Is it possible some women don’t want to be free of patriarchy?

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Women in a nation like India, where patriarchy is deep-rooted, find themselves in a quandary whether to rebel or reconcile, facing an existential threat wherein freedom means loss of security.

It takes a lot of strength for a woman to defy the “protection of patriarchy” and take the blue pill. | Ritu Raj Konwar

In Indian schools, we learn something called value education or moral science (as it used to be called in convent schools). The idea behind this training was for children to learn not to steal or cheat, to be honest, brave and so on. Maybe twice a week we read out loud in class — a paragraph each — from our moral science textbooks as the teacher looked on.

A quarter of a century later, I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn from those texts. Often the reading, the pace of which varied with the student reading, was interrupted by the teacher essentially repeating what was written in the textbooks. I do, however, know one thing — not one of those classes or lines or paragraphs or chapters taught me that as a girl I could make my own decisions, dress how I liked and that I was equal to the boys in my class.

The Indian school system when I was in school was an insidious one for girls. We sat on different rows or benches, were held to higher standards of behaviour than boys and — I could never understand this — often a boy would be squeezed in between me and another girl so that we could police his “naughty” behaviour. In this way, even at the age of ten or twelve, we as young girls were seen as keepers/protectors/enhancers of boys and charged with the task of keeping him in line and out of trouble. Perhaps we were being trained for our roles as wives even at that age — good girls can act as checks on bad boys.

I am reflecting on these middle-school dynamics as today I read a report about a Kendriya Vidyalaya teacher from Raipur in Chhattisgarh, who said in class, “Girls expose their body only when they don't have beautiful faces. Girls have become so shameless, why did Nirbhaya go out so late at night with a boy who wasn't her husband? It’s difficult to understand why an issue was made of this. Such incidents happen with girls in remote areas frequently. Nirbhaya's mother shouldn't have allowed her go out so late at night”. Later, in a video found on Quint, she defends her actions saying that as a teacher it is her duty to warn her students. She wraps up her piece by saying, “If our outfits are sahi [right], fifty per cent of such crimes will stop.”

 

 

There are some observations I want to make about this incident. First, on a positive note at least the concept of rape is being raised in class. This is not something that would happen in a tier-two or tier-three city school in India even as recently as ten years ago. Personally, I am glad someone is at least mentioning rape, however imperfectly, in school. The second positive outcome has been the reaction of the female students. They recorded the teacher, spoke to their parents, said they were discomfited by this whole event, and reported it to the school authorities. This is definitely a small indicator of how the young women of this country are changing and evolving at a much faster rate than their male counterparts.

But here’s what is so deeply troubling about this. First, that classroom setting was turned into an unequal space by the teacher. She lectured the women on clothing and attire, maintaining that if they dressed in jeans and wore lipstick they would be complicit in any crimes done against them. It is tantamount to telling the girls they need to be afraid and wary. And in the same breath, it tells the boys that rape is a crime that does not directly implicate them. The onus for their own safety is on the women.

Second, the teacher implies that parenting is a woman’s task. She says that Nirbhaya’s mother should not have allowed her to go out “that late”. Absent in her assessment of the events surrounding Nirbhaya’s gang-rape and murder is the role of the father and also an understanding that rape doesn’t always occur under the cover of darkness and only to women who are wearing jeans and lipstick and are out late. It is a crime that is also perpetrated against 8-month-old babies and 8-year-old boys. In doing so, the teacher again reinforces a vision where men are blameless for violence that is done by them.

Third, and this is a point I will reflect on at some length, I am thinking about how and why such women are able to miss the bus on world events that have recently generated a mostly unanimous position on women’s freedom from violence. Is this ignorance accidental? Is this ignorance wilful? Women, even in small-town India, have always shown remarkable resolve in standing up to patriarchy, whether it is in the form of smashing liquor bottles or beating up wife-beaters and dragging them to the cops. So how does someone charged with educating future generations and schooling them in life skills remain blind to the idea of women’s freedom?

 

To be a free woman is to shrug off the dubious cloak of “protection” that patriarchy offers, which is its unique selling point for many women.

 

I can posit two alternative explanations to this question. The first revolves around the idea of an absolute lack of information — this teacher does not read, does not watch the news and is disconnected from a global movement that has been captured by elite and privileged women. Perhaps, but at best this is a decent guess which stands negated by the fact that this teacher clearly does follow the news since she knows about Nirbhaya and alludes to recent political debates on dress codes for women.

A second explanation may be more plausible, but it is one that I wrestle with. Is it possible that there are some women who don’t want to be free of patriarchy?

I raise this question because from my perspective as an educated feminist, it is difficult to understand or to explain why all women will not board the same bus I am on. It is difficult and, frankly, annoying when some women don’t see the limiting of their freedom and when they don’t struggle against it to win more room to breathe or to be outside of that room, permanently. Yet, I have to consider, as a scholar, that not everyone will think in the same way and be comfortable with the same levels of freedom. Some of us women want to be free to make our choices, ranging from what we wear to what vocation we have to whether we marry. Yet for many Indian women that idea of choice is frightening. The idea of rebellion against what we have been socialised into is scary. It is frightening because it means being economically and personally responsible, being able to earn, being able to protect oneself and being able to fight back, because, make no mistake, independent women have an excruciatingly difficult time in a country like ours.

Our teacher from Chhattisgarh is an example of a woman that has made her peace with patriarchy. This peace is an unnatural one, for no living being on earth is ever at peace when it is chained, unless they are actively Stockholming. This peace is an unstable one and is a peace that the teacher has been socialised into. Peace with patriarchy is one that has been enforced through violence and taught to us in our “value education” classes. And such women have the urge to pass on their understanding to younger women so they are not left standing alone in their fear. Hence the classroom sermon, where young girls are taught that it is their fault if they get raped. I could write this piece by stating facts and statistics — that stranger rape is actually uncommon in India where about 94% of rapes are committed by people that are known to the victim, that over 50% of surveyed husbands think they need to discipline their wives, and so on.

 

However, these statistics do not help me develop an understanding of a pernicious mindset where women blame women for things that happen to women. How is it possible to be so hypnotised by a dominant pattern of thought that one becomes blind to the fact that most violence against women is actually “male” violence against women. How can one find logic in the argument that a woman, when she is raped, is the perpetrator of her own crime?

I am left with the understanding that this concept we call “freedom” is one that some women consider an existential threat. It is destabilising to their worldview, their belief system and way of life. To be a free woman is to shrug off the dubious cloak of “protection” that patriarchy offers, which is its unique selling point for many women. I do not suggest that such women are weak. I merely offer only that they have been deceived and that they have been coached through fear into fear. They fear men and are not aware of their own strength. This is why many women leave the workforce, or move jobs to follow their husbands and work themselves to the bone to manage home and careers. This is also why in India so many women are unhappy, because the pressures of being “free” to work and add to income, and at the same time “unfree” as they have no freedom of choice, will topple the most stable person into an abyss of unhappiness and confusion.

I truly wish I could go forward in time to see what becomes of India in a hundred years and if the message that was relayed to students in a classroom in Chhattisgarh will still be repeated in varying forms and languages. It is my hope that such messages will become obsolete, yet I have to grapple with the reality that traditions in India, especially when they are geared towards keeping some persons in a weaker position when it advantages the power structure, seldom die out completely. The way forward then is to teach our girls to be unconditionally unafraid of anyone and any circumstance. The way forward is to teach them to be assertive and to teach them that freedom to choose, to work, to dress, to speak out, to run, to fight and to rebel is not something they need to be afraid of. It is in fact, the only way to live.

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