Patriarchal Bargain Is Why Indian Mothers Place Sons Above Daughters & We Laugh At Sexist Jokes

The most popular example of patriarchal bargain is the MIL-DIL relationship. Much like ragging in colleges, you agree to subservience when you are a fresher or a daughter in law, knowing your turn will come.

The most popular example of patriarchal bargain is the MIL-DIL relationship. Much like ragging in colleges, you agree to subservience when you are a fresher or a daughter in law, knowing your turn will come.

Are we unconsciously handmaids of Patriarchy?

You only have to speak about feminism fleetingly and you would hear ‘but women are women’s worst enemies!’ The short answer to that is no, they are not. The long answer to that is – women frequently buy into the patriarchal order and manifest all its diktats, making it appear as though they are fighting other women.

This is the patriarchal bargain.

A word coined by Deniz Kandiyoti, Turkish author and academic researcher in gender relations. Her definition explain patriarchal bargain as “The tactics women use to gain a greater degree of safety and sanctuary along with a limited sense of autonomy within the sex based oppressive structure of patriarchy”.

How does a patriarchal bargain benefit women?

And so you have mothers placing their sons above daughters despite experiencing first hand discrimination themselves as daughters/women. Men are treated with reverence, served first in homes, not argued with – with the bargain that in return for these, the women would assume second place in authority and be the benefactor of all advantages the system accords to her. She is respected and has a place to belong as long as the husband is alive. She is granted safety as a ‘woman spoken for’ and is able to naturally ward off unwanted sexual attention. She gains the ability to participate in religious rituals as a deferential partner to the man.

The woman exists because the man does. Without him, she is stripped of all privileges. That is the threat to her under which patriarchy thrives.

A patriarchal bargain can also be an individual strategy to manipulate the system to one’s benefit, while still leaving the structure intact. The most popular example of patriarchal bargain is the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship. Much like ragging in colleges, you agree to subservience when you are a fresher or a daughter in law, knowing your turn will come. By protecting the structure, you get a chance to oppress or exert your power in the future.

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Women themselves desiring a male child is not uncommon. The woman wants to consolidate her position as valuable in society, by begetting a male child and in the long run, gain the benefits that would be passed on to her, as the mother of a boy.

Patriarchal bargains outside of home

Patriarchal bargains are struck not just within homes.

Women dressing conservatively, wearing a ghungat or a hijab voluntarily when stepping outside their private spheres is also an example of patriarchal bargain. While one part of the world argues that these are individual choices, we have protest marches in Iran against the hijab, where women who dare to question it are beaten.

Is it really a choice when not everyone has the same choice? Privilege plays a large role in deeming an oppressive practice, a choice.

Women continue to be shamed by other women for not wearing sindoor, or bindi or dupatta, or a saree in public. Policing the sartorial choices of women is society’s chief hobby. Society is wily enough to masquerade these diktats as ‘symbols of respect’ that a woman must accord to the general public, and by extension earn that respect herself.

That women need to cover up to be respected is society’s best pulled off con job ever. And patriarchy’s win. Another clever way patriarchy found to gain control over the world was to tie women down to the kitchen.

We continue to strike bargains with patriarchy at work as well. Office dress codes with mandates to dress a certain way are synchronized with the male gaze – like high heels or a saree code. When we laugh at sexist jokes along with our male colleagues, we are bargaining to get a seat at the table. When we pretend that the uncomfortable arm on our shoulder was our imagination and the man was just being friendly, we are buying into the system so we get an opportunity to get ahead.

Patriarchy doesn’t even consider the existence of other genders or sexualities, as focused as it is on cis heterosexual narratives benefiting cis het males. As we gradually accept that there are more than just binary genders and only one type of sexuality, it becomes alarmingly urgent to address patriarchy and do away with granting superior status to one gender and removing the social structures that revolve around sustaining itself.

Very few women dare to resist

Is it easy then, not to be a handmaid of patriarchy? To not be lured by its benefits? Are women complicit in furthering this extremely gendered, oppressive structure? There isn’t a simple answer to this. As a gender that is already discriminated against, an easy means to secure ourselves peace, safety and joy is to buy into patriarchy. After all, we have examples of our mothers and grandmothers who led moderately happy lives existing within the system. Opposing the system itself is a sign of privilege – of education, of belonging to a certain class, or caste or race.

Women who dare to resist, are often victimized and isolated. Hurt and killed even. Standing up to an established practice is a lonely struggle and not for the faint hearted. And hence, we see more women who are willing to strike a patriarchal bargain, than those resisting it.

But, we must push the envelope and the boundaries so the old markers of gender shift and transform forever. The women/feminists who walked the earth before us fought, so we could have a voice today. Their names are removed from the annals of history but their work stands firms even now.

Pushing back against every practice that is gendered is the least we must do. But never at the cost of our safety or our lives. We have lost too many women who spoke up and fought for their rights. Their fight though, must not go in vain. Refusing to become handmaids of patriarchy, refusing to bargain for a place in a structure that is built to empower only 1 gender is the least we can do.

Because we all deserve a little bit of the sky.

Image source: a still from the film 2 States

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About the Author

Poornima Kulathu

I am a banker, author, poet and an intersectional feminist. Speaking up on social issues, mentoring and coaching and cooking up a storm for friends and a certain strapping 21 year old boy are what read more...

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