Kerthio mentioned nothing about these plans to her husband. After all, the women’s tradition was never spoken about with the men of her village. While a father knew in general terms that the tradition existed… most men understood very little else – not what the operation entailed, not that it was being planned, and often not even that it had occurred.
… They’d always been told it was a necessary means of finding a good husband – and it was generally assumed that men expected it – but in reality, it was the future husband’s mother who acted as the gatekeeper of the practice. She was the one who insisted a woman be cut when it came time to choose a wife for her son. Men never spoke of it.
When I read these passages in “however long the night” – a book on a white woman’s extraordinary efforts against the practice of female genital cutting (or mutilation) in Senegal – a notion that had been taking root in my mind for quite some time became more deeply lodged. A notion that challenges the concept that men are the wielders of power and women the objects on which that power is exerted; that men are the oppressors and women the oppressed; that the atrocities and discrimination women face in any society can all be traced back to the dominating nature of men. In other words, the concept of patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a funny word. Men abhor it. Feminists love it. Make any mention of the word patriarchy, and men get all worked up. Bring up any issue concerning women, and feminists have an answer in patriarchy. It’s all black and white. Nuances? There is no room for them.
And yet, as I observe more and more of the world, I feel that we have oversimplified things a tad too much. Violence against women is a reality. Misogyny is a fact. Discrimination against women is truth. But are men to blame for everything? Or rather, are men alone to blame for everything? Going back to the female genital cutting example, it’s a crime against women the horrors of which are unimaginable for anyone who has not undergone it herself. The men, though, are not in the picture even remotely. Back home, the first person to mourn the birth of a girl child is very often the grandmother, also the first one to insist on aborting a female foetus where that option is available. Saina Nehwal is on record saying that her daadi (father’s mother) refused to see her for a month after she was born. Living in a region notorious for its badly skewed sex ratios, I’m all too familiar with such things.
Any case of dowry demand or bride-burning has women from the husband’s family among the convicts. Menstruation – that life-giving, essential biological process – remains a mystery for most men; the mothers and the mothers-in-law, on the other hand, go about passionately enforcing the taboos. Mothers teach their young girls not to laugh too much and too loud, to sit with their legs together, to control the urge to pee when out in public. The same mothers teach their boys none of this. Instead, they tell them – tu toh mard hai; tu kuchh bhi kar sakta hai (you are a man; you can get away with anything). No wonder men get away with exposing their genitals and peeing in full public view, with not so much as even a hint of sexual harassment. Whereas a woman, covered head-to-toe, gets raped because “Women who go out at night have only themselves to blame in case they attract attention of male molesters”. Who is the real culprit here? The man who acted consistent with the values he was brought up with or the woman who brought him up with those values or maybe failed to instil the values of treating women with respect? (I know I am setting myself up for criticism by holding solely mothers responsible for value-educating children. But let’s face it – with fathers playing largely an absentee-parent role in most families, it is the mothers who end up doing most of the conditioning.)
In his 2014 Independence Day address, while commenting on the rising incidence of rape, PM Modi put the onus of teaching sons the difference between right and wrong on the parents. He asked parents to subjects boys to the same kind of restrictions and corrections as they do the girls. Sound advice. Boys who are taught to be “manly” grow up to be men who treat women as doormats, while those who are taught to be sensitive and considerate grow up to be men who respect women. Aren’t patriarchal attitudes then a function of conditioning?
Biological and social theories of patriarchy attempt to convincingly explain the origin and perpetuation of patriarchy. But how, when and why exactly patriarchy became so deeply entrenched, we will never know. The alpha male is for real; the alpha female is no myth either. There are omega males and omega females, and a whole lot of other variants in between. Some men are feminine and some women are masculine, with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity in between (Mind you, I’m not talking about LGBTs here). The point being that all men are not evil and all women are not divine. Patriarchy is not as cut-and-dried as we have been made to believe.
It’s hard to accept that 50% of the population has subjugated the other 50% of the population throughout history, across civilizations and in all cultures, without the system ever being seriously challenged or overthrown. If this has been the case, it has been made possible with more than a little help from some of the latter 50%. Take the recent debates over equal right to worship for women in Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur temples. There were men who called for an end to the discrimination, and there were those who defended the bans. What was odd, however, was the vociferous defence of the bans from a very large number of women, all in the name of respecting tradition. Tradition it has been – the pretext for accepting and perpetuating hostilities against women; and women have been at the vanguard of upholding tradition.
Women’s rights and issues are one of the most hotly debated topics today, with every debate – subtly or otherwise – taking on the hue of a man vs. woman fight. Repeat references to patriarchy make men defensive and less likely to participate in working out durable solutions to women’s problems. It is immaterial how patriarchal setups came to life. What is relevant is how violence and prejudices against women are perpetuated – with the complicity of women. To that extent, debates, activism, actions and policy initiatives should be addressed as much to women as they are to men. Making them gender-neutral would be better still. Women’s issues are, at the end of the day, human rights issues.