It was the day of Karwachauth. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and checking my WhatsApp statuses when I stumbled across a post of my friend wearing a beautiful red lehenga. It was her wedding dress, and she wears it ritually every year on Karwachauth, along with her makeup and jewelry. She posted several pictures of herself worshipping her spouse and the moon, with the caption “With the best hubby”. I would not have gotten the irony if I did not know the reality.
I have been friends with her for the past ten years; we met during graduation. She met her spouse during graduation as well. It was a love marriage. However, during our intense conversation last year, she told me how he tortured her mentally and verbally. Moreover, he wants all his clothes cleaned up and ironed, food hot, house cleaned, and mother respected. While I was horrified to hear that, she casually dismissed her complaint by saying, “But he loves me yaar, it’s just he can’t control his anger. He cares for me, and so we should always balance and compromise to maintain the peace of the house”. Here she was, a level-headed woman, “taking care” of her man-baby.
A baby with authority
I remembered a few months ago when I had met a friend’s sister who earned well and was married for the past seven years during a family function. She had an arranged marriage. She and her current partner had courted for about five months before finally getting married; now, they have a four years old son together. She handed me over her child before she hurriedly adjusted her saree. Meanwhile, she tells me that her husband will get agitated if he doesn’t find her around. Her following statement was something like this, “He can’t live without me and always acts like a baby who wants everything in his hand. I have put everything on his bed, from his underwear to handkerchief. Still, he would yell if he does not find a single thing”. I was a bit taken aback, wondering if she was sharing her pain through this rant or was just casual about it since she started the entire statement with the rider: “He can’t live without me.” However, it could be literal or metaphorical.
In an attempt to know that, I replied, “Hmm.. Didi, that is a problem no, I mean, he is an adult. He should learn to behave like one.”. to which she replied, “No, no, it is not that he can’t do things, he is the one who is taking care of the entire house na, it’s just that he finds ways to be around me, he is like this since always. I toh feel blessed that I have a husband who wants me around all the time; otherwise, you see the situation, men nowadays resort to extramarital affairs. In my case, he loves me like crazy.”
I wondered if it was an attempt to escape problematizing a problem. It is not that they do not feel uneasy with their husband’s fits and tantrums; it’s just that they choose to give it the name of love and caring. I wondered if it is an attempt to keep up with the societal definition of a successful woman as the one who keeps her house from breaking. Unfortunately, that demands a lot of emotional and verbal maneuvering on women’s part besides exacting extreme physical, emotional, and mental toll on her.
“Men will be Men.”
In another incident, a friend shared with her parents about her husband slapping her the other day. Instead of receiving support, she got chastised and was persuaded from “breaking her marriage” over such a petty issue. This explicit normalisation and legitimisation of abuse is so rampant that it discourages women from the beginning itself to take a step or even consider it as abuse. Be it a homemaker or a working woman, they all have internalised that the only way to deal with it is to find a semblance of “positivity” in the entire scenario. Such incidents are justified by quotidian remarks like “men will be men” or “women mature faster than men,”. It is interesting how these trite adages frame man as an entitled man-child and the head of the household simultaneously, while women are relegated to eternal “motherhood,” first to their husbands and then their children. Men are christened to eternal “childhood.”
However, these stories are not limited to the average household. It is quite an accepted norm even when a woman is a powerful individual. For example, Indira Nooyi, the chairman of PepsiCo, shared in an interview at Forbes Women’s Summit that she tries to balance home and work. She shared that there are times when her husband calls her in the office to ask where his shirt is,
“… it’s in the cupboard,” she would reply.
“No, it’s not in the cupboard; it’s six inches to the right…why did you move it six inches?” the husband would remark.
“I didn’t move it. You moved it..” the chairman of PepsiCo would say, “..but it doesn’t matter for the sake of harmony; you say, yeah, I did it. I am not going to argue...Her daughter would say, “Mom stand up for your rights.“ “Why? It’s not worth it. Your dad is the best… Just say he is the best…” she would say.
It is hard to wrap your brain around what Nooyi said. It could be the case of childish banter that couples engage in, but it is not. It reminded me of the highly juvenile scene from an equally juvenile show, “Saath Nibhana Saathiya,” where the husband tries to wake up his wife from comatose by commanding her to make green tea for him. Yes! You read it right. This scene was passed as love between husband and wife. It does not matter that he treats the wife as nothing more than as a slave and a puppet in the entire show. But that is how “Gopi bahu” is, as the show has normalised. One does not expect that from Indira Nooyi. Mainly, because it is more than just banter, her justification for silence is “harmony” the onus of maintaining which relies on her and not her husband. What Nooyi calls “not worth it,” feminist scholar Sara Ahmed calls a “willful act.” While men happily engage in committing the wrong, women are constantly chastised for being “hysterical,” “emotional,” “willful,” for pointing out the wrongs.
The need for a shared vocabulary
What explains this seemingly tacit agreement among women across the spectrum? What connects my friend to Indira Nooyi? While my friend has skipped all the waves of feminism and lacked the vocabulary to self-reflect and be conscious of her situation, Nooyi’s statements resemble post-feminist arguments about feminism. According to Pamela Aronson, Sociology professor, Postfeminists are those “who are thought to benefit from the women’s movement through expanded access to employment and education and new family arrangements but at the same time do not push for further political change.”
This is what explains the “bubblegum misogyny of 2000s pop culture”, according to Vox’s series The Purity Chronicles that victimised famous figures like Britney Spears, Megan Fox, Paris Hilton, among others. It was an era of “girl power” and “girl boss.” There was the popular misconception that feminism had arrived in the US, and there was no need for more equality. However, it effectively stripped women of the “language” and “vocabulary” to understand their situation and reflect upon it.
As highlighted by George Orwell in 1984, “By reducing the vocabulary, big brother was reducing the thoughts.” Sexism and misogyny never died; they just mutated into something else. We realised it during the #MeToo movement when women working in the flashiest of places revealed how vulnerable and unsafe they are despite their financial and public power and prestige. What the MeToo movement essentially did was give us the shared vocabulary and reminder that no matter how far we have come, there is still a long way to go.
It is essential to understand that it is never “not worth it” to engage in a constructive conversation, especially with your husband. For it does not matter how much or less you earn, your worth should not be decided by how tolerant you are of your man babies. The onus of running a household smoothly and in harmony is not your sole responsibility. It is a shared responsibility, and it takes two adults to maintain that.
Sara Ahmed, “Living a feminist life.”
Rishija Singh is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Nupur Rastogi is an educator and a researcher. Her interest lies in the paradigm of Justice, Dialogue, and Feminist Peace. She can be reached out at firstname.lastname@example.org.