By Mahika Banerji
In the Gender Studies Group meeting held on Saturday, 30th August 2014, a reading and discussion of the ‘Kinship’ section of Gayle Rubin’s essay ‘The Traffic in Women’ was held. In order to describe the sex/gender system in society, Rubin examines the mechanisms of the kinship system which permit society to organise their own idea and preference of sexuality.
Rubin cites Levi-Strauss’s “The Elementary Structure of Kinship” to highlight how kinship serves as a cultural conduit for biological reproduction. The woman’s identity as a person is taken away and the function of an economic unit is thrust upon her in order for society to facilitate it’s construct of kinship- the way they want it.
There was a study of how Levi-Strauss employs the concept of the ‘gift’ and the ‘incest taboo’ in order to explain gender inequality within kinship. Gifts are used to establish relationships and alliances between different units of society. Marriage is a primary platform for the exchange of gifts. Within this system, the woman forms the vital gift. Not a human being, but an objectified gift. On the other hand a taboo is placed on incest in order to facilitate trade relations between families and other societal units. The men become the agents of these trade relations, while women are employed as objects to facilitate this trade. Levi-Strauss states that, “the incest taboo imposes the social aim of exogamy and alliance upon the biological events of sex and procreation. The incest taboo divides the universe of sexual choice into categories of permitted and prohibited sexual partners”(173).
Through these concepts, Rubin traces the oppression of women in society and then argues that not only women are exchanged, but sexual access, social status and lineage. Consequently, women are denied their rights to live as human beings, to make their own choices in life. Gender is then defined by social relations and not biology. The division of labour also places emphasis on the gender dichotomy. To further facilitate this form of social relations, heterosexuality is also made obligatory.
A couple of important questions were raised during the discussion. First being the speculation over whether Gayle Rubin’s essay had an Orientalist perspective to it or not and whether the Occident was deliberately left out while stating examples, thus bringing under scrutiny the objectivity of the essay. While on the subject of objectivity, what was also pointed out was the brief number of examples and whether an excess of generalisation was indulged in. There was a thorough discussion on the objectification and forceful identity imposition of women, leading to their oppression as well as the futility of the institution of marriage.