My friend’s daughter had married a couple of years ago and quit her job immediately after. It turns out that she wanted to get to know her in-laws better, which entailed frequent trips to Jammu where they lived. Repeated and well-meaning advice to get back to work lest the hiatus hamper her career prospects fell on deaf ears as she had her priorities cut out. No, she was not being coerced by the patriarchal system to play the dutiful bahu nor was/is her husband abusing her physically, mentally or emotionally to look after his parents. An intelligent and affectionate person, she wants to bond with them as much as she does with her mother, having lost her father when she was a teenager. She is an only child. And she is still not working.
Then there is this highly qualified software professional who quit her job when she became pregnant and didn’t take up a job once the baby was born despite both her mother and MIL offering to babysit her child by turns if she wanted to go back to work. She wasn’t an instinctive or even a willing homemaker but she did it excellently when she decided to do it. Even her MIL advised her to do something besides raising the child, to remain self-confident and financially independent. She listened politely but continued doing what she wanted to do. On the way, she learnt gardening, organizing parties, creatively engaging and raising the child and baking, among other things. She hasn’t felt compelled to justify being a SAHM (Stay-at-home-mom). She might or might not go back to work but she will not fall prey to the new stereotype of a modern young woman as media and activists are portraying her.
Overheard in a market in south Delhi: ‘Arrey, what is this on your forehead?’ — one PYT to another.
‘I went to the temple this morning. It is the tilak I got there.’ — her friend.
‘You are so old-fashioned! I am an atheist!’ — the last flung at her friend contemptuously with a toss of her hair.
The other one smiled but didn’t try to defend her action.
These are the girls/women who are breaking the reverse stereotype that is being created today in an effort to break the old ones. Junking tradition and cocking a snook at social institutions are some of the requisites to conform to the reverse stereotype. Woe to the one who professes her belief in any of them – joint family, marriage, religion — as it is guaranteed to make her a laughing stock if not a social outcast. So we find a lot of young people bending over backwards to conform and being defensive when they don’t or can’t. But does it guarantee long term solution to problems besetting society in general and women in particular? We don’t know and when we do know, it might be too late.
Maybe that is why women are already fighting out of this reverse stereotyping. Look at the number of them who are being defensive about their status of a ‘homemaker’, for instance. It does not take a genius to figure out that this would not have been necessary had they not unconsciously fallen into the trap and finding it restrictive!
So while the earlier generation stayed at home without giving it a thought and often did more in terms of contributing to their family and enriching themselves, these women have to indignantly list the things they do through the day and affirm it as ‘their choice’. I frankly wonder if it matters whether you are willingly doing all the work or are doing it because there is no choice. Women did feel more empowered back then when the reverse stereotyping had not gained ground. Of course the grass did look greener on the other side at times, but that was natural.
We have a very large population of rural and small town women who are neither as well educated or have had exposure to the western influences nor even have the material resources to junk traditional support systems. Come to think of it, is the demolishing of an institution wise in the absence of an alternate support structure? I remember that at the height of the Anna movement many people were making out a case for not undermining the sacred institution of Parliament because ‘things would descend into anarchy.’ If an institution that is hardly seven decades old can assume so much importance how can age old institutions like family or marriage be dispensed with without long term repercussions?
We have already restricted the basic unit of society, viz. the family, to the smallest unit possible. Marriage is out because it is believed to be a patriarchal creation designed to suppress women by making them fall into the roles of daughter, wife and mother. (Mothers-in-law don’t count as women.)
Disclaimer: This post by no means condones abuse of women or advocates women to stay in abusive marriages or even tolerate any form of violence in the name of marriage or otherwise, It only attempts to point out that the demolition of the institution per se will not solve the problem even while creating more in the bargain.
Let us take the institution of marriage to begin with. It is argued that it is losing its relevance and arranged marriages are the main villains of the piece. If being unmarried or choosing one’s own partner were the panacea for all the social ills plaguing women, and if walking out were the solution for all marital problems, the condition of women should be better in the developed countries, surely? The so-called progressive societies like the US (where there are no arranged marriages and no patriarchy) should be a utopia for women, right?
A casual Google search on domestic violence will throw up results to put that illusion effectively to rest and make your stomach churn for good measure. One of the most important facts that jumped at me was that it need not be the husband who is perpetrating the violence; boyfriends, live-in partners and even dates can be the culprits. Take a look at some of the stats: (Link)
- One woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds in the United States. (Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1991).
- Battering occurs among people of all races, ages, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, occupations, and educational backgrounds.
- Domestic violence does not end immediately with separation. Over 70% of the women injured in domestic violence cases are injured after separation.
The link provides even more gruesome facts. Do read the page on the myths of domestic violence to clear some fallacies we seem to suffer from.
If this is the condition of women who have always had the freedom to choose their life partners or remain unmarried, one can imagine the consequences in the absence of an institutional union in a country like India where illiteracy and ignorance are rampant. At least when there is a marriage, there is some kind of accountability on the part of the perpetrators of any form of violence and legal recourse is an option in case of a dispute. I can say this with some measure of authority having seen hundreds of cases where marital problems have been sorted out with intervention of family and friends – even serious ones. I have one very close friend in this last category.
Traditions, customs, institutions and even faith are the grounding factors in a person’s life. Bereft of them, a person can flounder, especially in times of crises. We are happily throwing away the support system of family (and joint family) and embracing the chimera of social networking and virtual friends. It might be argued that these are support groups too. Though unfriending someone is as easy as a click away, we hesitate doing it for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or coming out in the open with how we feel. While taking so much care about virtual relationships do we spare even an iota of consideration for our real time family? With single child homes becoming the norm, just imagine the chaos that will be created when this generation grows up and finds an entire set of old people bereft of any support, physical or emotional, thanks to the new stereotypes being created now.
Any structure by virtue of its composition and character is bound to gather moss and debris. But do we demolish a house when it gets dirty? We clean it, redo it or restructure in some cases when the damage is extensive. Demolishing is the last resort. Likewise, demolishing institutions is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The ills plaguing our society are not just due to the social institutions but due to myriad factors of which they are just a part. Reverse stereotypes would have us believe otherwise, however.
That is why I admire the young women we met at the outset, who not only are breaking the new stereotypes but also are affirming their faith in age old institutions directly or indirectly.
Image courtesy: voidphase.com