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Kinship


Kinship a social relationship based on blood ties, is primarily focused on ties between parents and children. Kinship includes relationship by marriage as well. To know with whom a person has a kin relationship and to be an effective member within a kin group, one must know the rights and duties of kinship positions and the customary behaviour between kin members. Kin-based groups are the keys to an understanding of social organisation, since through such groups people generally channel their economic, political and ritual activities. A focus on the dyadic roles and relationships within kin groups could be helpful in understanding the organisation of the Bangladeshi patriarchal family and cooperation and conflicts prevalent in it. There are many types of family units varying in kinship, size, and the manner of their common life. The rights, duties and behaviours of relatives in relation to one another are a part of the kinship system.

Like many other societies, kin terms in Bangladesh specify differences in generation levels (father, son, grandparent, grandchild, etc); age levels within the same generation (elder and younger brother and sister, father's elder and younger brother, etc); lineal and collateral relationships (The unilineal principle is one that is organised through identification with only one line of relatives. Under such a system if the identification is made only through males it is known as a patrilineal system. The children of both sexes belong to the lineage or bangsa of their father. The children of the man's son and of the son's son and so on belong to the same lineage or bangsa. Collateral relationship is traced through a sibling tie. Kinship system in Bangladesh recognises mainly the lineal tie through males); sex of relatives (brother, sister, nephew niece, etc); sex of ego, the point of reference for terms of address (males and females had two separate systems of terms); sex of the persons through whom the relationship was established (father's brother, mother's brother, father's sister, father's father's sister's daughter's daughter, etc) known as a 'cross sex' tie; relationships between genetic relatives and those connected by marriage (sister or mother versus husband's mother, etc), ie, consanguineal versus affinal ties; and Dak-bala samparka (relationships through addressing) or fictive kin ties and its connectedness with consanguineal or affinal ties.

The role of kinship in the maintenance of the social structure is important. The ghar or household literally means the housing unit, which accommodates all members of a particular family or paribar of any type. Each household unit is called a chula, which means 'hearth group' or khana, i.e, 'eating unit'. The household is an area of interpersonal relations. Familial in character, the household includes consanguineous kin members and their married partners, and has individuals of one to three generations. In addition it may sometimes include other kin or affections.

Kinship is essentially formed in a badi (bari) which literally means 'a homestead', but commonly refers to a group of households sharing the same courtyard. Within a bari the heads of household may be related either by blood or affinal connections. Less frequently certain heads of household might have no such relationships. Each family has a functional head but usually the homestead has no recognised head. Homestead members cooperate with each other specifically in crisis situations. The eldest male and female members of the homestead are shown special respect and consulted in various social matters. Although each member of the household within the homestead has its own economic interests, the homestead usually is a cohesive social unit. Normally a homestead inherits the status of its most successful living or dead member.

Kinship is generally found in a gusti (sub-clan), which is a group of households or families of all male patrilineal descendants of a great grandfather. Common ancestry provides a sense of belonging that binds together the members of a gusti. Members can trace their common origin to a single deceased male ancestor. It is not unusual for a prosperous household of a sub-clan to build a house in a new residential plot within the same village or, rarely, in a neighbouring village. Thus, the members of the same sub-clan might or might not live in the same homestead. Members of the sub-clan, who trace their ancestry from the single common male, whether they live together or not, belong to the same kul or lineage. However, it is found that among Hindus kul consciousness is much greater compared to that of Muslims. On the other hand, sub-clan consciousness is found to be stronger among Muslims, though the terms kul and sub-clan are synonymous.

Muslims assist their dead ancestors in gaining religious merit mainly by praying to Allah and feeding the poor on behalf of the deceased persons. On the other hand, Hindus feed and worship their dead ancestors to derive personal comfort and satisfaction. After marriage, a Muslim woman acquires the sub-clan membership of her husband, although she retains her membership in her father's sub-clan. A Muslim woman, upon marriage, acquires almost dual sub-clan membership. Although she and her children receive gifts as members of an allied sub-clan when she visits her parental home, she retains rights of inheritance and asylum within her natal sub-clan. After marriage a Hindu woman no longer retains the sub-clan membership of her father. After coming to her husbandhouse she becomes a member of her husband's sub-clan.

Kinsmen in Bangladesh are commonly referred to as atmiya-swajan. To define this compound term atmiya and swajan should be considered separately as well as in a compound form. In a sub-clan all members have a common ancestor, traceable by a genealogical tree. In an aggregate these people are called 'nijer' or own (swa-), 'lok' or people (-jan). To become an atmiya a common ancestor is not necessary. The term atmiya refers to the reflexive word atma, which means one's soul. Within the atma-membership there may be different sub-clans and membership may extend through different communities. People who are affinally related claim atmiya membership. Kinsmen among Hindus are commonly referred to as isti.

All the members of a homestead who are blood related through the patrilineal line, have a strong sense of closeness and feel that the relationship among themselves is much more solid and dependable than their relationship with spouses who came from other families. As a result, when a woman is married outside the community, she keeps a close contact with her brothers and sisters left behind in her father's family. Brothers maintain close relationship with their sisters and stress their links to natal family members whenever opportunity permits by making gifts and by inviting them to their parental home. When a brother visits a married sister's place, the latter take special care of him. All the women of the village after marriage go to the homes of their husbands' fathers and live there throughout their life. But a woman always maintains a special feeling for her father's home or baper badi. She always looks for opportunity to visit her father's place. Whenever possible a father arranges a social visit by his married daughter. Special meals are invariably prepared if such a visit is accompanied by the son-in-law. As a result, such a visit is greatly favoured by the children of the household.

In majority of the families in Bangladesh, children are raised by their parents and siblings. Grandparents are not responsible for the primary care of children. Under normal circumstances, ghar or household ties are very intimate. A man's duties are first to his own ghar or paribar (family), then towards his sub-clan or swajan. Such duties continue to fall on his close atmiya-swajan, then to his samaj (community) and then to his village. The lines of atmiya-swajan usually cut across the community since such relationships are established mainly through marriage. Sometimes the line of a sub-clan may also cut across the household boundary and occasionally across the village, if new residence is taken up by household members. The ghars in Bangladesh are considered the most important economic units, wherein members work together, raise crops, attend livestock, and produce many of the things they consume. A household is subject to a variety of external controls, some from larger social organisations, such as sub-clan and atmiya-swajan on the control of the household in such matters as selection of the conjugal partners, fixing of mahr and groom price, and adoption of children. These suggest the area of control by blood, affinal and bilateral relations. In such matters the influence of sub-clan members is more important than that of atmya-swajan. In all three groups, the influence of close relation is the most important.

In Bangladesh men in general enjoy a higher authority over women of their households, although older women might have influence over junior men. Until marriage a girl has to remain under the authority of her parents, and on marriage, under that of her husband. In particular, the mother-in-law exercises authority over her until she has some children. During her widowhood she usually prefers to stay under the supervision of an unmarried grown-up son. If, in due course, he gets married she might continue to stay with him but all sons would provide economic support. Control of property by men and freedom from childcare allow them to play specialised economic and political roles, such as working in the fields, fishing, buying and selling in the market, and participating in community leadership.

Kinship bonds make a claim on people's loyalties. Members of the same household feel more comfortable with one another. They understand one another well and feel that they can count on one another for support. Every Muslim and Hindu household belongs to a sub-clan. Unlike the Muslim family, every Hindu family belongs to a caste. For a Bangali peasant, certain activities are associated with his 'village' or gram, and others with his family of procreation (paribar), patrilineage (sub-clan), and bilaterally extended kin ties (atmiya), all of which might or might not be coterminous with his 'village'. Certain activities are further associated with a mosque, if he is a Muslim. Caste, community and kinship form the core of the village social organisation and this splits the village into different social groupings.

On some religious occasions, kin members have certain specific roles to play. By joining important religious functions, members of individual kin groups further strengthen their existing social bonds.

Occasionally, Muslims perform the naming ceremony of a new-born known as aqiqah. In celebrating akika two goats are sacrificed for a male child or one for a female child. The meat of the sacrificed animal is divided into three equal parts. One share goes to the family of the new-born, one share to the relatives and friends, and the third to the poor. In the ziafat or mezbani i.e, invitation to a ceremony, all close consanguineous and affinal relatives and acquaintances are invited.

The Hindu religious calendar provides a number of days, which involve festive preparations. One of their most eagerly awaited events is the fair or mela held on the occasion of rathayatra, when women make offerings of food or money to god Jagannath at the local temple to ensure good health and prosperity for their family members. The mela provides one of the very few opportunities when most women and children of a homestead can make a trip outside the village together, with the goals of religious gain and entertainment. In the mela the members of one homestead meet those of other homesteads, particularly those related to affinal connections. Several major religious festivals take place outside the household and homestead premises. Expenditures for the celebration are financed by the collection of chanda or contributions from almost all the households of a caste group in a village.

In most villages a caste group is an extended kin group formed through marital alliances. Thus by organising major religious festivals like durga puja, Kali puja, Ganga puja, laksmi puja, saraswati puja, Sitla puja and manasa puja, the extended kin group find an opportunity to join together for a common religious purpose. In pujas, particularly in the Durga puja, the biggest festival of the Hindus of Bangladesh, worship is specially dedicated to the memory of ancestors. Each family offers usual sacrifices to its deceased ancestors. Any gift given to brahmans is thought to be received by the ancestors. Thus, gifts given to the priests are usually the items which the deceased ancestors liked when they were alive.

In both Muslim and Hindu marriages it is customary to invite both consanguineous and affinal relatives. During a son's or a daughter's marriage, his/her father invites members of the lineage of his father-in-law and maternal uncle, maternal uncle-in-law and son-in-law, and children's fathers-in-law, in addition to the members of his own lineage. In many cases only representatives of the lineage attend marriage ceremonies. However, among Hindus, the widows can not take part in marriage activities. The common belief is that since the widow has lost her husband ill luck might follow her touch, but she is not barred from attending the marriage ceremony. In the early part of the Hindu marriage ceremony the fathers of the bride and the groom utter the names of all the deceased ancestors that can be recollected ceremoniously before a priest. In their absence their brothers or sons may also perform this function. This ceremony takes place in the respective houses of the groom and bride separately. If after a marriage date is settled and before the starting of a marriage ceremony, news comes of the birth or death of a blood relation, the marriage is postponed for a certain number of days.

On certain occasions among Hindus, the celebration centres around particular kin members. During the event known as jamai-sasthi all sons-in-law are to be invited. Usually, such invitations are extended to the daughters' husbands. Exchange of new clothing takes place particularly between the mother-in-law and son-in-law. The mother-in-law blesses the son-in-law for a long life. There is another similar occasion known as sital-sasthi during which the mother blesses her son for a long life. Through yet another occasion known as rakhi-bandhan, brother and a sister pray for each other's long life and perform certain rituals.

In Hindu funeral rites and ceremonies kinsmen play specific roles. The body is taken to the place of cremation by the deceased's sons, by blood relations on the father's side, or by other kinsmen. Persons eligible for mukhagni (setting fire on to the face of the dead) in case of a dead man are the eldest of the living sons, or wife, or daughter, or younger brother, or father, or paternal uncle, or grandfather, or maternal uncle, or mother's father and others. In case of a dead woman such persons are the son or daughter or co-wife's son, or husband, or son's wife or brother, and others. A period of impurity is observed after the death of the member of a family. The period is determined by various factors, such as the nature of kinship of the individuals with the deceased, their occupation, their caste, etc. At the end of the period of impurity all restrictions are withdrawn and the sons shave off their head and perform a ceremony known as shraddha with the help of a priest. On the day of shraddha the sons of the deceased invite all their blood relations to bathe and dine with them for the benefit of the deceased's soul.

Among both Muslims and Hindus kinsmen arrange feasts for the salvation of the departed soul. If necessary, for arranging appropriate post-funeral feasts, it is customary among both Muslims and Hindus to sell a certain portion of the landed property of the deceased. Most religious functions, which involve kin members, provide for feasts and gifts. Every family makes maximum effort to celebrate every religious occasion in a befitting manner. Traditionally during Eid and certain puja holidays all family members who live outside the village or at distant places make every effort to join the celebrants with kin members. Thus they enjoy a significant diversion from the routine and opportunity for showing friendly gestures to kinsmen.

The Bengali kinship is a case of an extremely descriptive system, but at the same time, because the terms have multiple meanings and are extended to non-kin community members, there is a continuous tendency of classification of more distant relationships, to draw them terminologically closer. More than two hundred kin terms are prevalent in Bangladesh communities. It is, however, difficult to deal with all the subtle variations in relationships though it is not difficult to follow the principles or categories of relationship that underlie them. [KMA Aziz]