About three weeks back while I was sitting in my balcony, observing the commotion on the road and thinking about the last 8 months that I have spent in Kantain village of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, several thoughts ran through my mind. It was a mixed bag, of deep rooted social problems affecting the entire community here and of pleasant experiences I have had, interacting with children and several adults.
One thing that really stood out for me was the normalization of patriarchy in this rural set up of Kantain-Amberpur. The social system is so ingrained that it has affected me almost each and every day that I have lived and worked here.
Why do you think that’s the case? Let us start from home. In almost all the households in the village, it is men who go out to work. Women are supposed to do the household chores and look after the well-being of children. These activities, in practice, over time, have come to be known as gender roles. The work is so distinctly distributed that there are times when the father doesn’t know if his child has gone to the school or why he/she has remained absent from the school.
Women have been relegated to private spaces while men have been allotted public spaces. This also goes back to the ‘purdah’ system which still exists in a lot of families. There are enough men and elderly women who believe that women should remain behind the veil. The segregation of physical spaces combined with gender roles lead to gender norms.
Every day that I work in the staff room, I get to hear at least one extremely misogynist remark. For example, how much say should a woman have after getting married, or how much freedom a woman should be given after and before getting married, are some of the topics for discussion. Several questions are posed at me like, “Who would want to marry you if you don’t know how to cook, or to put it lightly, “How will I find a husband who will be ready to cook and thus, do a 50-50 partnership in the kitchen department?”.
Initially, I used to ask myself if I really have to answer such questions. But as new topics were brought in everyday, I was pushed to voice my opinion. To be honest, my voice on a male dominated staff table wasn’t taken as seriously as that of a man.
There are various levels at which I have had to deal with this. In the village, people express astonishment and question my presence in a land, far from my hometown. They question my life decisions. As I visit several households, I’ve observed how parents treat their male and female children differently. Firstly, every family wants a boy. There are several instances where they have had many daughters before a son, and in general, when asked about a preference, despite financial instability, married couples expressed a desire for a boy.
A male clerk at school whose wife also works here, was forcibly made to sign that if they produce more children, he would lose his job. He has four daughters, and two more daughters previously died due to malnutrition. He, and more importantly his wife, still want a male child and hence want to reproduce to try for a son once more. Secondly, the male and female children are treated so differently that sometimes it is painful to just sit for an hour and watch the household activities. While a son is allowed to study in the evening, the daughters are expected to help in cooking, washing clothes and cleaning the house.
I once saw a younger brother taunting his elder sister when she wanted to buy a pair of jeans saying that it was high time she shifted her wishes to buying kurtis. The worst part? She felt bad, yet didn’t say a word.
There are so many restrictions on what to wear, how to wear it, how to keep your hair, how to walk, and even how to smile and laugh. A girl from here, who studies in Bangalore, gets equal opportunities and is treated at par with her male counterparts, does not open her mouth in favor or against anything when she visits her house here during summer vacation. The system around gender dynamics is repressive for anyone who recognizes as a female. They are not only seen as submissive in nature but it is considered as one of their ‘feminine’ qualities.
Drawing the reference from Plato’s ‘Republic’ on the Allegory of the Cave, an enlightened person needs to come back from the other world to the cave to let the inmates know about the outer world. Now, it will be upto the inmates to believe it or not. Gradually, this process will help in bringing about change. However, in this case, the girl who is aware of empowerment and feminism gets subdued under the overpowering nature of patriarchy and thus, when she returns to the cave, she chooses to be like one of the inmates as she realizes that this is temporary for her. She might rebel at times, but never enough to break free of the shackles while she is here.
It is understood that change will not happen over night, but because of the strong beliefs in gender roles, equality will be a longer process. The rate of change will be extremely slow. About privilege, although there are roles assigned to men and it is not fair to generalize that they always do what they want, it is evident that if we compare, girls and women are lesser privileged than boys and men. With such dynamics, boys and men not wanting to give up their privileges plays a big role in keeping patriarchy intact.
I only get to see low-key feminism in school children, surprisingly more in adolescents. They are vocal about any unfair treatment meted towards them. The girls compete with boys in every aspect: academics, sports and co-curricular activities, in a hope to reach at par with the gender that has been placed above them by the society. However, this voice shuts itself up once they reach their homes. It needs to go out from the school to home and then to their village. How and when, time will tell us.
It is not a single dimensional problem. The intersection of caste, class and gender is deepening the roots of the problem. On a daily basis, I see a mix of oppression and agitation. My hope is for this agitation to grow for the betterment of the society so that no girl is asked about why is she working away from her hometown or why is she wearing a certain kind of apparel.