Recently, the HRD Minister of India called out Aligarh Muslim University on their decision to ban women from their campus library, noting that it was “an insult to daughters.”

Now, let’s first get something out-of-the-way. Banning women and girls from a University library on the grounds that “boys will flood the library if girls are allowed and there isn’t enough space” – if indeed this is what happened – is deplorable. In fact, it’s a stupid decision irrespective of whether it was motivated by an assumption that all college-going men are savages. I will leave the impending cross-fire of clarifications and accusations to those more experienced with white noise, which I’m certain will ultimately drown out the real issue.

For now, I restrict this rant to maa-behen women’s rights activism. The idea that banning someone from a library based on their gender is not an insult to sanity and common sense, but to “daughters”. The idea, that to show respect to women, you have to equate them to your mother or your sister – the idea that, essentially, men deserve common courtesies because they exist, but women are deserving only for being like your maa/behen and not for being people. In fact, I will go so far as saying that in this language that defines women by their relationships, is hidden a not so subtly patriarchal definition of what women are, or what they “should be”.

Ghar mein maa-behen nahi hai kya?” has been a tome of men and women, especially when responding to street-harassment, for as long as I can remember. With support from Bollywood, and in enraged reactions to the 2012 Delhi incident, this phrase seems to have gradually become the norm. No surprises then, that it has meandered its way up from your neighborhood auto-driver who may not know better to a Union minister who really should.

On the flip-side of this questionable reasoning behind respecting women, we are also a culture rife with insults and cuss-words targeted at one’s maa/behen. These abuses are now so common even in conversations between friends, that it’s as if everyone is to pretend that the associated misogyny has slowly, but steadily, eroded away completely. If how we “traditionally” treat our widows, or how many rapists are family members, were reasonable metrics, then it’s not like we allow our mothers and sisters to be free from the shackles of conventionally defined patriarchal society. That might sound like a far-fetched argument, and I concede, that I did a double-take when I first heard it. But the longer you think about it, the more it makes sense that all this talk of mothers and sisters never leads to talk of wives (because you know, obviously, we don’t need to view wives as deserving of respect, or of needing to give consent).

As a nation, we need to put an end to maa-behen “feminism”. We need verbiage that recognizes everyone as an individual, and not as male or female; verbiage that understands not only the fluid nature of gender, but also the utterly inflexible nature of basic rights and freedoms. Is it too much to expect of the Union HRD Minister to refrain from language that furthers concrete gender roles and trivialize such serious problems as restricted access to a library? The need for public figures – role models – to watch their language has never been greater. We are now, for the first time in a long time, in a place where men and women across the board are waking up to the need for gender rights. It is easy for those not paying attention, to unintentionally fall into the rut of these apparently minor transgressions without fully realizing the implications. It would help greatly, Smritiji, if – as someone who many of the country’s youth look up to – you could show a little more restraint while doling out subliminal patriarchy.


Disclaimer: This piece first appeared on the author’s personal blog.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I can think of two advantages that maa-behen feminism has over individual feminism:
    1. It can take feminism to grassroots level where the Western idea of individual is not prevalent and family is always considered the basic social unit of society.
    2. It humanizes strangers by projecting kinship. So a random old guy being kicked on road is bad but someone seeing it as “mere papa ki umar ke aadmi ko maara” might feel more empathy.

    I fail to see the advantages of individual based feminism. Please enlighten.
    This post seems like a typical sample of upper-class feminism, where the most trivial things are focused on, many even irrational and thus a platform for voice which a poor or rural or uneducated woman might not have is squandered away.

    • Apoorva,
      The point is to consider women possessing worth on account of them being people and not because of their relation to a man. The goal is to divorce women’s worth and identity from the men in their lives. So when someone says, “You should respect women because they are like your daughter or mother”, and not “You should respect women because it’s what should be expected of a civilised human being”, we are reiterating the idea that a man should respect women only when they have an intimate, personal relationship with them and not just by virtue of women being people who deserve respect at all times, like all people do.

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