My spouse, Sahil recently put up a proud Facebook post about my tenacity through the slow and solitary act of writing. “I lost my spouse to her book,” he said. “I’m not complaining or resentful, not at all, just stating things as they were for three years, and feeling really proud.” A friend commented, “I know how lucky you are, compared to so many that have partners who are jealous and controlling. To have a partner who helps you to attain goals and is supportive is like winning the lottery.”
I know how lucky I am, especially as an Indian woman married to an Indian man. Here, let alone a partnership where it’s ‘the man behind the successful woman,’ even regular egalitarian partnerships aren’t the norm. Most men expect to be on top.
We live in a gendered society with entrenched rigid norms and overarching male bias instilled from birth. A version of ‘may you bear a hundred sons’ exists in many Indian languages. Although sex-selective abortions are banned, they remain the primary cause of India’s sixty-three million ‘missing girls’.
Customs to celebrate childbirth are often not performed for a daughter. Kua Poojan, a custom in North India, involves welcoming the birth of a son by worshipping at the family well or other sources of drinking water. When a daughter is born, some of these communities deposit trash in dustbins. The myth is that celebrating the birth of a girl will cause more girls to be born.
Raja betas are made aware of their superiority vis-a-vis their sisters and other girls. They are taught to be entitled to all rights from food to fun; education to property, and the world at large. They see this paradigm played out in their parents’ and other marriages they see — the patis are the devs, the wives their slaves, beaten occasionally to remind them of their place.
This ideology follows boys into manhood, where they impose it on women they know. When it comes to sex within a relationship, in a conflict between his desire and her lack of it, he gets to choose. When he is feeling angry and disempowered, he gets to assert his power and validate his importance through violence against women.
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Patriarchy cuts across class and pervades society. I know a girl in a Mumbai college whose brother slaps her to enforce their parents’ patriarchal mores on hemlines/deadlines/boyfriends. I know a media person whose rich South Delhi family told her she could do certain things (as innocuous as making chai for herself) in her ‘own’ (ie, marital) home; whose father would berate her mother for birthing a fair son but a dark daughter. When I gave a talk to a group of elite older women in South Mumbai, activist Kamla Bhasin’s lines: ‘Keep your beti in your dil but also in your will’ evoked a long round of applause. Later, the women discussed being denied their inheritance, and their fight now for their daughters’ rights.
While patriarchy impacts women, it’s not just about women. Restricted by gender norms, boys are discouraged from displaying emotions and developing empathy; unable to follow untraditional interests and reach their full potential; lacking in life-skills, and therefore, dependent; and forced into the role of breadwinners. Indulged, entitled and with unhealthy gender biases, they are often unprepared to meet women on an equal footing.
Men raised with this ideology are unprepared for women who know our worth and rights. Men and women are trying to negotiate these new realities, and fumbling, and the growing divorce rate is just one of the consequences. A highly educated and successful professional in her thirties married another professional she met online. They moved abroad, but the marriage soon collapsed. “He wanted me to make him a tiffin every day, babe,” she said, “and didn’t want me to travel for work. Why didn’t he just marry a villager if that’s the kind of marriage he wanted?”
Women don’t take this anymore, which is great! A way to solve this disquieting dynamic is to raise feminist sons. From the home to education, society, culture and religion, focus on rearing better boys and the reinventing the masculine identity at the seed. The need for such a revolution stems from the greater need to stop gender violence and improve the gender dynamic in adulthood, for the good of men, women and society.
(A writer, media consultant, journalist and social commentator, Tara is one of the leading voices on sexual violence. She was awarded The Laadli Media Award for gender-sensitive writing in 2013-14)