In 2012, December was my first month back in New Delhi as a single, financially independent woman. Having spent three years in the capital for my undergraduate studies, the city was familiar and a second home. However, returning to it as an adult was comforting and unnerving at the same time.
Primarily because Delhi is notorious for being unsafe for women; a statistic that continues to rank the city highest in India.
This was also the month when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was brutally raped and assaulted by six assailants in the city. The inhumane violence she suffered at the hands of her perpetrators sent shivers across the country and the capital was engulfed in protests. Referred to as Nirbhaya, the fearless one, her case brought the issue of women’s safety right in the heart of political and societal discourse.
My parents began making regular calls for me to return home.
I convinced them that fleeing the city was not the solution, rather fighting for justice and making this city safe for everyone. While my parents grappled with the fear, I sensed a disturbing insensitivity existing within my relatives regarding women’s choices and behavior.
“Why was the girl out that late? If she had stayed at home and not gone to watch a film with a male friend, nothing would have happened,” a female relative said in the aftermath of Nirbhaya’s case.
I stared at her in disbelief and disgust. I wanted to scream at her but was held back by my cousin. We were supposed to respect our elders, she reminded me. Fuming, I walked out of the room, promising myself never to engage with her again.
It’s important to understand that while institutions created by men have given birth to the present patriarchal traditions, these continue to be upheld by countless women who silently or vocally support them.
These are our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, in-laws, and neighborhood aunties who choose to side with patriarchy, eventually choosing to side with oppression.
Early on, girls are silenced by female family members from speaking about their sexual, physical or emotional abuse at the hands of men.
What begins with rules like: “Do not talk to boys. Do not wear short dresses. Do not stay out late at night,” eventually turns into: “Learn to adjust with an abusive husband. Learn to stay at home and become a better homemaker. Learn to listen to your in-laws. Learn to understand the importance as a mother, career is secondary.”
In feminist theory, this form of behavior is called a patriarchal bargain, where women in order to uphold their limited authority under patriarchy, exercise it onto other women. A classic example is the case of mothers-in-law who try to govern the lives of their daughters-in-law. There are several accounts of Indian women where their mother-in-laws’ insecurity issues with them led to power struggles within families.
With every undesired act viewed as rebellion and considered a transgression, young girls are morally policed by women who then internalize the misogyny and continue this vicious cycle of oppression.
This behavior was reflected during the recent #MeToo movement in India, by senior female journalist and author, Tavleen Singh. While defending a celebrity consultant, Suhel Seth, who was accused of sexual misconduct, she stated, “Why did you go to Suhel’s house? Surely even an ‘innocent’ young girl like you should have known not to go alone to a strange man’s house alone?”
Statements like these reflect the entrenched patriarchal patterns in the existing urban society of India, and generally across South Asia.
One reason for this form of exertion is the need to gain whatever amount of authority is available in a patriarchal household. The other reason is the fear of societal repercussions for going against the community standards because making choices as an independent woman is not a feature that patriarchy recognizes or respects.
Six years to that episode, and my battle with women who enable patriarchy continues.
I have asked uncomfortable questions to women in my family, and have been called a bra-burning feminist for it. What I have also received in return are messages of solidarity from girls in my family. Cousins have thanked me for standing up to mistreatment. Raising my voice has evoked strength in others to be heard too and irrevocably encouraged me to continue fighting this battle.
And that is the hope that feminism carries forward. To enable women to find their voices and develop the courage to fight injustice.
When women support women, sisterhood is nurtured within families and societies. Abusive patterns are recognized and redressed. Otherwise, the cycle of patriarchy and misogyny continues.
The #MeToo movement is a spark that lights that fire of sisterhood harmony. It should not be blown out by a few misinformed women.