Say ‘family’ and describe the first image that comes to your mind. A man, a woman and children? For most the nuclear family is bound to be the foremost image of family. But in the subcontinent the joint family is an equally legitimate conceptualisation of the term. It wouldn’t be too surprising if as a desi kid you also thought of your grandparents and paternal uncles, their wives and children as immediate family members.
When I was new to the teaching profession I remember a student often talking about his brothers and sisters, the sheer number and ages of whom confused me, till I discovered that the child made no distinction between his own siblings and his cousins. These two types of families (nuclear and joint) that we understand as valid, point to the possibility of other structures, other forms of linking ourselves into a meaningful collective.
Ancient history, hard as it is to pin down, indicates there was a time in human social evolution when the definition of family was different from its later and current understanding, i.e, a husband, wife and children where the man is the head of the household. It is hard to say how early humans classified ‘family’ but certain theories claim that hunter-gatherer society did not stratify itself strictly into family as we know it today, relying largely instead on a communal sense of living.
According to Friedrich Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, published in 1884 primitive communism was based in the matrilineal clan where women lived with their ‘sisters’ — applying the principle that “my sister’s child is my child”. Because they lived and worked together, women in these communal households felt strong bonds of solidarity with one another.
But, by the twentieth century Engels’ theories about early matrilineal clans fell out of favour and most social anthropologists considered the theory of matrilineal priority untenable and it seemed to have been discredited. In recent years, however, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and paleoanthropologists have been reassessing the issues, many citing genetic and other evidence that early human kinship may have been matrilineal after all.
Whether or not early human life was centred around matrilineal households, there are certainly matriarchal societies that have been in existence for a long time in human history, defeating the notion of the patriarchal nuclear family as the fixed and natural way of close human congregation. For example the Iroquois, a group of native American tribes have historically followed a matriarchal system, said to be in place since the 11th century. In these families property and hereditary leadership pass on from the mother.
Historically, at marriage, a young couple lived in the wife’s family home or nearby. A woman who wanted to divorce her husband had the right to kick him out of her house along with his possessions. The clans are matrilineal, that is, clan ties are traced through the mother’s line. If a couple separates, the woman traditionally keeps the children. While a family’s social status in the modern world is connected to the patriarch’s social status, among the Iroquois this status is derived from the mother’s clan.
Other similar examples of such matriarchal family setups include the Khasi, a matrilineal and matrilocal culture in the northeastern part of India. Similarly, the Mosuo — a society in southwestern China — may be one of the most fascinating demonstrations of a matriarchal society today. Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head.
The Musuo are known for their tradition of zouhun, or walking marriage, a union where women are free to take different sexual partners — no stigma attached. Each Mosuo woman has her own babahuago, or flower room, for receiving visits from lovers. No one worries about commitment since any resulting children are raised in the mother’s house with the help of her brothers and the rest of the community.
Another alternative family structure is the idea of the commune, something the American cultural revolution of the 1960s brought to the cultural limelight. Communes are spaces where a group of people live together while sharing possessions and responsibilities. One of the ideas of the commune is to snub consumerist economies built on Capitalist values.
According to Engels and Karl Marx the nuclear family actually came into being as a way to feed the system of capitalist production and consumption. The commune can be seen as a spurning of those values. In 1898 at the estate Cruysbergen in Bussum, Netherlands the psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden founded a commune called Walden. This socialist horticultural colony was based, among other things, on common land ownership but failed to become sustainable, going bankrupt in 1907. Despite its failure, it pointed to a need and ever since (and before) that concept has existed in some shape or form. One of its more successful iterations in the modern day is in the United States.
The Fellowship for Intentional Community lists more than 300 such examples of communal living in the United States and thousands worldwide. Only seven of those American sites qualify for recognition by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). To achieve that status, a commune must hold land, labour, and income in common, advocate nonviolence and ecological sustainability, and practice some form of direct decision making.
In the contemporary world one of the most triumphant examples of alternate families are LGBTQ ones. In the West where same-sex marriages have become a sweeping legal phenomenon, households with two parents of the same sex have become not just a possibility, but a real, lived experience, albeit one whose ‘outcomes’ are yet to be experienced. On the opposite end of the coin, cloisters and ecclesiastical monasteries have traditionally presented the most acceptable alternative form of ‘family’.
Read also: The unclear ties
They say it takes a village to raise a child, in itself a nod to the fact that one traditional way of imagining family is restrictive and against the very idea of why the family was constructed in the first place: as a site for support and sustenance.
The study of family history thus shows that family systems are flexible, culturally diverse and adaptive to ecology and economy, and the one thing that underscores them all is the need for human bonding, love and perpetuation of species.