular culture -- reducing Black women to butts -- works to reinscribe these commodified body parts. Commodifying and exploiting black women’s wombs may be next. (Patricia Hill Collins, 1990)

The Surrogacy Regulation Bill (2016) prohibits commercial surrogacy and aims to regulate altruistic surrogacy, where a close female relative of either of two partners in a heterosexual marriage, is allowed to act as a surrogate mother without receiving any monetary benefits or any other form of compensation. This bill claims to have been designed to protect poor women from probable exploitation in the surrogacy market. However, the bill doesn’t define the concept of a ‘close relative’. It curtails the rights of transgender persons, LGBTQIA+ people, and even single women, to opt for surrogacy as a method of reproduction.

Various women’s health organisations, activists, lawyers and feminists have vehemently criticised the bill. However, feminists’ argument for promoting commercial surrogacy has limited value, keeping in mind the social reality of Dalits in our society. It doesn’t in anyway deconstruct the foundations of caste, class and gender.

Debates on Surrogacy Regulation Bill

Chayanika Shah points out that the sanctity attached to the concept of motherhood and to the women’s reproductive labour is the central ideology of the bill. In a Facebook post she sarcastically writes, “Child bearing is such a noble cause that women should do it not only for their husbands but also for all eligible close relatives chosen and screened by the state! Such altruism is what becomes being a woman. How dare they ask for money to do this pious task? How dare they risk their health and do the labour and get paid in return?” She also points out that since surrogacy is a form of reproductive labour, it is better to be compensated economically. The bill should address the exploitative nature of surrogacy but not ban commercial surrogacy which deprives lower-class women of one of the livelihood options available to her, she says.

Several critics in this context also argue that the ban on commercial surrogacy may actually drive the whole process underground, worsening the condition of the surrogate mother. Other arguments by the activists in this context are: age related restriction in the bill also nurtures heterosexual patriarchal ideologies about how the father should be older than the mother; the bill might increase the pressures on the close relatives of the hetero-patriarchal couples; middle class women will be forced by the family members to act as surrogate mothers since the bill bans commercial surrogacy; by banning commercial surrogacy and promoting altruistic surrogacy, the state is promoting the ideology of family purity and marital reproduction.

While it is important to not underestimate various regressive ideologies that the bill can potentially promote, it is equally important to have an in-depth understanding of the very concept of surrogacy. It is interesting that the concept of family purity is debated lately when the bill has promoted altruistic surrogacy – a close relative of the couple would act as surrogate mother – while the whole concept of surrogacy in India is founded upon such regressive ideologies like family purity, which is nothing but continuity of caste.

Caste purity, family lineage and surrogacy

First things first, couples who opt for surrogacy in India are majorly heterosexual, patriarchal, dominant caste, middle classes. What makes them surpass thousands of parentless children (in both government and non-governmental shelter homes) and opt for surrogacy – an expensive method of reproduction – is nothing but their inherent belief in caste purity and patriarchy.

It is the ‘seed’ (sperm) of the father figure which is the most important aspect of IVF and surrogacy methods of reproduction. Caste purity, virility and family lineage are supposed to be carried on by this seed. Prior to the availability of these medical forms of reproduction, dominant caste men often resorted to second marriage. In a few cases they used to demand that the younger sister of the wife be ‘given by the father-in-law in second marriage’, as a ‘compensation’ for the infertile first wife –  known as Sororate marriage in a few parts of the world.

At times, men would also have concubines to beget children when the wife failed to do so. This was a common practice also in case the first wife failed to beget a male child for the dominant caste husband. It means the continuity of the man’s lineage is the most important factor while a wife is replaceable with another same caste woman.

However, in feudal societies, sexual access to Dalit women is normative, but the children born to Dalit women in such exploitative unions are not considered pure and are therefore not the legitimate inheritors of caste purity and family lineage. The dominant caste, middle classes’ entry into modernity has stigmatised such kind of polygamy, and substituted it with other forms of polygamous relations that are brief or short-lived, and do not disturb the sanctity and privacy of the primary caste-endogamous marriage.

The belief that the scientific/medical knowledge is an “absolute truth” has promoted the idea of surrogacy in contemporary society. The medical and scientific progression in India reiterates that the foetus is originally/genetically descended from the sperm and egg of the couple who hire the surrogate woman, while the surrogate mother is described as merely a hired womb. This ideology has led to commodification of Dalit/lower-class women’s bodies by investing on the aspirations of middle classes to have their ‘own’ child, with the same levels of purity of caste. The publicity of the surrogacy market is also based on this “scientific truth” about continuity of one’s own genes, in other words, caste or father’s family lineage. Moreover, IVF and surrogacy have made sex-determination more easy for Indian couples who generally opt for male babies and at times a male and a female child at once in twin pregnancy.

Sanctity of motherhood and surrogacy

As Chayanika Shah pointed out, motherhood is glorified and considered as a noble duty of women. This ideology is again the result of Brahminical patriarchy where Brahmin and dominant caste women are sexually controlled to ensure that no other man will plant his seed in them. Therefore, she is the primary carrier of the caste purity and family lineage. Such ideologies related to sanctity of motherhood might be the reason why motherhood cannot be commoditised according to the new bill.

Just as patriarchy is not a single structure in Hindu society, the construction of motherhood is also not unilateral. While motherhood of Brahmin and dominant caste women is glorified and placed on a pedestal, Dalit woman’s motherhood is stigmatised and subjugated by the same Brahminical patriarchy. She merely gives birth to children who are perpetually stigmatised as “impure” even in case of fulfilling her duty towards her husband.

Dalit women who are sexually exploited in the name of religion (as Joginis or sex workers) or as landless labourers by feudal landlords, do become mothers, who are stigmatised even further as sexually impure. Therefore, the construction of purity and sanctity of motherhood privileges only dominant caste women.

Chayanika Shah argued that surrogacy is a form of reproductive labour and hence should be paid. Any form of reproduction is nothing  but labour but the ideologies of sanctified motherhood and access to various resources make middle class women do it freely for their husband. Not all women beget children for their husbands as a duty or to continue their husbands’ caste and family lineage. For many Dalit women, motherhood is neither a privilege to uphold, nor a choice to denounce. However, dominant caste women do beget children as their womanly duty towards their respective husbands risking their life in both natural and IVF forms of reproduction. Whether the Dalit woman is paid or exploited in the market of surrogacy, middle class women cannot be liberated from the ideologies of sanctified motherhood by promoting commercial surrogacy.

Commoditising Dalit woman’s motherhood doesn’t subvert the ideology of sanctified motherhood, since no such sanctity has ever been attached to her motherhood. Her motherhood has been historically exploited, stigmatised, and even subjugated. However, the social reality of Dalit women is such that, they may opt for commercial surrogacy for economic reasons. Therefore, feminists argue that they should be saved from exploitation of the market. The exploitation that takes place within the family for middle class women is different from the plain commoditisation of Dalit/lower class women’s bodies in the surrogacy market. However, this argument in support of commercial surrogacy doesn’t shake the foundations of the exploitative structures of caste, but finds some solace for Dalit/lower-class women within the existing structural limitations.

Exploitation of Dalit women: Sex work, bar-dance and surrogacy

Feminist debates on sex work and bar-dance seemingly promote these livelihood options for poor women. Even traditional Brahminical societies have offered such inherently exploitative livelihood options exclusively to lower-class and Dalit women who are considered sexually impure due to the ipsofacto absence of caste/ritual purity. Feminists argue that the ban on bar-dance, or abolitionist framework in understanding sex-work, arise from the Brahminical framework of morality.

However, according to the Brahminical order of the society, Dalit women are supposed to be accessible to dominant caste men, both physically and sexually. Constructing sex work or bar-dance as a choice may not offer a radical alternative to Dalit women, nor does it necessarily deconstruct the Brahminical order and the concept of sexual purity.

In fact, Dalit women’s rejection of such forms of livelihood options, including manual scavenging, is an assertion of self-dignity. In order to subvert the ideologies of sexual purity and Brahminical patriarchy, the feminist reiteration and validation of sex work as “choice” in terms of conceptualisation is not merely adequate. 

Sex work and surrogacy are not still considered as plain economic opportunities by women in a patriarchal society. Some consider it as a social stigma to “sell motherhood” and others see it as sheer vulnerability of lower-class women. Both the arguments are problematic because they arise from patriarchal casteist notions about motherhood. However to deconstruct those notions, it is not merely adequate to pay the Dalit lower-class women for surrogacy while middle class women still bargain with patriarchy in a different way and are privileged by the patriarchal family structures. Since the complete deconstruction of the patriarchal caste-endogamous family seems implausible, the immediate remedy seems to be regularising commercial surrogacy and opening it up as an economic opportunity for Dalit lower class women. 

Familial pressures on middle class women and bargaining capacity

It may be true that the promotion of altruistic surrogacy increases familial pressures on middle class women to act as surrogate mothers for their close kith and kin. However, middle class women have always been forced into heterosexual marriages, forced to beget children right after they are given in marriage. Some women are even forced to live with their oppressive and at times physically violent husbands for the sake of family honour. The promotion of altruistic surrogacy may force them in another direction as well.

However, the dominant caste, middle class women’s capacity to bargain with patriarchy in heterosexual endogamous marriage is quite palpable. While their children are the sole inheritors of their husband’s property and family/caste lineage, Dalit women who are exploited by dominant caste men neither have access to material resources nor to the social respectability. Despite the prevalence of various oppressive practices – like forceful caste-endogamous marriages, dowry system, dowry violence and son-preference – middle class women seemingly validate the oppressive structures of heterosexual caste-endogamous patriarchal family because of certain privileges that women receive.

Dominant caste women gain access to material resources as well as cultural resources like caste identity and family name by their compliance to the patriarchal marriage.

This new bill’s recommendation may even make a Dalit woman a “close relative” to the dominant caste couple who opt for surrogacy. It may push the entire surrogacy market underground which exacerbate the condition of Dalit lower class women. Therefore, it is not certain that the pressure will completely shift from Dalit women to middle class women.

Commodification of Dalit woman’s body

The very concept of surrogacy has made woman’s body, especially of the lower-class and other vulnerable groups, as a commodity that can easily be marketed by the immediate Brahminical patriarchal forces and by the neo-liberal, capitalist market.

The renowned Black feminist thinker, Patricia Hill Collins argues that the black woman’s sexuality, children, breast milk, womb are considered the units of capital by the white master. In the period of slavery, black women’s children were sold in slave market by the white master to increase his wealth. Her breast milk was exploited, her body was exhibited (Sarah Bartman is a South African woman who was exhibited for her large buttocks in 19th century Europe) and her vagina for sex work in pre-capitalist society. In the capitalist society, her body is used for voyeuristic pleasures in pornography and womb for surrogacy. Capitalist society has made her “a fragmented commodity.”

The transformation from feudal to semi-capitalist society has reinvigorated caste and patriarchy in India. The neo-liberal, global capitalist market and local Brahminical patriarchy has made the Dalit woman’s body a commodity in sex work, bar-dance, surrogacy and thus deprived her of human dignity.

There are no readymade solutions to sex-work, bar-dance or surrogacy which originated from the intersecting caste and patriarchal structures of our society. However, decontextualising these professions as simply “economic opportunities” without tracing their roots in exploitative structures of caste and gender may not lead to deconstruction of either caste or the ideologies of sexual purity.

Sowjanya Tamalapakula is an Assistant Professor at the School of Gender Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Views expressed are the author's own.

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