Thursday, July 25, 2013

Women Under a Cloudy Lens

A few days back, my wife posed a rhetorical question.  She asked why it was necessary for girls to leave their homes after marriage and enter the homes of their in-laws, while the same was not explicitly required of the men they married.  Considering the readership of this site is predominantly in the U.S., this may sound like a bit of an odd question, but it makes sense within the context of the pervading "old-fashioned" culture of India.  It is actually an in-built component of the definition of marriage over their, even if "entering" someone else's home is more of a paper entry.  It's something that even as the younger generation are starting to become more and more Westernized (at least in the urban parts of the country), and 99 out of every 100 Bollywood films espouses idealistic love-conquers-all romance that flies in the face of outdated parochial cultural attitudes about marriage and raising children...  and yet these tinges remain.

It's a bit funny when I hear the anti-gay crowd here in the U.S. talk about preserving "traditional marriage", and I think back to how we define that in India.  Really, the "traditional marriage" in India is closer to that which marriage actually was in ancient times.  It wasn't originally a union between lovers; it was a union between tribes, where young able-bodied humans (where able-bodied for a man meant he could fight well enough to kill your enemies and able-bodied for a woman meant she was hot enough to bed frequently) were the units of trade to cement contracts.  This is still reflected in India today where the culture views "marriage" as "marrying an entire family" rather than something between two people.  The local community including neighbors and distant relatives you've probably never met and friends, family doctors, and lawyers all expressing some vested interest in the success of someone's marriage, regardless of whether it really has anything to do with them or not.  Even to this day, we have a tendency to use the word "alliance" rather than fiance/fiancee.

The rationalization for the original question was apparently that there is some apparent special skill that daughters have for bringing an emotional warmth to an environment that apparently is beyond the capabilities of any son.  That sounds nice and flowery, but it is a double-edged sword, as such a magical ability would clearly be a loss to the family she's said to be exiting.  There is no logic in saying that there's a special skill that is exclusive to women as a rationalization for why women are to leave their homes.  Doesn't that imply that said special skills are no longer availed to the family of her birth?  Even otherwise, it is not as if ties are cut, so much as presumed ownership of responsibilities are handed over.  In other words, a married-off daughter is now the property of her new husband and his immediate family.

Notice I said "married off".  That's the actual goal.  The view is that if you have a son, your goal is to ensure he becomes a) a doctor, b) a lawyer, c) a wealthy business owner, d) an engineer or e) all of the above.  If you have a daughter, the goal is that she gets married to a) a doctor, b) a lawyer, c) a wealthy business owner, or d) an engineer.  Basically, the man in the couple needs to provide a comfortably great amount of wealth and hopefully the intellect that shows he's got good genes to pass on to his progeny (preferably both -- hence why doctor is first in the list).  The woman...  eh, who cares?  All that matters is that she looks like Aishwarya Rai, shows the bhakti of Meera Bai, is submissive and obedient like Sita, and demonstrates no will of her own.  Look at how well it worked out for Sita.*

In this day and age, it's becoming increasingly more necessary for households to be two-income, but for women, it's still more important that their career be secondary to the needs of the household.  This is partly because people have this view of women as less capable, so the best you can hope for from a woman's career is for it to be "good enough" to supplement the influx of cash.  The other side of it is the machismo of men in a married couple who can't stand the idea of not being the breadwinner.  The "ball and chain" can make as much as she wants as long as I make more.  Money == power and if I make more, that cements my power.  After all, if it was the other way around, then the man might lose cognizance of his innate superiority. But who cares at that point?  At least then, your daughter is secure in her life and you don't have to worry anymore.  She's not your problem now.  And they all lived happily ever after...  sure.  Whatever.

Now I know this often has the rationalization that parents do it because they care and they don't want their kids to have to struggle...  make life easy for them.  That makes a certain level of sense, but at the same time, you're putting your ideals onto them.  Your images of what life should be about, your positions and opinions, and expecting them to carry it out exactly as you wish...  and furthermore, that you're worried about YOUR shame when someone doesn't fit that mold you've laid out for them...  that's a pretty selfish definition of love, if you ask me.  But then it's nothing new, considering people find it similarly okay to indoctrinate children to share their own religious beliefs as well.

When your view of the role of women is that shallow, it also means that you prioritize shallow values.  In India, hardly any parent of a girl is interested in trying to foster the unique skills and talents of their daughters. They're not interested in seeing her make something of herself the way it is seen as so important for a son to do (albeit that sons are limited in their options, too).  Why bother trying to train your daughter to be fiercely independent, educated, and assertive?  That's not her place.  No, no...  her place is to find a respectable groom and be sent off to be in his care, and your success in "sending her" there is your own great accomplishment as a parent.  You are honored by her being taken by some bigshot, and that's what really matters.  And if trying to do it by force doesn't work, you just need a bit of emotional blackmail.  "How could you possibly do this?  Don't you care about what this will do for my position?  After I've clothed you, fed you, raised you for so many years!  And this is how you show your gratitude!"

When I look, for instance, at the video of the 11-year old Yemeni girl who ran away from an arranged marriage, I think... "Holy crap! She's incredibly well-spoken for an 11-year old!"  More importantly, notice the point she makes.  What kind of people are you that you forgo any further education for your child, don't really give a damn what she might have to go through, brush aside her future ambitions, and for what?  Now I know I'm using an example from outside India, but it's not radically different.  Okay, nowadays, we expect women to have a job so in the more urban parts of the country we don't have so many child brides like this (though in the rural areas, you still see things like 10-year old widows and such), but a job is something extra she does to make ends meet.  She still has a role of being a mother, a housewife, and a sex toy, and all that comes first.

That said, I'm not about to say that it is because parents of our nation don't love their kids.  They've simply been raised in a culture where loving your child has this definition.  And that definition includes a strict double-standard.  They only understand a layout of social norms in which this is the lens through which you view women.  They don't know any better, but at the same time, that also means that no amount of logic, reason, or even appeals to emotion will have any significance.  The only thing that will is for the next generation not to make the same mistakes.  Say all you want about it being tradition and culture.  Then our traditions and culture are wrong.  If anything, we should be teaching our kids about this background specifically in order to illuminate the flaws, lest they repeat that horrid history and create another generation of people with a hopelessly narrow-minded view of humanity.  That is a vision that needs to die.  Quickly.

* For my non-Desi readers out there, the Ramayana has Sita kidnapped, doubted as to whether or not she was raped (because that would make her used goods), put through trial by fire, then later doubted by the public and therefore exiled by her husband due to political pressures -- while she was pregnant with twins, no less -- then her sons are discovered unknowingly singing praises of their father and then she dies.