By Pavithra Viswanath
Manju is a mother of two and a feminist. Throughout our conversation, Manju discussed patriarchy through her feminist lens and expressed her views and anger about various social problems and practices. I am unsure why she did not share any of her personal experiences. Manju started the conversation by discussing how many rituals in Indian marriage were meant primarily for women. “The idea of wearing wedding string (Mangala sutra) after marriage is an ultimate reminder of the importance of chastity in a patriarchal society,” says Manju. “After coming to the USA I was not comfortable wearing a heavy Mangala sutra and but my in-laws wouldn’t let me remove it, so I had to switch to a lighter one instead.” She went on talking about how Karva-Chauth, a Hindu festival where married women fast for the health and longevity of their husbands. “Karva-Chauth is nothing but a reflection of a patriarchal mindset of Indian society.” With a burst of laughter, she added: “I wish men had some ritual during our postpartum where there would do all chores and pray for our wellness and health.” I was able to sense a hidden anger behind her laughter. It made me think how even if we give it a modern look by letting the husband fast along with the wife — but there’s no way one can wish away these ritual’s inherent misogyny. These simple routines build an utterly expendable divine halo around the husband and show the society and women that her place is at her husband’s feet. The man becomes the protector of her womanhood, her purity. It is well-known fact that the Indian society using patriarchy begins to install inferior feeling in its women at a very young age: in the name of culture, superstition, discrimination and festivals. Those who choose not to follow are looked down upon as angry feminists, toxic for the society.
Manju also discussed her thoughts about marriage “Marriage should be a bond of love, equality, companionship and mutual respect. Marriage should not be used as an instrument to carry out patriarchal rituals to oppress women.” I totally agree with her view and feel that a tradition which urges women to worship men is no less than graphic violence. Manju explained the sufferings of her career-oriented female friend who refused to marry “her relatives questioned her about her chastity. I don’t know how marriage would make women pure.” I felt that this reaction of the society is utterly predictable given that all women in the patriarchal social setting are immediately seized upon as “evil women” when they refuse to marry, opt out of motherhood or even if the husband dies. Manju went on explaining the irony of how feminism in a patriarchal society is what shunned the feminine virtues of chastity and modesty and it is what enable men to look upon women as sexual objects “As women are becoming more and more qualified they all become prey to people’s eyes and comments.” Patriarchy is where female sexuality is most highly cherished and protected. Ideally, women should feel safe in a patriarchal society. Instead, it allows men to view women as “public property” and to be openly celebrated over by people in general social settings. There are some of the things that stayed with me even after leaving Manju’s house. I felt heavy at heart after the conversation. It’s hard to explain the feeling. We weren’t able to smile when we said bye. We both felt that there is more to talk and to do.
About the artwork: Inspired by the epic Ramayana where Sita was forced to prove her purity by undergoing a fire ordeal.
About the author: Pavithra Viswanath
Pavithra is pursuing Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, with a specialization in Maternal Mental Health. She is passionate about understanding critical issues within social justice movements for women, and its relationship to the modern society. She is always drawn to the narratives and experiences of women related to these issues. She believes that there is pressing need to explore the status of a woman as a mother from various dimensions such as economic status, religion, culture, and society pressure in developing countries like India. She is also in the process of completing her ‘Sexuality Women and Gender certification’. During this fall she will be interning as a Sexual assault advocate at SAKHI for South Asian Women, New York. In her free time, Pavithra enjoys cuddling with her 3-year-old daughter, reading her favorite Tamil literature or listening to music. (Keep reading below: Pavithra’s essay Modern Day Patriarchy: Experiences of Indian Mothers).