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Not everyone grows up with the supportive love of our fathers. There are many daughters who battle the ‘man of the house’ for everyday survival.
Father’s Day was one big fest last weekend, with endless tributes, messages of love, sharing of memories and selfies. While for many, it was a wonderful time to show affection and respect towards the ‘man of the house’, sadly, there are many others who recoil at the mention of their dads.
With gender one of the key factors behind inequality in Indian homes, dads are often equated to being real-life ‘heroes’ of the household (similar to reel ones) while the women in the household are dismissed as supportive side characters with no real voice or purpose.
In the most benign form of authority, dads refuse permission for a night-show with one’s girlfriends. The other extreme is the disturbing ‘logic’ of murder when the daughter chooses a husband from a lower caste. Conveniently, in our patriarchal world this gets dubbed as an excess of parental love. Look no further for an example than the privileged ignorance of Director Ram Gopal Varma’s recent tweet where he announced a movie around one such real life dad. Murder and caste entrenched patriarchy cannot be justified with the term ‘extreme love’.
In India, society dictates the life choices for many. This coercive practice often bullies individuals into conforming into pre-selected options. Within the family, fathers are often shamed for the choices of children, especially in the case of a daughter’s wedding. This stigma affects the way an Indian wedding happens, starting from selection of the groom till the tearful goodbyes. The ‘choices’ that families allow girls are from a caste/class-appropriate selection, even if this is now app-enabled. This is sadly. the only ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ aspect of the whole wedding.
Fathers play an important role in families, especially in the Indian context where the ‘breadwinner’ label gives them unquestionable authority. They are de-facto the decision makers of the family. As men, they carry the patriarchal values of masculinity proudly. Every other member of the family tries hard to get their stamp of approval, be it for the morning chutney or an offer letter from Oxford. Many of us can recall those tight-lipped moments of fear when we handed the school report cards to our dads. While those memories do seem harmless, there are many who were crippled by insecurities as they couldn’t perform on par with first-rankers. This harsh comparison and resulting insecurity has trampled the ambitions of many, and especially girls who are in many families, discouraged from being competitive or seeking higher studies.
Times have changed, and the ‘father as a friend’ model has gained a lot of popularity. But, one can still easily spot the hidden patriarchal expectations behind the terms of endearment. This modern-day father-friend combo easily slips to ‘control’ mode if the child, especially the daughter, toys with her self-expression. While the daughter is the ‘princess’ of the family, this esteem is offered only so long as she conforms to cultural rules and the required (regimented) behaviour. This unhealthy ‘affection’ places girls on pedestals that often turn into a toxic golden cage.
While boys who face the brunt (or belt) have some options open to them, the Indian family value system gives the daughters this option only in the form of some other man. More often than not, marriage is the only route available for women to leave their paternal homes. The social stigma attached to single women makes it harder for women to pursue educational or career goals towards financial independence.
Girls who grow up with this brand of love are relatively better off when compared to the neglected daughters who are from their birth considered a ‘burden’. In numerous families, girls grow up with constant taunts, and are raised to be docile. They witness the subservience of their mothers, and are raised to accept toxic masculinity as the norm. Sadly, this continues the cycle of violence perpetrated in the name of culture.
In some cases, absent/abusive fathers lend the whole home a toxic atmosphere. The rise of domestic violence cases reveals how susceptible Indian households are in the face of this silent epidemic. Additionally, alcoholism and neglect has pushed many households to the brink of homelessness in pressing times, like for example during the Covid-19 pandemic. These social problems are exacerbated by state sponsored alcohol outlets and lack of domestic crises units.
Fathers can truly be empowering individuals. As someone, who can be counted upon, fathers can help daughters to stand up to injustices meted out to them them. Encouraging fathers can instil self-confidence in their children to truly succeed in their lives.
Also, for the many ‘others’ who had to relive some of their hardest moments growing up with a toxic father, it can be helpful to focus on ending the cycle of patriarchy. In this age of intrusive, toxic messages that glorify gender stereotypes, dads can step up to be positive role-models within the families. Small changes can go a long way in determining how children grow up and perceive the world around them.
A gender-conscious father can be part of the solution towards creating a balanced family unit. This is not rocket-science; as a parent, if fathers untangle cultural stereotypes, they can be the supportive parent that every child yearns for. Many fathers have led the way towards this model of parenting and if not anything else, at least the success of their kids should encourage more fathers to follow suit.
The top image is a still from the Hindi movie Mohabbatein
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