Posted by Swati Sradhanjali
About three weeks back while I was sitting in my balcony, observing the commotion on the road and thinking about the last 8 months that I have spent in Kantain village of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, several thoughts ran through my mind. It was a mixed bag, of deep-rooted social problems affecting the entire community here and of pleasant experiences I have had, interacting with children and several adults.
One thing that really stood out for me was the normalisation of patriarchy in this rural set up of Kantain-Amberpur. The social system is so ingrained that it has affected me almost each and every day that I have lived and worked here.
Why do you think that’s the case? Let us start from home. In almost all the households in the village, it is men who go out to work. Women are supposed to do the household chores and look after the well being of children. These activities, in practice, over time, have come to be known as gender roles. The work is so distinctly distributed that there are times when the father doesn’t know if his child has gone to the school or why he/she has remained absent from the school.
Women have been relegated to private spaces while men have been allotted public spaces. This also goes back to the ‘purdah’ system that still exists in a lot of families. “There are men and women who believe that women should remain behind the veil. We are not supposed to show our faces to the older male members after getting married,” says Anita Devi of Mshirpur village. The segregation of physical spaces combined with gender roles leads to gender norms.
Every day that I work in the staff room, I get to hear at least one extremely misogynist remark. For example, how much say should a woman have after getting married, or how much freedom a woman should be given after and before getting married, are some of the topics for discussion. Several questions are posed at me like, “Who would want to marry you if you don’t know how to cook?”, or to put it lightly, “How will I find a husband who will be ready to cook and thus, do a 50-50 partnership in the kitchen department?”
The intersection of caste, class and gender is deepening the roots of the problem in Kantain.
Initially, I used to ask myself if I really have to answer such questions. But as new topics were brought in every day, I was pushed to voice my opinion. To be honest, my voice on a male-dominated staff table wasn’t taken as seriously as that of a man.
There are various levels at which I have had to deal with this. In the village, people express astonishment and question my presence in a land, far from my hometown. They question my life decisions. As I visit several households, I’ve observed how parents treat their male and female children differently. Firstly, every family wants a boy. There are several instances where they have had many daughters before a son, and in general, when asked about a preference, despite financial instability, married couples expressed a desire for a boy.
A male clerk at the school, whose wife also works here, was forcibly made to sign that if they produce more children, he would lose his job. He has four daughters, and two more daughters previously died due to malnutrition. He, and more importantly his wife, still want a male child and hence want to reproduce to try for a son once more. While talking to the woman, Rajeswari, she said, “A boy would take the family lineage ahead while a girl will get married and go away. We will also have to spend so much money on their dowry. The boy instead, will bring in more wealth.”
Additionally, the male and female children are treated so differently that sometimes it is painful to just sit for an hour and watch the household activities. While a son is allowed to study in the evening, the daughters are expected to help in cooking, washing clothes and cleaning the house. I once saw a younger brother taunting his elder sister when she wanted to buy a pair of jeans saying that, “It’s high time you shifted your wishes to buying kurtis.” The worst part is that she felt bad, yet couldn’t say a word.
There are so many restrictions on what to wear, how to wear it, how to keep your hair, how to walk, and even how to smile and laugh. A girl from here, who studies in Bangalore, gets equal opportunities and is treated at par with her male counterparts, does not open her mouth in favour or against anything when she visits her house here during summer vacation. She says, “The rules are different for a city and a village. Here in Kantain, people will not accept me if I talk about change. They anyway do not wholly accept my family’s decision of sending me to Bangalore.”
The system around gender dynamics is repressive for anyone who recognises as a female. They are not only seen as submissive in nature but it is considered as one of their ‘feminine’ qualities.
In KAntain, Typically, While a son is allowed to study in the evening, the daughters are expected to help in cooking, washing clothes, and cleaning the house.
Drawing the reference from Plato’s Republic on the Allegory of the Cave, an enlightened person needs to come back from the other world to the cave to let the inmates know about the outer world. Now, it will be up to the inmates to believe it or not. Gradually, this process will help in bringing about change. However, in this case, the girl who is aware of empowerment and feminism gets subdued under the overpowering nature of patriarchy and thus, when she returns to the cave, she chooses to be like one of the inmates as she realises that this is temporary for her. She might rebel at times, but never enough to break free of the shackles while she is here.
It is understood that change will not happen over night, but because of the strong beliefs in gender roles, equality will be a longer process. The rate of change will be extremely slow. About privilege, although there are roles assigned to men and it is not fair to generalize that they always do what they want, it is evident that if we compare, girls and women are lesser privileged than boys and men. With such dynamics, boys and men not wanting to give up their privileges plays a big role in keeping patriarchy intact.
I observed see low-key feminism in school children in Kantain, surprisingly more in adolescents. They are vocal about any unfair treatment meted towards them. The girls compete with boys in every aspect: academics, sports and co-curricular activities, in a hope to reach at par with the gender that has been placed above them by society.
“Why do only boys get the chance to play cricket? We also want to play the game and therefore, we interrupt theirs and start ours or tell them to give us half the field if they do not want us to disrupt their game,” says a girl studying in Class 9. However, this voice shuts itself up once she reaches her home. It needs to go out from the school to home and then to their village. How and when, time will tell us.
It is not a single dimensional problem. The intersection of caste, class and gender is deepening the roots of the problem in Kantain. On a daily basis, I see a mix of oppression and agitation. My hope is for this agitation to grow for the betterment of the society so that no girl is asked about why is she working away from her hometown or why is she wearing a certain kind of apparel.
Swati Sradhanjali is an India Fellow, working with Milaan in Kantain, Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh where she is working with children and adolescents inside the classroom as well as out in their community. Swati studied Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. She heartily enjoys dancing. You can read more of her stories here.
Featured Image Source: Chindia Alert