Nagging wife. Forgiving mother. Assertive husband. Towering father. Sexist tropes exist aplenty within the family. Similar to socially constructed systems of caste, religion, and class, patriarchy too permeates the family. In lending its omnipresent tint, patriarchy dictates gender roles, decrees hierarchical interpersonal relations, and shapes lived experiences.
To illustrate, women are ‘homemakers’ and men are ‘breadwinners’. Indian women spend 6 hours per day on unpaid care work (such as care of dependents, housework, and voluntary community work) while men spend 36 minutes. Unpaid care work is often neglected and ineffective in eliciting respect. Sexual division of labor ensures that women prioritize unpaid care work over paid work in the labor market. Resultantly, women are granted lesser access to opportunities and resources, which impedes them from gaining employable skills and entering the paid labor force.
In India, 33% of women face spousal domestic violence; the most common form of spousal violence is physical violence (30%), followed by emotional violence (14%) and sexual violence (7%). These women are unable to leave the house, on account of, among others, being financially dependent on the husband.
Politics of gender influence the all-pervasive of the everyday—grooming and appearance, eating habits, mannerisms, experience of public spaces, response to situations, career aspirations, hobbies—the list is endless.
The oft-heard rallying cry of the feminists, ‘the personal is political’ (credited to the feminists of 1950s-70s and further popularized by Carol Hanisch in her essay by the same name) informs us that the personal experiences of women are traceable to their location in the gendered system of power relations.
For decades, feminists have attempted to decode the nexus between the woman’s role in the family and position in society. In Woman’s Estate, Juliet Mitchell located the oppression of women in four key areas viz. reproduction, socialization of children, production (work), and sexuality; and argued that women would not be liberated until and unless oppression in each key area was addressed. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan rejected the gendered role of the woman as a dutiful wife, nurturing mother, and diligent homemaker. In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks noted that feminist parenting was a central component of the contemporary radical feminist movement; and that by raising children without sexism, women had hoped they could create a world that didn’t need an anti-sexist movement.
While gender dynamics in families is very obvious when we consider marital rape and domestic violence, it is less obvious in manifestations of love. Think of a well-meaning husband handling his wife’s finances (which makes her dependent on him and reinforces the gender role that parks finances in the man’s care); a grandmother teaching her granddaughter to cook so she can secure a good husband; parents telling their daughter to dress a certain way in the presence of a lustful uncle; or a mother encouraging her son to persistently pursue his unrequited love. We need to contextualize such incidents with other gendered practices; because in isolation, they may make only a feeble case for gender politics.
In the garb of love, and without meaning to, sexist ideas are propagated. “It’s out of love” is the defence. But is it wise to value intention over impact as a thumb rule?
With sexism underlining how we feel and show love, the path for a ‘feminist love’ is illuminated. Feminist love is love that is constituted by the same building blocks as plain vanilla love but shone through a prism of feminism. It is chiseled and fine-tuned to do away with implicit gender roles and dynamics. It makes the family more equitable by undoing generations of gendered patterns and focusing on kindness, respect, and empathy. It creates a home where autonomy is applauded and control is condemned.
But how would this abstract idea of a feminist love translate into practice?
Spousal and romantic relationships would be founded on the bedrock of equality. A woman wouldn’t be deferential to the man. The woman wouldn’t be expected to wait on the man hand and foot. Partners would also redistribute unpaid care work amongst themselves and extinguish the double burden on the woman (of being engaged in the paid labor market while also doing the bulk of unpaid care work). Career related and other aspirations for both partners would be valued. A sacrificial woman renouncing her career, compelled more by societal expectations than volition, would not be romanticized annually on 8 March. Irrespective of whether the woman is a member of the paid labor force, gender wouldn’t play any role in determining her access to finances or the financial autonomy she enjoys. Threatening the woman with financial deprivation as a tool to exercise control wouldn’t be condoned. The man wouldn’t determine how the woman spends her time, the activities she takes part in, the friends she chooses, and her relationship with her parental home.
Feminist parents wouldn’t consider themselves ill-fated at the birth of a daughter. They would make a conscious effort to bring up their child without internalized misogyny and other patriarchal biases. They would confront or deal with the son displaying signs of toxic masculinity, either within the home or outside. They would provide children, irrespective of gender, with equal opportunities to education. The daughter wouldn’t be nudged into unpaid care work while her career aspirations are devalued and perceived as her hobby. Parents wouldn’t center their daughter’s life around her getting married. They would neither take nor give dowry. To undo self-image issues caused by mainstream media and pop culture, they would reinforce ideas of body positivity. They wouldn’t impose strictures on the child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Domestic violence stems from a hierarchical power dynamic. Abuse exists as a continuum, steeped in the psychology of coercive control and quelling the autonomy of the victim (wife/sibling/child). Feminist love wouldn’t allow such a reality. Men would recognize the personhood of the women and domestic violence would be eradicated. Men would recognize a woman’s sexual agency; marital rape would be eliminated and a daughter’s sexuality would not be penalized. Parents wouldn’t neither inflict physical violence on the children nor emotionally abuse them.
Unfortunately for many, a feminist love would also mean that several trite husband-wife jokes would lose their premise!
Juliet Mitchell astutely pointed out that oppression against women in the family produces tendencies of petty jealousy, irrationality, emotionality, random violence, dependency, competitive selfishness, lack of vision, and conservatism in women. A feminist love could transform a woman’s lived experience and give her the opportunity to blossom into a full person lacking such tendencies.
To many, the idea of a feminist marriage may seem counter-intuitive since the institution of marriage originated as a means of controlling women (as property) and property itself. However, given the seemingly inescapable presence of the institution, it may be worthwhile to re-engineer the originally patriarchal notion and re-imagine it through a feminist lens to construct a less-sexist reality.
While recognizing the immense positive impact that feminist love can create it is important to be alive to the reality that feminist love isn’t a panacea for all fault lines born out of patriarchy. A feminist love will alone, without the help of policy and other interventions, do little to eradicate systemic problems such as female feticide, women’s education, low participation in the paid labor force, and dowry. However, by positively influencing actions and omissions within the family, feminist love makes the family more equitable, thereby producing a less sexist society. This in turn could energise social actors to introduce improved interventions aimed at combating institutionalized sexual oppression while also allowing existing interventions to fructify. Feminist love can, thus, potentially act as a catalyst that is instrumental in dismantling the institutionalised disequilibrium embedded in the power dynamics of gender.
Joysheel is a corporate lawyer currently pursuing her Masters of Law at Columbia Law School. You can reach her on LinkedIn.
Author’s note: The conscious choice to use the gender binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ over gender-fluid language is to highlight specific harms caused by cis-heteronormativity and rigid conceptions of masculinity and femineity. However, the ideal of a feminist love could be applied to counter hierarchical power dynamics even with queer folks and within queer relationships.
The author would like to thank Sumit Saha for engaging conversations which inspired this article and for his valuable inputs on an earlier draft of this article.
Featured Image: Shreya Tingal for Feminism in India