Men are conditioned to think that a woman should be put in her place
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Men are conditioned to think that a woman should be put in her place

The average Indian woman is bound by the ropes of what is considered tradition. The male continues to be superior, born to be pampered and placed from birth on a pedestal, from where he can only look down at women, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Dec 19, 2013 01:26 IST
gender roles,indian women,patriarchy

‘Don’t bother your husband with petty troubles and complaints when he comes home. Be a good listener. Let him tell you his troubles. Yours will seem trivial in comparison. ’

This excerpt from a 1943 book called How to be a good wife reflected the former primacy of the American male. That dominance has — not wholly but in great measure — been dismantled.

Married and single men born between 1961 and 1981 now cook an average of eight meals a week (women cook 12), according to an ongoing study — already more than 30 years old — at the University of Michigan. This finding is in line with a 2008 study (from the Future Foundation) that the time men in the US spent cooking and washing up has increased 500% from 1961, from five minutes a day to 27 minutes.

In Japan, regarded even today as a bastion of traditional gender roles, about 46% of men believe cooking is not women’s work alone, an online opinion poll found. And so it is across much of the developed world. Men have taken over a great share of domestic duties. This has done two things. First, it has allowed more women into the workforce, boosting family wealth and national economies. Second, aided by new laws and strict compliance, it has engendered wide respect for women and their role as equal partners.

India lacks longitudinal data, but a 2011 international study on men and gender equality reported that no more than 16% of Indian men said they played domestic roles, such as cleaning or cooking. Anecdotally, it is safe to surmise that the Indian male — with a few honourable exceptions — is unwilling to surrender gender privileges.

This unreconstructed male mind leads me to doubt the value of the great self-examination that India is conducting on itself a year after the Delhi rape.

The consensus appears to be that there is much greater awareness of sexual assault and rape, that these are not acts that must any longer be condoned or justified. There is indeed greater awareness.

A poor riot victim in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, says he will not back off until his wife’s rapists are arrested; more importantly, he says, it wasn’t her fault, where once she might have been discarded for dishonouring the family. An intern who says a former Supreme Court judge sexually harassed her has brought her trauma to national attention, where once it might never have left the five-star hotel room where it supposedly happened.

These are straws in the still-howling winds of Indian patriarchy. Every day, for every assault or rape that makes it to the national media, there are hundreds that are buried as footnotes or, more likely, unreported. In the middle-class, which likes to think itself as globalised with Indian values, medieval thinking is entrenched. Even if women are “allowed” to work, they must still serve their men hot chapatis.

Nothing illustrates the insecurity of the Indian male more than the steady withdrawal of women from the workplace, despite a soaring literacy rate. In 1981, the literacy rate for women was 29.76%. In 2011, it was 65.46%. In schools and colleges, there are as many females enrolled as males.

Yet, India ranks 11th from the bottom (120 of 131) in a ranking of the female labour participation rate, according to a 2013 study by the International Labour Organisation. Less than 40% of working age women, between 25 and 54, had jobs in 2010, compared with 72% in Brazil and 82% in China.

Instead of emancipation, the Indian woman is being forced back into the home because of an almost unbearable pressure to conform to archaic, regressive expectations.

“In just 10 years, the share (of women in the workforce) has fallen from an already low 39% in 2000 to just 30% in 2010 — a much steeper decline than the three percentage point fall observed in other developing economies,” McKinsey Global Institute Senior Fellow Anu Madgavkar wrote in Mint a year ago. This withdrawal appears to be linked to prosperity. As incomes rise, women tend to give up jobs, even at higher income levels, reflecting, Madgavkar writes, either a lack of skilled jobs or “a social structure that would prefer them to be engaged in household work”.

Much as we need female role models, the situation is bleak. In 1983, 61% of women graduates worked, according to an August 2013 study in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). In 2012, only 26% of women did. “Education among women does not necessarily increase their ‘autonomy’ in substantive ways, rather it may only lead to modernisation and internalisation of patriarchal norms,” said the study. “Schooling seems to inculcate discipline, self-restraint, patience, routine and obedience to authority among girls.”

For those who do enter the workforce, discrimination is routine. Women are paid, on average, 48% less than men in industrial jobs, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Industrial Statistics. “Exploitation and gender bias is well exhibited in the factory sector,” write government statisticians Bivas Chaudhuri and AK Panigrahi.

Despite exceptions, the average Indian woman is bound by the ropes of what is considered tradition. The male continues to be superior, born to be pampered and placed from birth on a pedestal, from where he can only look down at women — many of whom unfortunately placed him there. This kind of conditioning leads only to disrespect for a woman, a feeling that a woman can easily be put in her place. It takes only a moment of either madness or opportunity for men of deviant mind to cross the thin line to harassment or rape. Change can only begin at home. Unless mama’s boys, mera raja betas, are re-educated, the assaults on women will only increase.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 18, 2013 23:51 IST