MOM Art Annex: Exhibition & Education Center

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Patriarchy and its Obsession with Feminine Chastity [Click]

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).

Read Pavithra Viswanath’s previous postings here #1 [LINK], #2 [LINK}. #3 [LINK]. Pavithra is a digital media intern at M.O.M.

chastity

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“I wish I were your son” — The Unspoken Message of a Daughter to Her Father [LINK]

This week I interviewed Aarthi, a mother of two kids. We started our conversation by watching an Indian commercial ‘Ariel – #ShareTheLoad,’ which is about patriarchy and gender roles. After watching the ad film Aarthi bursted with emotion — “It’s so much true! My life is full of it. In my next birth, I want to be born as a boy.” She poured her heart out. I was just listening and it wasn’t even necessary for me to probe her with questions. Her words reflected her deep emotional disturbance and distress as she spoke. She continued talking about her childhood days. She recalled her childhood memories — “My father was never happy with me. For him, his son was his world. Even now it is. I was always an extra burden to him.” She expressed how challenging it was for her being a girl and an average performer in academics amidst her family of well-qualified doctors. She felt her thoughts were not heard — “He payed no attention to what I said even for a single moment. I was never allowed to express myself. If I did, I was silenced.”

Girls are expected to be exceptionally obedient. Obedience is used in exchange for love and care from parents. Aarthi spoke about how her father’s views demotivated her — “l was always a bit doubtful of myself. I thought that I was not good enough for anything.” I could see from her eyes the impact it made in her life. In patriarchy, a woman’s life is defined through constructed ideas, concepts, and myths denying her even basic rights, thought and expression. Her conscious and subconscious minds are conditioned to see the world around only in the way the society would like her to see.

Aarthi expressed her state of confusion on ways to support her daughter in not accepting those same limitations she had — “The only thing I am good at is being a mother—I think.” At the same time, she also expressed how difficult it is to be disloyal to her elders and consequently, the patriarch within herself. “I am not able to figure out what to answer to tell my daughter when she has questions about our cultural practices; like not to pray when having menstrual cycle or not to wear short dress, not to sit in front of men. I don’t have real answers. I still do it without having reasons. I can’t help myself having strong opinions about it.”

Throughout our conversation Aarthi kept talking a lot her relationship with her father. “Right after my marriage, my father gave all my certificates to my in-laws and said I am their property now.” Aarthi expressed her anger in the way she was treated, and her helplessness about never questioning this. It was then I realized how we rarely talk about the way in which fatherhood, particularly in terms of a father-daughter relationship — how this relationship is in many represents a patriarchal struggle. She expressed how her family ascribes to the often “father knows the best” model of parenting even though her mother is a successful doctor. Talking about her financial security, Aarthi with humor stated — “According to my parents and in-laws, this is my husband’s home since I am not working, and I don’t belong to my parents home because I am married. So, I suppose I am almost homeless.”

While talking about her mother Aarthi told — “she wanted me to be everything that she was not— a stay-at-home mom; cook, take care of family and relatives, and I tuned myself to that idea.” Sometimes, a daughter’s sympathy for mother’s plight makes her see her mother’s pain as her own. This sympathy directly prevents her ability to flourish in her own life. Thus, in this way, the mother/daughter bond is forged in an environment that keeps both stuck. Yet Aarthi is a woman of clarity and courage. She is all set to move forward with purpose and determination. “I am going to chase my dream, learn something. and help others” says Aarthi.

Women are given the crown of being the ‘ruler’ at home, which has a very functional basis. They are often captivated by the patriarchal system that sets imaginary limits on their dreams. Patriarchal power subjugates women in a multitude of ways (through force, customs, tradition, language, and laws). This system of power has permeated everything around us. Aarthi’s life experiences and the hurdles she has faced are just samples of traditional patriarchy. The world around us is changing, possibly making space for women. But the question — ‘Are families in the traditional societies open to accommodate these changing gender roles?’ still remains. With women stepping out to chase their dreams and rewriting their experiences, patriarchy is a losing battle today!

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).

Read Pavithra Viswanath’s previous postings here #1 [LINK], #2 [LINK}. Pavithra is a digital media intern at M.O.M.

The art work is inspired by Warli paintings of India.

The art work is inspired by Warli paintings of India.