Patriarchy: Then & Now
Rajni time travels between two eras and asks whether patriarchy has changed.
I was just entering my teenage years when the sixties were coming to a close, and the constant refrain about how girls couldn’t do this or that irked me no end. There were no restrictions imposed on me, well, not just then. My older sisters, however, were often told how to dress up or dress down in a certain way. I am not sure if that had anything to do with their age, being fairer or better looking or just because they didn’t wear spectacles like I did. Neither of them was tomboyish like me, and every time an aunt would take me along while visiting someone, she would appear apologetic for my boisterous behaviour. Girls were supposed to exhibit a quiet demeanour and I was anything but that.
I was often ridiculed for wearing spectacles. The term ‘chashmish’ had just been coined, and if I remember it correctly, it was reserved only for girls. I found it rather funny because it rhymed with kishmish. Since I am dark skinned, relatives often joked about how my mother must have adopted me.
I must have been all of ten or younger perhaps, but I remember one particular middle-aged uncle, who would in all seriousness ask why I hadn’t been thrown in the Yamuna yet, each time he met me. Thankfully I didn’t let his misguided humour scar me for life but it did make me very sensitive about how we should bring up children and what to say to them or in their presence.
We Indians, especially women, grow up with so many discriminatory practices that are so pervasive that they seem to be part of normal behaviour. The prejudices often become part of our own psyche and conditioning and unless we educate ourselves and unlearn most of it, we can go through life feeling offended about everything that ought not to irk us and not be touched by what we should ideally find offensive.
Now when I look back, I think most of the remarks I heard as a child had a lot to do with me being the fifth grand-daughter in my father’s large family of seven brothers and two sisters and the sixth in my not such a large maternal family. I remember my mother telling me that the midwife was denied her fee after I was born. Yet another daughter.
Well, I was surely not the last grand-daughter on my paternal side. But this was much before the ultrasound was invented and we started choosing sex-selective abortions to outdo nature.
Thirty years later, long after I was married with two children, I do remember a seemingly modern family with two daughters having undergone an ultrasound to determine the gender of the foetus when they discovered that the woman was pregnant again. I cringe to think what they would have done had it not been a boy.
Discrimination against girls in middle-class households hadn’t yet reached its nether when I was born. Even though most girls were treated as second-class citizens, I never actually felt discriminated against. The youngest of five siblings, I was the apple of my mother’s eye and everyone in the extended family doted over me equally, with a couple of exceptions like the Uncle with his cruel comments. While one aunt was the Principal at a government school, my mother would go for music classes in the afternoon and used to play the harmonium and I don’t think anyone in the joint family questioned her.
It was fairly progressive for a married Punjabi woman to learn music in the sixties. Even though many women from different parts of the country had already made their foray into the film industry with or without their family’s support, not many from middle-class families had the courage to follow their heart and not be affected by the social disapproval.
Fifty years later, women are being killed for working to support their family in some parts, while others are being attacked for choosing their own life partner or just stepping out with one. And we have some political characters or should one call them jokers, who don’t think twice about making derogatory remarks against women in the performing arts. I can’t quite believe that we are really in the 21st Century.
Talking about mindsets, the newspaper is full of news about self-proclaimed moral police including Khap Panchayats telling young girls what to eat, wear or use including mobile phones. Even colleges and universities are trying to assert their patriarchal authority to suppress the common liberties of women.
This brings me back to how it was everybody else’s business to dictate how girls or women behaved, dressed or conducted themselves even when I was growing up. It is just the same today when I am about to enter my sixties. So, things haven’t really changed or have they?
Rajni Bhagat Arora trained as a journalist and teacher now works as a volunteer for a cancer support group.