Droit de cuissage

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Feb 17 2013, 07:32am hrs
Droit de seigneur literally means the right of the lord. This custom from the European Middle Ages (5th-15th century) and beyond allowed a feudal lord to deflower the bride of his serf on her wedding night. In plain fact, it amounted to rape. So its appropriate that on St Valentines Day, last Friday, we observed One Billion Rising, a global call to protest violence against women by dancing publicly. One in three women on the planet (adding up to a billion women) will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, said Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues that humorously vents attitudes towards women. She rightly says this is as critical a goal as ending poverty, AIDS or global warming.

This social practice of sexually overpowering the physically weaker sex, and exerting economic power over her chosen husband is also known as droit de cuissage, literally meaning the right over her thigh. Another such French expression jui primae noctis also amounts to rape rights over women subservient to the ruler. This ultimate symbol of feudal barbarism has been recorded in umpteen stories and paintings such as Vasily Polenovs 1874 painting of an old man bringing his daughters to their feudal lord and Paja Jovanovics 1998 painting Adornment of the Bride, which became a Yugoslavian postage stamp. The plot of the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is mainly based on jus primae noctis too.

Greek Father of History Herodotus (484-425 BC) wrote about a Libyan custom of bringing all women about to become brides before the king, that he may choose... In the 12th century, Kurdish chieftains in Western Armenia reserved the right to bed Armenian brides on their wedding night. Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck wrote in his 2010 book Congo, a story about the former Zairian President Mobutu and a Congolese custom: If he was on tour across the country, local leaders still offered him a virgin. It was a great honour for the family if the girl was deflowered by the supreme leader.

French lawyer-author Jean Papon (1505-1590) first opposed this tradition. French writer-philosopher Voltaire denounced it saying, This excess of tyranny was never approved by any public law, but acknowledged its historic authenticity in his Dictionnaire Philosophique. In 1935, Paolo Mantegazzas book, The Sexual Relations of Mankind, stated that droit de seigneur appeared to be a binding custom.

Its interesting, even shameful, that because there is no record of any law allowing the subjugation of vassals and sexually exploiting their women, some historians today claim that this supposed right was a myth. Actually, when life for the lower social ranks was so exploitative, it appears immaterial whether droit de cuissage existed as customary law. The feudal lords permission was required to marry, the brides father had to pay a bride price to compensate losing a worker. The church took a marriage tax too. The feudal lords power was so overwhelming that he probably could force sexual activity on married or unmarried girls with no consequence to him.

The scholarly search for a documented law seems to me another instance of males indignantly, indeed perversely, denying their centuries-old dominance over women. With this kind of attitude and flair in the air, century after century, I wonder if theres any hope that women can be totally freed from oppression.

When former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on charges of attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid, the media mocked it as modern-day droit de cuissage. The term droit de seigneur is nowadays used in sexual harassment cases such as a superior in an office abuses his hierarchical position over a subordinate woman employee to satisfy his sexual desire. A 2011-12 Oxfam India survey found that 17% of working women in major cities admitted to sexual harassment at workplaces, but a majority of the victims didnt resort to any formal action against the perpetrators. Top three unsafe-for-women workplaces are labourers (29%), domestic help (23%) and small-scale manufacturing (16%).

A report last November said the All India Mens Welfare Association (AIMWA) termed the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill to be anti-men. They opposed it because women would head the complaints and local committees, so no man respondent could expect justice from such a biased jury.

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had commented, Women are nothing but machines for producing children, but at least he respected them. During his Egyptian Expedition, he declared, Everywhere, the rapist is a monster and ordered that anyone guilty of rape would be shot. In some cultures, rape was seen as a crime against the head of the household. Its penalty was a fine, payable to the father or husband whose goods were damaged. The US anti-rape movement got a boost after two powerful womens organisations became active. France passed the law making rape a crime in 1980. Indias Union Cabinet has just cleared a new anti-rape law ordinance with tougher jail terms, including death penalty, for crimes against women. With hard-hitting laws and One Billion Rising, lets hope more men join my call to Respect and save women.

Shombit is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting.com)