By Mariyam Raza Haider
Jan. 7, 2019
December 2012 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. Though returning to it as an adult was comforting and unnerving at the
Primarily because Delhi is notorious for
being unsafe for women; a statistic that continues to rank the city highest in
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
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
This behavior was reflected during the
recent #MeToo movement in India, by senior female journalist and author,
Tavleen Singh. While defending 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
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.
Patriarchy dismantles self-confidence in
women. Sisterhood promotes it.
The #MeToo movement is a spark that lights
that fire of sisterhood harmony. It should not be blown out by a few