There is no going around the fact that Indian culture is steeped in patriarchy. Women are bent under the weight of millennia of customs and traditions that classify them as inferior second-class citizens, duty-bound to serve men. Young girls are taught to be submissive and pleasant, obedient to the will of her father, and set up for a life of subservience to future husbands. Education for women was considered a sin and social mobility was completely denied to them, ensuring their utter dependence on men. Women were effectively at the mercy of their fathers or husbands, and marriage was like a lottery where a rare few got lucky and the rest languished under the control of their husbands, condemned to a life of procreation and drudgery.
Despite significant progress, patriarchy is ingrained in our mindset. Even today, in educated privileged families, sexism is still very much prevalent and girls experience casual misogyny of varying degrees from a very young age. We might not be at a times when female infanticide was rampant but there are still frustrating differences in the way men and women are treated.
Indian society is still riddled with gendered double standards, and very often, men are rewarded for behaviours that women are punished for. Here are a few such practices that most of us can relate to:
Playing outdoors and being rambunctious
Upbringing is extremely gendered in most societies and the Indian society is no different. While rough-and-tumble games and outdoor activities are encouraged in boys, girls are expected to be more submissive and play gentler games that are ‘suited’ to their gender. Girls that climb trees, for instance, are likely to be labelled tomboys and reprimanded for it. This type of social conditioning is extremely harmful, as it moulds a young mind to believe that a woman’s place is at home.
Being sexually active
There is still a lot of stigma surrounding the idea of unmarried women being sexually active. Most of us have heard some version of the adage that regardless of whether a petal falls on a thorn or a thorn falls on a petal, it is the petal that tears. It’s a not-so-subtle reference to the poorly understood idea of virginity. Men who are sexually active are considered as being ‘players’ and are praised for their conquests. Women who are sexually active, on the other hand, are considered to be repulsive ‘whores’. This causes a lot of harm because it distances women from safe sex and denies them any opportunity to healthily understand their own bodies and its pleasures.
Going out at night
After the brutal gang rape and murder of a woman in Hyderabad in 2019 that sent shock waves through the country, the response of the incumbent Chief Minister was frustratingly typical; he wanted to ‘save’ women by introducing an 8 pm curfew for all women. It was a shameful response that reeked of victim blaming. However, this came as no surprise. In most cases involving sexual assault at night, there is always a significant faction of men and women both asking why the girl was out late. The reason it is unsafe for women to go out at night is because men are out and about at that time. Men going out late at night, meanwhile, is met with a fond ‘men will be men’ attitude and understood as a need for men and, therefore, encouraged. It’s a highly problematic mindset, as women have an equal right to occupy public spaces regardless of the time of day. It again reinforces the idea that women belong at home.
Being forceful and opinionated
Men that are forceful and assertive are considered attractive and good leaders. These ‘alpha’ males get ahead in their careers with their strong views. They get things done, and they are authoritative and strong. Meanwhile, women that are forceful are considered ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy’. Women with strong opinions are considered shrewish, and excessive. Men and women alike are unaccustomed to seeing women as strong leaders, and react resentfully to female-exercised authority. Anger from men is received with fear and respect whereas women are considered ‘shrill’ and ‘unladylike’. This makes it much harder for women to manage teams and get ahead in their careers.
Being independent, pursuing higher education, and being career oriented
When women express the wish to pursue higher education, it is met with resistance lest they become overqualified for any husband. The expectation that the man has to be more qualified or earn more than his wife is unfair to both men and women. Women that are independent and focussed on their careers are labelled ‘career women’ which is a pejorative term to indicate her neglect towards her husband and family. Men that are career-minded are considered responsible and model citizens. This idea holds women back from meeting their potential and restricts them from pursuing their passions.
Patriarchy is insidious and manifests in subtle ways. Education truly begins at home, and parents can consciously move away from these hypocritical practices and set the dice rolling for future generations.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)