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Private matters and politics

by Hans Dembowski
To many people, the family seems to be the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, everyone has a father and a mother. But how they understand their mutual relationship and define their ties to other family members and relatives is fundamentally a question of culture, not nature.

Every society’s understanding of “the family” changes over time – as does society itself. Things that used to be taken for granted no longer are. What used to be completely unimaginable may now be commonplace. Just con­sider two examples:
– Before the industrial revolution, it was self-evident that young people had to provide for old people. Today, all rich nations have some kind of old-age pension scheme or retirement fund.
– Just a few decades ago, homosexuals could not publicly declare their love for each other in Europe, and sex between men was a criminal offence. That was then. Today, some of Germany’s top politicians have come out of the closet and even named their partners.

In Germany, same-sex couples cannot technically get married. But they can officially register as partners for life, which gives them a legal status similar to marriage. In the USA, a bitter dispute has been going on for years about whether same-sex marriages should be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriages, including in such matters as adoption. And no, these are not mad ideas reserved for rich-world eccentrics. In India too, gay and lesbian couples want to get married – and are raising demands accordingly (see p. 414).

Family law is about power. In poor societies – again, India comes to mind – state legislation often matters less than religiously defined rules and traditions. All belief systems have marriage rituals, and they always bestow some rights and duties on the parties involved. Family is indeed an inherently cultural phenomenon. Whether by state law or beliefs and traditions, all cultures regulate some matters, including acceptable and unacceptable intimate relations, obligation to care for people, the right to raise children, entitlements to property and inheritance.

Societies marked by enlightenment believe that men and women have equal rights, and that is explicitly stated in many constitutions. Real life often looks different, no doubt. Even though inequality is counterproductive in socio­economic terms, and in spite of official policies to stem discrimination, women just about everywhere command less power than men. But statistics do prove that economies benefit from women being allowed to lead their lives the way they want and pursue the careers of their choice.

Gender equality is a sign of social progress – and it speeds up further development. The private is indeed political, to borrow a phrase from the women’s movement in the West in the 1970s. But change frightens people. One reaction to the pressures of the modernisation is to return to what looks like eternal values. Fundamentalists from all religions understand the mobilising force of defending “the family”. That is something Afghanistan’s Taliban have in common with violent “pro-lifers” in North America.

Depressing acts of terror show that reforms concerning private matters are very difficult. Their success depends on people taking new norms to heart. Clever legislation can help, but cannot force progress.