By Kouser Fathima
Patriarchy is technically defined as a system in which the eldest male is the head of the family, who holds the power and largely excludes women from it. Patriarchy is commonly followed in most Asian societies. Right from birth to death women are subjected to patriarchal norms. Sadly many follow it without even a whimper of protest, as they don’t realize what they are being forced to follow is wrong.
Women are the biggest victims of patriarchy but ironically many a time women themselves are the enforcers of patriarchal rules. From an early age, women are conditioned to internalize unconsciously the rules of the family with the idea that any failure to do so may be harmful to the whole family. This fear leads to strict implementation of patriarchy and the cycle continues from generation to generation. Women blindly carry this burden in the name of maintaining dignity of the family.
We rightly complain and criticize men but seldom think how and where these men learn these customs. Society at large is blamed but the family, the basic unit of society, is mostly the starting point for practising these rules. A child grows up seeing how these rules are followed at home and thinks male authority as the accepted norm.
If we carefully analyze any household, we will find that it is mostly women-folk who try to enforce the patriarchal rules. Right from a young age, a girl is repeatedly reminded about her gender, prohibited from doing many things, which are seen as unsuitable for her gender. Her clothes, diet, chores and friends are scrutinised and commented upon by the family members. At times we manage to unintentionally convey messages that are discriminatory, without realising the impact it has on the psyche of children, both girls and boys. How many times we have heard women telling girls not to scream loudly, not to step out after sunset, not to answer back, learn to adjust, and speak softly. Boys on the other hand are seldom reprimanded for the same things.
Many families enforce strict rules for girls and women, which are implemented religiously by the elders in the family. They are time and again reminded of their duties towards the men-folk and even a small lapse is considered to be scandalous. The moment a new bride enters the household, she is scrutinised by the ladies, who take over the task of training and molding her. And most of them take this task rather seriously, strictly enforcing the rules, in order to make sure that the new member becomes their replica. Thus, women enforce patriarchy and repeat the cycle.
Growing up in a middle class family, I have seen the way patriarchal rules are followed and enforced by the womenfolk. Surprisingly, many a time I have witnessed the men folk coming to our rescue more eagerly than the ladies. One of our neighbours had predicted a bleak future for me because my rotis were never round. I heard one more lady advising other ladies how girls and cattle should be tied before they start nodding their heads. In other words, the status of a girl was that of cattle. This very idea was promoted by women themselves. Years later I would have to wait endlessly for dinner at a party because the host believed in serving dinner to ladies only after all the men had finished theirs. Women and kids were made to wait and, surprisingly, none of the ladies complained about this stupid discrimination. The behaviour of the host and the ladies shows how common gender discrimination is and how many have accepted this discrimination as normal. Later I came to know that most families followed this routine of serving males first and eating only after the men had finished. And women implemented this rule without any remorse or regret.
Right from a young age, gender discrimination is practiced in various forms: boys served food first, boys made to sleep on bed, boys not allowed to do household chores, and the wishes of boys given preference. These things may seem negligible but they have a profound influence on the kids. Kids growing up in such an environment fail to see the discrimination; rather, it becomes part of cultural and gender norms, which are to be followed and defended strictly. Any deviation from these patriarchal rules is seen as a direct threat to the culture. This further fuels the need to control and curb any change, leading to stricter patriarchal rules defined as cultural identity. A time comes when any change almost becomes impossible without any room for discussion. Simple rules blindly followed in the families rapidly become part of the society, leading to regressive practices, which are passed on to the next generations.
The lack of awareness makes it easier for the enforcers of patriarchy and the participation of few womenfolk is seen as the seal of approval by all. So when some women try to raise their voice against such discrimination, they are silenced by quoting the example of other women, invariably pitting them against each other. While women who mutely follow the rules and work to implement them are celebrated by a patriarchal society, the questioning women are labeled, maligned and targeted not only by men but also by the womenfolk. The reaction of the society is aimed at demoralising the spirit of anyone, who dares to reason and question the patriarchal rules. The society ultimately tries to silence the reasoning voices. Silence breeds more silence, resulting in a stagnant society with no reforms. This dangerous cycle is repeated endlessly until all dissent is stifled.
Since the silencing of dissent starts at homes, the effort to break the cycle of patriarchy must start at home. The womenfolk need to realise the severity of the situation. They must come out of victimhood, stand united and raise their voice against discriminatory social rules. The fight against many social evils like child marriage and sati would have not been successful without the role and support of women. On the positive side, many women are endlessly fighting against patriarchal rules and working effortlessly to create awareness. They need the support of other women if the struggle against patriarchy has to be successful. Change comes from within and the best way to change is to stop gender discrimination at home. This may be a small step but would go on to have huge implications in reforming our society.
Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @drkf_18
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