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Aunty anthropology

Getty images/ istock

Getty images/ istock  

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Women in hope, happy women, feisty women, women in kinship and friendship; what’s not to like?

I’m obsessed with the Instagram account @ohauntyji. Curated by Toronto-based clothing brand norblacknorwhite, the account is dedicated to ‘stylish Aunty ji’s’ and indeed, it is. Women in variously splendiferous styles captured in sepia, black and white, and colour, populate this account, reclaiming fashion from its anodyne present.

This account makes me happy. Women in hope, happy women, feisty women, women in kinship and friendship; what’s not to like? But let’s also be honest. As someone within the target category of ongoing aunty-dom, I suppose I also like it because these stylish ladies in all their verve seem to subvert the term ‘aunty’.

This moniker, signifying what anthropologists might call ‘fictive kinship’ is one familiar to both South Asians and the South Asian diaspora as you can see from all the nostalgia/ irony on social media. But one must also remember that aunties have a bad reputation.

Never say so

Instagram superstars Kusha Kapila and Dolly Singh, for example, are hilarious in their skewering of middle-class aunties. Author and Instagrammer Maria Qamar of @hatecopy defines the term as a ‘cross-cultural phenomenon’, ‘a term of endearment (and sometimes insult) used to describe an older woman’. Just so you know, Qamar’s book is called Trust No Aunty. In other words, one must not want to be an aunty.

Popular culture, of course, abets this vilification. People straddling the Doordarshan and post-liberalisation eras will perhaps remember the hair-dye advertisement where being called ‘aunty’ was the provocation that made the woman turn to hair colour. Or the television serial Hum Paanch where the neighbourhood aunty seductively crooned, ‘Aunty mat kaho na.’ (Don’t call me aunty).

The figure of the aunty signifies two important things about the place of particular kinds of women in society.

Consider first what it means if we begin to understand aunties as a sign of lost youth; given that aunty-ness produces effects ranging between fear and melancholia depending on one’s location on the age and gender divide. Even @ohauntyji in all of its subversions nevertheless falls back upon nostalgia to indulge in the pathos of fleeting youth and transient beauty — in other words, “They might be aunties, but they were young once.”

Secondly, the figure of the aunty also produces the figure of society writ large. Aunties watch, aunties gossip, aunties throw shade. Aunties are the watchdogs of bourgeois society telling girls that their bra straps are showing and letting people know what their children may be up to. Think about why this might be the case. Patriarchal society as a form of power is not led by force, but by quiet coercion and consent. Women tell women how to behave, not only because it gives them authority, but also to invest in them the fear of consequences. The former is to do with loss of self and value, the latter with concern for the appropriate place of women in society and the plight of women who rebel.

Life is long

In which case, might there be true possibilities of reclamation? The answer I think does lie in everyday life. For I remember all kinds of aunties. Those that taught me about many subversive things, including feminism, sisterhood, and love. And indulged in all manner of excess. And they demonstrated to me that youth may be fleeting, society’s understanding of beauty transient, but life continues to be very long. There’s a lot to do. So for every @ohauntyji, I give you accounts like @grombre, which celebrates women who allow their hair to grey and books like Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North that engages with the ageing of women.

One by one, we will all be aunties. And yet, embracing auntie-ness might well be the antidote we all need to a society obsessed with nay-saying mortality and valuing women only in relation to youth, beauty, and propriety. For what’s more fun than growing older and not being consumed by the need to be pretty and fun and young? What’s not to like about not caring who considers you loveable or likeable? What’s not exciting about figuring out that there are many many ways of being a woman?

The writer teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 10:59:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/aunty-anthropology/article30115426.ece

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