We Let This Gen Down

A critical look at the societal norms that contribute to India’s misogyny.

ByMadhu Trehan
We Let This Gen Down
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Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it. – Gloria Steinem (American Writer and Activist)

“No woman gets raped unless she wants it, my father said to me. I was 12 years old. Furious at the unfairness of it all, I replied, “I am 82 lbs. If a 200 lbs man attacks me and I can’t fight him off, is it because I WANT it? How do you men make up these things? He looked taken aback and shamefaced. A tough, macho man, my father, used to his word taken as law, said in a quiet voice, “Sorry. I didn’t think of it that way. But, doubts lingered in my mind. What if? I would be blamed. For sure.

What was it like growing up in a conventional Indian home? Why did all the privilege I was surrounded in, not include some awareness that girls you educate cannot go back into a box to follow unjust convention? Your young life is full of arguments based on the unfairness of it all. You grow up defensive, thinking there is something wrong with you, too young to understand that you are actually so right. There was no feminist movement then.

“You know what they say. If you can’t fight rape, lie back and enjoy it. A leading film star randomly said this to me when he was seeing me off after an interview. Aghast, I told him he was a public figure and he had to take that statement back. Astonished at my reaction, not used to anyone telling him off, he eventually, reluctantly said he took it back.

A well-known female journalist uttered the same statement at then-Prime Minister Vajpayee’s dinner at his home. We were discussing a recent rape in Delhi and the minister of women and child welfare had just given a statement that advised women not to wear provocative clothes. I told the journalist off and asked her to take it back and never utter it again. She was adamant and patronisingly told me it was just light, party banter and I should not take it seriously. After December 16, 2013 she was on an NDTV panel acting pious on the rape issue.  Perhaps even she has been educated that light, party banter creates an unacceptable ambience of jocularity about rape.

Why are we outraged at all the anti-women statements uttered by a plethora of politicians and gurus? We should be aware that really is how the majority of Indians think. The adages we all grew up with, “Any woman who is raped has invited it”,  “If I hadn’t done it, an outsider would have. At least I kept it in the family” (This to justify incest). We all grew up hearing all this and it was clear who was to blame if you were raped.

My generation of women let this generation down

Indian women in senior positions in businesses shot up from 9% in 2011 to 14% in 2012. Female chief executives whizzed up to 10% from 1% the previous year. (Source: IBR from Grant Thornton)  While Indian women were kicking down walls in the workplace, status within the home is stuck where it always was. What happened to us? My generation of women let this generation down. We did not fight for equality and the need for teamwork in the home.

Despite women’s success in the workforce, the implied reduced human and double standards in homes are the same as they were centuries ago. How delicately and subtly we have been brainwashed. Factual stories prove where we are. A successful businesswoman signed away her inherited property share to her brothers’ children. Quietly. Nobly. She was praised for it. A friend will never confront her brother even though he stole her shares in the business. She knows that if she did, what the reaction would be. She would be branded as a troublemaker. She stoically puts it in her large Treasure Chest of Things to Be Forgotten. A leading film star after her marriage answered a question with: “the head of the family will decide”.  The patriarchal system is alive and well. We, Indian women, get sucked into a form of behaviour of obedience, obsequiousness, sacrifice and suffering just for the praise of it, to be loved and admired. The time has come for Men to work for a little admiration. Participate, be there, really be there, help out. It will change the way your children will treat their children.

It has been said that women are the worst enemy against women. We have all seen that it is women who bring up boys who never learn the requirement to treat girls equally and with respect. Young Indian men expect virginity of their brides but a man who is a virgin is embarrassed that he is. Jokes that are anti-women and anti-wives are ad nauseum. When it is pointed out, there is a reaction – it’s only a joke. Yes, it may be a joke, but it creates an ugly atmosphere of trapped husbands, naughty men who would rather be with other women etc. It’s as if marriage is a bore and a chore. Boys learn that, instead of awareness that a fun family life with commitment to each other is the greatest joy. The detached husband and father who openly flirts and has affairs is the learned behaviour of our growing boys.

Men too, are trapped in a contrived notion of manhood. A man changing diapers or feeding a baby a bottle is considered biwi ka ghulam and less of a man. They lose out on the best part of parenting children because unthinkingly they are following norms that end up with disconnection, alienation that damage family relationships. When my son-in-law changed his baby’s diapers in the hospital, amazed nurses went around announcing, “There’s a father here who does everything!” And people came to sight-see. It should have been normal.

It starts early. In pre-nursery, boys are encouraged to be aggressive and grab what they want, when they want. They can scream and act violent and a bemused mother will say, “Boys will be boys” while creating a monster of a boy. It is no accident that men grow up believing that they can grab any woman they want, when they want.

When I offered some toy cars to my granddaughter to play with and this 3-year-old said, “Girls don’t play with cars” I was shocked enough to un-brainwash her for a half-hour and convince her that she could not only play with cars but drive them, become a pilot or astronaut if she chose to. Yes, there are real biological differences between girls and boys, women and men besides the obvious physical. There are even acknowledged differences in the brain, psychological makeup etc. But, the attributes of capability, talent, courage, endurance, patience, aggression are as variable within one gender as compared to the other.

You go to any low income or middle class family, the son will be pandered to while the daughter is cooking, cleaning and even tidying up her brother’s room. We all grew up with it. My mother asked me, “Okay, your brother will DO something after he finishes his education. What will YOU do with it? Nothing!” Today, it has not changed. I know of middle class women who wake up at 5 a.m. to cook for all the tiffins for school and office, lunch for the in-laws at home before she catches the bus to her office. On her return, she will cook and serve dinner. Does the husband or anyone help her even to clean up? NO! But, she lives for the praise that she is the ideal Indian woman who does not neglect her domestic duties. A construction labourer’s wife will cook, feed the children and elders, then massage her husband’s feet even though she too has done manual labour on the construction site. She sees no other alternative even if she is exhausted and hates to do it.

Clearly, it is time for Indian women to say – “We do not want to be the ‘ideal woman’ you have constructed for us. Yes, we will be ‘good’ daughters, wives and mothers, but it will be what we construe as ‘good’”.

While the Western world went through Three Waves of Feminism since the early 19th century up to the 1990s when there was a backlash against the failures of the Second Wave, none of that came to India. When the word “feminist” or “women’s liberation” is uttered in India, there is an immediate recoil. Defensively we say: No, we don’t want to be bra-burning feminists. NGOs have focused on atrocities, legal issues and sexual harassment. All necessary. Yet, we have never brought the unfairness of it all into our own homes. How many couples across the country have negotiated the division of cooking, cleaning, parenting, old people’s care, etc? We women have just done it all, or rather, tried to do it all, no matter how difficult and insane it is.  All to be this wonderful super woman who is praised and loved.

Feminists have focused on larger issues such as domestic violence, rape and child marriage and perhaps there is no space to address the minor issue of male attitudes against women at home. But the cause of all the larger issues stem from just that. Unless the issues of being equal in the home are addressed, the subtle subjugation, women’s need to be admired for being conventional and subservient, not much will change. If feminists could deal with the fine tuning of family relationships and give courage to girls to stand up for themselves, we could see a beginning.

“Traditional culture” has a ring of piety to it that commands worship and respect. Sunmeet Sawhney from Mumbai won Rs 5 crore on Kaun Banega Crorepati and announced that the “family elders” would decide how to spend the money. She was lauded for honouring “traditional culture” but it was disappointingly subservient. The earlier winner, Sushil Kumar from Bihar decided for himself how he was going to spend his money. But when we hear all the chauvinist statements uttered by politicians, khaps, gurus that include even some brainwashed women, we are outraged. Why? It is our own fault that we have not fought against this slogan cult forging within us a consciousness that a selfless, subservient woman is what we all want to be. These people have simply followed “traditional culture” of which there is a subterranean agreement of keeping women in a place that is economically, culturally and emotionally beneficial to Men. We women, have to change our own thinking and stop falling into the “ideal woman” trap. It is time to create the “ideal man” who supports his woman and daughter as equal team players, not slaves and subordinates. It is time to make Sharad Yadav go home and clean, Asaram (remember? He said she should have called the rapists her brother) to cook, Bhagwat to care for elders, ad houseworkum.

As Gandhiji said, “If you don’t like the Manu Smriti, burn it”. Well, I don’t like – Saint Tulsidas’ Ramchaarit Manas where he legitimised the subjugation and maltreatment of women and girls:

Dhol Gawanr Shudra Pashu Nari, Sakal Tadan ke Adhikari.

So watch it burn.

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