In a recent article in The Telegraph, Ramachandra Guha pointed out how patriarchy, in conjunction with religious orthodoxy, functions as an impediment towards the emancipation of women. However, patriarchy need not operate in the company of supplementary, and equally regressive, institutions like religion to be a success. The perversity of patriarchy lies precisely in its ability to sustain itself within spaces that are seemingly resistant to it. Such spaces include supposedly liberal, Left-leaning families. I would know, because my twin sister and I were brought up in one.
Much of my childhood and adolescence had been spent in the belief that my sister and I had been brought up equally. Circumstantial evidence even pointed to this fact. Both of us had been provided with a good schooling. We graduated in subjects of our choice, and were also encouraged, and financially supported, to complete our higher studies outside Calcutta. As adults, both of us were given the same degree of freedom to decide the course of our personal and professional lives.
Yet, there is something unmistakably patronizing about the family’s relationship with the daughter. For instance, of the three children — two boys, one girl — she was the only one who was assured of a share of the father’s savings if she found herself without the means to support herself. Even today, her plans of leading a solitary and independent life are met with a mixture of anxiety and incredulity. Perhaps my parents subscribed to this culture of protectionism unconsciously. But it does indicate that seemingly equitable responses towards women are laced with subtle forms of discrimination. Protectionism, for instance, or forms of positive discrimination — a key attribute within State policy directed towards women’s empowerment — often encourages dangerous ideas of control and ownership.
What is often glossed over though is that the obvious, and easily visible, advantages — social, cultural and economic — that are stacked in favour of men also shackle them to a life of crippling responsibilities. My reaction to my sister’s bouts of depression, or my ageing mother’s loneliness, is tinged not just with concern but also with a sense of foreboding because of the social role of the benefactor-protector that has been thrust upon me. I know for a fact that several of my male friends, if they were to be assured that it is perfectly human to break down in difficult times, would unhesitantly confide their fear and tiredness of having to bear the economic burden of the family on their own or of being coerced into fatherhood by demanding relatives.
If ‘emancipation’ is considered to be a state of freedom and moral upliftment, men — around the world — have as much need to smash the patriarchal order as women. This is not simply because the idea of creating an inclusive society — an order characterized by the equitable distribution of rights and resources not only among communities but also between the sexes — is a shared responsibility. It is also because for men the hope of easing the burden of social roles, ironically, can be fulfilled only when women are allowed to share the weight.