Editor's Note: Video Volunteers, a country-wide community journalism network, is running a series to document instances of patriarchy and gender discrimination in the everyday lives of women across India. Firstpost will reproduce select stories in arrangement with Video Volunteers. V Geetha, feminist activist, author and social historian, introduces the series with an essay on the virulence of daily patriarchy in India.
These are strange, menacing and exhilarating times to be living in. More than ever before, women are visible in public life: not just women from dominant castes and middle class families, but from working classes and oppressed caste contexts as well. Whether they are boarding buses early in the morning to get to work in cities, or hurrying to the next round of meetings held by their local self-help or credit groups; rushing off to study or to do sports, dreaming of work that brings fulfilment as well as money — women across India are caught in a swirl of change. Not all change is salutary. Having to reckon with the downward spin of the agricultural economy which puts a huge burden on women’s tasks, especially of being providers, seasonal and permanent migration in search of work, when drought looms large on the horizon, travelling vast distances to make ‘useful’ marriages that bring monetary gain to their families, and in spite of education and change, having to negotiate their place in their families, on a daily basis – these are equally a part of women’s realities.
For Dalit women and Adivasi women, the present is especially fraught, but in different ways. Dalit women — always in the forefront of the rural economy, providers and workers in their families, and fighting to educate their children, and to affirm their self-respect in a violent and mean-spirited caste society — find that their attempts to lead a life of dignity and equality are consistently met with rancor and violence. Even as Dalit women enter higher education in larger numbers than before, they find that universities and hostels are hostile spaces, where discrimination based on caste is alive and well, and the administration indifferent, ignorant and uncaring for the most part.
Adivasi women face a different set of problems. In addition to all the issues that come up when they assert their claims to education and mobility in the knowledge sector, a vast majority of them are faced with issues to do with survival. As their living environments come under stress on account of state-backed corporate greed and violence, they are forced to bear the brunt of everyday class struggles, subject as they are to the violence of the state.
Both Adivasi and Dalit women resist, fight back, often at tremendous personal costs to themselves, their families and the community at large, and while they are aware of their sexually vulnerable status they are even more aware of how this is mediated essentially through their social identities.
Women from dominant castes and the middle classes are confronted with a different set of challenges. Present in larger numbers than even a few years ago — in higher education, and media and information technology sectors, determined to be assertive and claim what is due to them, by way of equality in work places and in the public sphere — they confront a world where competitive worth defines all struggles. In such a context, to lay claims to justice invariably translates into a politics that thrives on righteous indignation, and personal hurt. This means that gender becomes the only measure to assess comparative worth and dignity — and class and caste privileges are taken for granted, and the way they play out in an everyday sense is seldom acknowledged.
So, it becomes easy to define the struggle for dignity in terms of encounters with a hostile male world, and to foreground sexual politics to the exclusion of all else.
Not that the realities of male hostility or the tensions that anchor sexual politics are any less destructive, but they are equally shaped by class and caste relationships and this is not something we have worked through. We imagine that oppression is caste-based and class-directed. But seldom do we imagine that privilege too is likewise caste and class anchored and that what we claim is limited by where we are – unless we seek to expand our horizons and are open and sympathetic to justice claims from diverse contexts.
With a sense of the crisscrossing realities that we all endure and live with, the everyday ‘patriarchies’ that we encounter are bound to appear equally complex and diverse.
For some, the source of annoyance, anguish and hurt in an immediate, intimate sense is very clearly the family: denied food, nourishment, and forced to labour when you would rather study or play, and take on adult responsibilities, when you are unsure whether you are still a child or not, is a phenomenon that many girls face, in both rural and urban India. In addition, are slights that are so commonplace that you cease to even think of them, to do with one’s colour, lack of ‘beauty’, inability to do housework as it ‘ought’ to be done and violent taunts about what one may learn to expect, being a girl.
Such slights are conveyed in any number of ways: on the road, when boarding a bus, waiting in the bazaar, or in the course of casual family conversations. Then there are other issues: to do with hierarchy and power at workplaces, to do with caste and in some cases religion; and these are often sexualised so that you are made aware constantly of your bodily being, as something that is unstable and that could be literally and violently dis-possessed.
Now, which of these everyday instances might appear more or less oppressive?
Being in control of your environment, confident that you speak English and happy that you have landed a job of your choice, does not save you from slights of another kind: endless jokes about women’s abilities, barely veiled sexual taunts and invitations, sexual anxiety — and therefore hostility — mediated through caste and class which pervades our streets, and subtle attempts to control who one ought to like, date and who one ought not to be with. These appear not as instructions conveyed from above, but rules that are necessary to be a ‘proper’ girl to be seen and respected as such. So much so that to appear in charge, one necessarily takes against those who are one’s social others, and this then becomes a complex and unpleasant caste-gender tangle that is not easy to understand or unravel.
There are other matters, to do with dress and deportment, voice and self-assurance, bodily confidence and sexual authority which all women have to negotiate in their many contexts, and which may nor may not be viewed as central to what they constantly chafe at and want to overthrow. Emotional and sexual intimacy are also very fraught, with respect to what limits one may cross, in a social and sexual sense — and the general culture of sexual hypocrisy and prurience that surrounds us makes things worse.
Then there is the family: which is both the site of ‘safety’ and nurture and also a social space that overwhelms you with its claims that you cannot hope to take against it, without feeling burdened and guilty.
Families and family structures in India are diverse, but each is oppressive in its own way — and besides the source of oppression changes across generations, and improving or falling family and community fortunes. Depending on how much they can resist and get away with, women make these family spaces more or less bearable, but it is yet to be proved that there are egalitarian families, mindful of women, whatever one’s caste and class status. For in almost all cases, familial relationships revolve around two concerns: property and progeny. To ensure that the latter are assured the benefits of the former, and to keep it all within the family, marriage and sexual choices, especially of women are carefully monitored. These days, given that many of us occupy caste and class specific spaces while growing up, in terms of housing, choice of schools, and how we negotiate the streets, such monitoring is put in place by the economy on the one hand and the endurance of caste on the other.
Where there is no property and only progeny, chances are that girls can negotiate their way to greater dignity and freedom, but there are also cases where to be a girl, even in a poor, working class or Dalit family can be viewed as a curse. There are also innumerable instances where among progeny, boys are valued more, or allowed greater leeway with their lives.
In all families though, there are set rhythms that direct and shape women’s lives, and which are geared to render them fit, fundamentally, for wife-hood and motherhood, it does not matter what other skills, talents, interests they possess. While girls often fight to keep their interests and concerns, this is not easy, especially when social life is centred on the marital couple and the world that they are expected to make and pass on — the burden that women bear in this regard are uniquely their own.
This brings us to the question of the everyday lives of men in patriarchal contexts: where, often, they set the rules, but are also in some fundamental ways bound by them, though they still have the prerogative to fudge or even break them. This is evident in the way dominant caste men observe caste precedence, hierarchy and power, and yet are not averse to taking sexual possession of women who are in a situation of class and caste dependence. It is also present in other everyday contexts, where strictures — to be appropriately female — fly in the face of harsh social and economic realities – so that women have to be mobile, labour and bring home the income and the food, even as they are pushed to cover their faces, heads, be decorous and so on. In all instances the idea of what is appropriate to women, for them to be considered ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ enjoys great currency, in that women tend to internalise these rules and make them their own – often measuring themselves against other women, who are not ‘appropriate’ enough.
Working class and Dalit and Adivasi men often are forced to lead very fraught and difficult lives – except when they resist, or are politically assertive. Otherwise, they endure taunts that call out they are insufficiently male, and which seek to hurt their self-respect. Apart from the back-breaking labour they are subject to, they are seldom treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Their everyday, mired in frustrating conditions of work, and familial contexts, where want and social restrictions shape needs and demands, is not calculated to make them feel better, and unsurprisingly, many fall back on what is allowed to men, and disallowed to women: casual assertion through acts of violence or desperate acts of wrong doing in public.
Not that there is an easy, causal relationship between one’s condition of existence and how one seeks to preserve one’s sense of self, but the question has to be raised: whether fraught and difficult conditions of existence do not provoke responses which have as much to do with these latter, as they have to do with the individual, and his gender.
Dominant caste men are seldom observed closely, but their everyday behavior, whether indulgent towards the women in their household, or condescending or violent towards others who are not of their household are caste, is seldom viewed with the acuity it deserves. For it is in and through their habitual ways, of remaining on top, and viewing the world as their personal fiefdom, for the most part, that they actualise patriarchal practices. While there has been some change and even reform in dominant caste men’s attitudes to women, these have to be fought for, and by each generation of women, and sadly the fight remains locked within caste and class limits.
Lastly, the patriarchies of the everyday must also be seen as virulent when it comes to the more intimate spheres of one’s existence, especially one’s sense of self and being. And here, the experiences of transgender persons, and of those whose sexual orientation is not defined by heterosexuality. The constant attempts to school a body into being female or male, and the self-directed attempts to conform to a model of sexual love and intimacy which appears correct, while experiencing truant desire — these are germane to how one lives the everyday, whether at home, school, colleges and how one holds oneself in public. Here again, other realities mould behavior and render it diverse, but the ineluctable fact of having to gender-conform can be a burden that is as yet un-nameable for a great many of us.
Not that all those who do not wish to conform are victimised in exactly the same way or view themselves only as oppressed beings – the point is that patriarchal strictures to do with dress, labour, self-making and social relationships that are appropriate or not make themselves felt in the sphere of everyday bodily experience, and for those who defy gender norms, the battle is a daily one and also one without clear signposts. Caste, religion and class complicate and render this experience more or less difficult, but the processes of becoming a gendered being are nonetheless fraught for all concerned.
I would like to end with this image of protest and celebration from a set of events that transpired in Nagpur this year on 8 March, International Women’s Day, where all those who felt oppressed by everyday patriarchies as well as structural violence came together: Dalits, Adivasis, transgenders, lesbians, bisexuals and gay people… as if to say that while there might not be easy congruence between these various sorts of identities or indeed the suffering they endure, and the resistance they put up, the fact remains that caste, family structure, sexual norms and gender rules are matters that all would like to challenge and remake.
Images used for representational purposes only. Courtesy: Reuters