Sudha Murthy, in “Wise and Otherwise,” had a chapter where she wrote of a young wife coming back home from her husband’s house, covered in burns and bruises, begging her parents to let her stay there, begging for a respite from the abuse of the home that she had been married into. Murthy wrote of the helpless despair in the young woman’s eyes as her parents told her to return to her husband’s house, to not tarnish their reputation in society, to not make things difficult for her other sisters who were yet to be married. Divorce is a concept as foreign as the word feminism here, but honor & responsibility are not. She would wipe her cheeks with the corner of her saree, plump cheeks that still showed signs of a childhood that she had been harshly pulled out of, and steel herself to walk back to her husband’s house.
In-laws and husbands abusing their wives were hardly new to me, almost every soap opera that my grandmother used to watch showed scenes of emotional abuse towards young wives. A jealous mother-in-law, a sanskaari bahu, and a clueless husband who only spoke up when his wife dared to disagree with his mother. While the soap operas were easy to tune out, that chapter, bleak and dark in contrast to Murthy’s simple clean words, stayed with me long after I had turned the last page.
Dowry, female infanticide, child marriage, gender preference. Indian feminists have fought hard and long to pressure the government to enact laws that would protect women against such discrimination. Laws were passed, and the country let out a collective huff of relief, “There you have the equality you wanted.” It is so tempting to believe that a few laws have adequately addressed misogyny and discrimination in India. I don’t need to mention rape statistics or gender wage disparity data or the figures on women’s unpaid labor, we see those in the newspaper every day but inequality manifests in every single, casual or otherwise, aspect of a woman’s life from even before she is born, till the day she dies.
That is the cunning, sly nature of structural patriarchy. It manifests not only in rape or domestic violence, but it leaves its mark on the way that a woman, working or otherwise, is expected to bear the majority of the housework; the stifling conversation in which a mother tells her teenage daughter how to dress in front of the male members of her family, or the lofty high standards of maturity and understanding that she is supposed to meet from the moment she hits puberty.
The patriarchy lives through bitter double standards and gender norms, through female objectification – why do men consume porn and then go around insulting women who willingly choose to sell their bodies for money?, or through sexist jokes about a wife’s inability to stop shopping or gossiping or preening or pestering that are routinely passed around on WhatsApp groups – “it’s just a joke, don’t take it so seriously.”
It is incredulous and at the same time, disappointingly believable that critique on modern-day feminism in India has devolved into a mess of accusations of misandry, men’s rights activists and their cries of “not all men,” and whatever pseudo social movements “equalism” or “humanism” are supposed to be. Some men (and women) will claim that they are all for “giving” women rights, going on to allege that “women nowadays only complain about feminism because they want to wear short skirts and tight clothes,” ideas that apparently go against our culture more than eve-teasing and slut-shaming.
Some men will argue that men get raped too, and might cite cases of false rape allegations as if that ends the discussion. And while it is true that some may have been falsely accused of rape, it is an undeniable fact that the majority of sexual assailants are male. Moreover, if men do get raped, and data scientists have confirmed that most men get raped by other men, they are ridiculed and hardly ever taken seriously. The undermining of the feminist movement as such takes away from the ultimate goal of the feminism, which is to dismantle the deeply entrenched systems of patriarchy and power that can both oppress and benefit us on the basis of our different dimensions of our identity such as gender, race, class, caste, sexual orientation, religion, disability.
But to me, feminism is the fight for those women for whom their daily routine of abuse and discrimination is all they have ever known, and who have never imagined that they deserve better. Young girls who are told not to bother with school and instead taught that all they are meant for is marriage and children. Women who struggle between choosing their family’s so-deemed honor and their own self-preservation. Women who strive to succeed in sectors of our life that have been dominated by men, facing down bullies and sexism alike. And yes, this is also the fight for a girl to wear a short skirt if that’s what she wants or a burqa if that’s her choice, for the little boy who is taught not to cry, for the man who is laughed at for his effeminate interests, and for those scared to claim their sexuality or their identity because of the punishing nature of the society that we live in. Feminism is for all who have been directly or indirectly affected by these societal structures.
Sometimes women themselves might find that we are complicit in the oppression of other womxn. I know how easy it is to go on the defensive than accept accountability. It is much easier to sit back and comfort ourselves that “change will happen, maybe slower than you want, but it will come.” But things will only get better if we choose to consciously strive to understand both overt chauvinism and covert sexism, and seek out conversations that make us deeply uncomfortable, and hold ourselves and those around us accountable.