Gender Conditioning in India

Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

There was an advertisement I came across a while ago, which still rankles. It started by showing a woman serving her family dinner. To clarify: around six family members were seated, eating, while this lady, along with the help, served them. While serving, she was being taunted and criticised by her husband, mother-in-law and others, possibly brother and sister-in-law, for shouting at her son for stealing a minor amount from his father’s wallet. She bore their taunts stoically, until the father in law, head of the household, spoke up for her and shut the others down.

The tagline? Stand by strong mothers.

It baffled me. How was this woman, silently tolerating abuse while she served her family members, strong?

Was she strong because she bore the taunts without breaking down? Was she strong because she shouted at her son? Was she strong because she hadn’t walked out of the seemingly claustrophobic marriage when she should have? ‘Strong’ in the Indian context has been lost in translation.

I have no doubt that she was strong. She would have been raised to be helpful, respectful, adjusting and subservient – and was only fulfilling what she believed were her duties to her family. She also had a sense of what was right and wrong, and corrected her son because of this. Unfortunately, it seemed she never learnt to apply the same rules to whose who wronged her, for she had been conditioned to be tolerant.

Ah, gender conditioning, the beast in the room.

The first instance of conditioning I remember was way back when I was in elementary school. Our report cards were out, and my brother was given a sound verbal thrashing.

‘What about her?” My brother asked, pointing at me.

I braced myself, knowing my report was far from stellar.

“She too should do better, but it is more important for you.” 

“Why?” he wailed as I looked at my parents, astounded by this revelation. Suddenly, it dawned on me.

“Because I’ll get married!” I giggled. My husband would provide! I could take it easy!

Over the years it was made clear that I would only work if it was alright by my future family. I was encouraged to study, look forward to perhaps a light job, if at all. A career was out of the question.  Nevertheless, I was loved equally as my brother, and at no time did I think of myself as inferior to him, or to boys. Instead, I just presumed our roles would be different. After all, I had grown up hearing, “If both parents work, who will look after the children?”, a question which rested on the completely logical premise of division of labour. Women have always looked after the home while men went to sea, went to war or went into the forest to chop trees. It’s the way things have been for centuries, and the way many believe they should continue.

However, our lives have evolved. We now live in a time where mental strength is more valued than physical prowess. In a world where the richest and possibly most powerful men in the world are nerds, not jocks, does it really matter who throws the hardest punches?

Our notions of gender roles, as they stand today, are deeply warped; twisted to the benefit of the male and to the detriment of the female. Despite being so outrageously unfair to women, so deeply embedded are they in our psyche that even the highly educated find themselves abiding by them.

We raise our sons to strive for financial independence, and our daughters to strive for marriage. This needs to change. Our girls should be raised to earn a living irrespective of their husbands’ economic status for the simple reason that a woman with her own income is less likely to be a target for abuse.

There are many parents who are almost afraid of making their daughters ‘too’ independent. For who knows what she’s going to do with all that independence! What’s it going to take for society to realise that keeping a woman financially dependent so she stays stuck to her husband no matter how he treats her, “for the sake of the children” is cruel and wrong? Children grow up well in a house where their mother is happy, strong and respected, not where she is being assaulted – verbally or physically. 

Similarly, I have lost count of the number of times I was told I had to learn to be more adjusting. I was warned, time and again, that I would have to back down before the giant ego of my future husband.

“What of my giant ego?” I’d often ask.

“Get rid of it,” they’d snap.  Never understood why boys weren’t advised the same.

Coming back to the original point, what does it mean to be strong?

Being strong often means standing up for what you believe in. If you teach her to be tolerant, she will tolerate abuse, so let’s not be quick to judge women who stay in difficult marriages, for they believe sticking it out is the right thing. It’s what they’ve been taught. They are strong, in their own way. 

On the other hand, if you teach your daughter self-respect, being strong, to her, will mean refusing to put up with someone who doesn’t respect her.  So please, make sure she knows that she deserves respect, care and consideration. 

Here’s what you DON’T teach her:

  • Don’t teach her that her wants and desires don’t matter.
  • Don’t teach her that it’s bad to be ‘too’ independent. There’s no such thing!
  • Don’t teach her that she is inferior to men or to her brothers in any manner.
  • Don’t teach her the ‘joy’ of sacrifice.
  • And finally, PLEASE don’t teach her that she has to serve while others eat. It is enough that she passes the salt!

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