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Our family may well be one of our most important communities. A look at what makes Indian families tick, today on the International Day of the Family.
In a highly patriarchal country like India, the family is considered more of a sacred entity than a social institution; keen on serving their purpose as the upholders of Indian culture and gatekeepers of traditions and values.
As the world celebrates International Day of Families this 15th May, we try to analyse the dynamics of Indian family bonds and the pivotal role they play in normalising patriarchy; and the implications it has for women in India.
So, are Indian families a repressive patriarchal institution for women, hindering their potential and perpetuating socially constructed gender roles? How is the bond between parents and children affected due to internalised notions and obligations towards society? Is a radical change or overturn of the system practically possible? It is these questions that this article attempts to answer.
The image formed when we think of a typical Indian family– a heterosexual couple including a nurturing and multitasking woman as mother and a hardworking, head of the family as father, along with two kids expected to adhere to society’s sexist norms throughout their lives- itself exhibits the deeply entrenched gender roles prevailing in an Indian household.
While the disproportionate burden of balancing housekeeping along with her own work falls on the woman, the patriarch of the family self nominates himself to be the finance-dealer, protector and the face of the family. The problem aggravates when Indian parents fail to identify this institutionalised oppression subjected onto them and continue to perpetuate the idea of gender roles onto their offspring.
The relationship between Indian families and society is so intertwined that to keep their dignity intact and their societal status unblemished, Indian parents are willing to put anything at stake to avoid a “log kya kahenge?” (What would people say?). This justifies raising boys and girls in different ways to inculcate the ‘right family values’ and pressurising them to reach the gendered bars of perfection.
Most children growing up under such a power structure fail to recognise the injustice levied upon them and thus continue to live under the illusion of equality. It also negatively impacts those who aspire to a life not conforming to the socially constructed norms; be it in terms of religious freedom, gender identity or decisions regarding marital life. With the freedom to make one’s own choices on attires, careers and personal life curtailed, and the platform to openly express their evolving opinions discouraged, many kids fear to rebel and question these norms and values.
Conditioning in childhood
The misogyny remains somewhat hidden in the initial years; appearing only as occasional sexist remarks and unsolicited advice from relatives and teachers, and society’s endless sermons on what constitutes a ‘sanskari’ child. But as one proceeds to teenage and adulthood, the rift deepens; the gap widens and the lines become clearer.
A woman’s agency and independence is often uncredited and disregarded. Her opinion is seldom sought in matters concerning her own life, leave alone the major decisions of the family. Even when she’s earning, she is rarely involved in the investment-related decisions of the household. As they are not ‘expected’ to show interest in mutual funds or government budgets, families rarely encourage daughters to become financially literate.
Why don’t we have more Gunjan Saxenas?
From a privileged perspective, one may argue that the modern urban woman chooses her own career path. But does she? How many women among us dream of becoming a soldier, a cricketer or for that matter, the first female Chief Justice of India? We don’t; and that’s not because we aren’t capable. We are just so conditioned that even our dreams are trapped within society’s boundaries.
The great Indian marriage market, a patriarchal institution fraught with sexism, colorism, casteism, fatphobia and classism, is yet another manifestation of the deep set prejudices prevalent in Indian society. Considered as an indicator of the honour and societal status of families, this discriminatory institution calls for socially approved young men and women to fulfill conventional prerequisites to live together as a married couple. Indian marriages thus become more about creating an alliance and less about love and compatibility between two individuals.
Daughter, the ‘paraya dhan’
Even in the most ‘open-minded’ households, parents find it awkward and inappropriate to live with or depend on their daughter post her marriage as she is ‘paraya dhan’. Her household work, so readily glorified by corporates trying to appear ‘socially responsible’, remains unseen or unacknowledged by her own partner and children. In the end, she becomes just what her mother used to be – a silent spectator, a perfect homemaker – but laden with the added bonus of ‘permission’ to work outside the home.
A ‘good woman’ is expected to stay dependent
It is abominable that society expects a woman to be forever dependent on, and dominated by the men around her. From changing her surname to sacrificing her individuality and personality for the sake of the family, the instances are familiar. But what’s even more unsettling is the fact that she is led to believe so herself.
Society gleefully dictates judgements on her choices, opinions and clothes while simultaneously applauding her as a multitasking superwoman (which she doesn’t even want to be). It’s almost as if the world is forced to showcase respect when it does not really mean it.
Ask any Indian teen if their parents are aware of their personal issues, or at least of their everyday school affairs. Most of the answers will be a big NO.
Indian society lacks a culture of openness and honest conversations between parents and children. There is often a feeling of hesitation and awkwardness while talking to parents on matters like relationships, sex, sexual hygiene, gender identity, personal struggles, and even on basic issues like career choices.
The atmosphere in a typical Indian household is generally intimidating, with the ‘status’ and ‘honour’ of the family gaining prime importance, as aspirations and emotions take a back seat. On top of it, is the stigma around topics like menstruation, homosexuality, mental health and sex education.
Even for married adults, the idea of talking to their parents on socially disapproved issues like divorce, abortion or adoption, can seem like an impossible task. The fear of being judged and misunderstood by their own parents and the obligation to not ‘ruin’ the family’s name, forces the person to rethink their own decisions of opening up or confronting their parents’ beliefs. Without a platform for healthy and open discussion, the bond between parents and children gradually dwindles.
One must remember though that the flag bearers of patriarchy today were not born chauvinists. They were taught to believe in what they vehemently preach today. Our parents, mates and those aunties we love to hate are all victims of the same system that seeks to oppress and subjugate.
Until we question our own internalised biases and notions of what the words ‘gender’ and ‘equality’ mean, we’ll remain ignorant of the rife injustices around us.
The family, a source of guidance and motivation for many, promises constant companionship in an increasingly lonely world. As the raging pandemic robs us of our loved ones each day, we realise how important our family has always been to us. From the toddler who stumbled at each step to the person who dares to challenge norms today, they make us who we are; in their own way. That’s what makes it all the more important to do away with the prejudices within our walls.
A lot of patience, the will to listen and a slight change in tone could make the difference between a full-blown argument and an almost civil discussion.
Maybe they’ll understand, maybe they won’t. But at the end of the day, you did choose resistance over silence; defiance over obedience. Half the battle is already won!
Image source: a still from the film Pagglait
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