Some monsters hide under beds and some lurk in closets. Others loiter near the playground, their fingers sticky with candy and nervous sweat. Then there are those that sit in the comfortable armchair near the window, wondering with gentle exasperation where the little woman disappeared with their afternoon tea.
As an Indian woman I am considered lucky because I got to have an education, didn’t have to give dowry and never feared that my daughter might be despatched along with the day’s trash. After all, what are rights for many women in the Western world are privileges for their South Asian sisters. This lucky and charmed life has spoiled me, some would say.
It is true that I have evolved parents, a wonderful husband and very modern in-laws. But despite my protected life, I have observed in friends and extended family how the insidious poison of patriarchy seeps into everything from domestic communication patterns to gendered ideals of behaviour. You don’t have to have third degree burns from dowry torture to feel angered by it.
Like me, no daughter of mine shall be dandled on the lap of the demonic force known as patriarchy. It has recruited uncountable foot soldiers and hand maidens through the generations not just by brute force but through the transmission of ‘values’ and platitudinous advice that are as lethal as they seem bland.
Here are some classics (might add more later) that I want my daughter to beware of:
1) Be selfless: In other words, eat leftover scraps, abandon your own interests and priorities, become an unpaid servant at worst and a beloved pet at best. Selflessness is greatly valued in wives and daughters-in-law because it allows men and others further up the hierarchy to be selfish. In so many Indian households, you see the men enjoy festivals and other events while the women scurry about waiting on them, their pain a badge of honour. I have noticed that many Indian men love the joint family system. Why is that? Because they have to do none of the work. Status quoists express great pain over the takeover of Western values, often introduced by rebellious daughters in law. The old days were so great, these men say. All of us were smiling and laughing and lived together happily. Nonsense. The women were voiceless slaves and you enjoyed their service. If India had such a great culture it wouldn’t still be ranked 101 in the 2013 global gender gap index. It’s still better than Pakistan or Yemen, right? The payoff for the selfless woman is that she gets to play martyr and at a later date perpetuate the cycle by using her list of sacrifices to get others to do her bidding. The whole charade creates an atmosphere of oppression and repression. If you are indeed without a ‘self’ then what about self-respect? Self esteem? Autonomy? It is important to teach values such as kindness and consideration but selflessness belongs in the dustbin.
2) Obey your elders: Age and experience may count for something, but you are not necessarily wiser if you are older. You may have experienced a great many more situations and picked up a big bag of tricks but your values could be completely retrograde. In the traditional Indian family system, it is considered almost sacrilegious to question the patriarch and, to a lesser extent, the matriarch. If they told you drink gallons of ghee for better lubrication during childbirth, you did it, never mind how obese it made you. If they told you you were polluted when you had your period, you segregated yourself, perhaps thinking of it as a break – after all, you certainly didn’t warrant one if you simply wanted it. I will certainly expect my child to follow my house rules and learn certain values from me but I will never try to stop her from questioning me. I need to be accountable too – the things I ask her to do or not to do have to make logical sense. It is logical for me to stop her from sticking her finger in an electrical socket but it is not logical for me to throw a hissy fit if she wants to cut her hair short. She must conduct herself in a respectful and polite way to EVERYONE, but this does not amount to deference or blind obedience.
3) Silence is golden: To which I counter, tell the truth and shame the devil. Using silence to conceal problems or punish others makes issues worse, perpetuates injustices and kills any chance of a meaningful, honest relationship. Indian women should be seen, not heard is a common expectation. Rendered voiceless, many victims often learn to employ their enforced silence as a weapon and make a bad situation even worse. My daughter must always speak her mind or at least not fear doing so. See this post.
4) Always adjust: This is one of the sneakier ones. There is nothing wrong with being adaptable and accommodating. But ‘adjusting’ in Indian society is usually a one-way street. I will tell my daughter to be very wary if her in-laws tell her to ‘adjust’ to their way of life. It is simply a euphemism for obedience. She has to make it very clear that they will have to adjust to her as well. If she is not comfortable doing something, she should not to it and not have to face censure for it. Coercers know how distressing social rejection, pained sighs and huffy facial expressions are and you can have your arm twisted without even knowing it. Watch out and stand your ground. Mutual respect is possible only with proper boundaries and with an acknowledgment and acceptance of differences. It goes both ways and with open communication it is sometimes even possible to find a middle ground. Live and let live is a far better cliché.
5. It’s up to you to keep your family together: We’ve all seen the sugary facebook forwards about how a woman gives all of herself to being a daughter, wife, mother. There’s always something in there about how no one notices the tears in her eyes or how everyone kicks her in the spleen while she’s having chemotherapy etc etc. This kind of advice tells women that they are defined by their relationships. The job description for a wife includes playing people pleaser, peacekeeper and punching bag. Just so that everyone can sit in strained, murder-plotting silence around a dinner table. My contention is that not every family is best served by staying together. Divorce is an example of eroded family values in the West, right? Then tolerating domestic violence and abuse is the Indian way. My second point is that everyone in the family needs to work on relationships. It is not the woman’s prerogative.
Go out there my daughter, and be a selfish ‘bitch’! You’ll be happier for it.