When we come across a successful girl, we applaud her family for being supportive of her. We appreciate that they have encouraged her to make independent career choices. They do not distinguish between sons and daughters and have provided her the required cultural capital to reach where she is today. But in an intrinsically patriarchal upper caste middle class Hindu family, how ‘free’ are her choices?
On one hand, she battles the society; its prejudices, misogyny, glass ceilings and conservatism. But on the other hand, behind closed doors goes on another strife that nobody knows about. It is the constant struggle between her and the patriarch- her father in most cases. The independent girl on the verge of womanhood is enthusiastic, passionate and wants to explore infinite opportunities. She is unafraid of making unconventional career choices. Marriage is her least priority. Yes, she is growing older, but she wants to devote adequate time to attaining her education and securing employment. Hence, for her, settling down does not imply getting married and giving birth to a child but establishing a career and achieving economic independence.
However, the fault lines begin to surface within the family. As the daughter grows up, the father begins to behave more like a patriarch. In this capacity, he has made many personal sacrifices for the family. He expects the same in return from the ‘ideal’ daughter. If he does not have an elder son, he begins to search for a successor and inheritor in her. He is in his fifties or sixties and wants her to shoulder the responsibility of the family soon. Her individual aspirations are thus often not palatable to him. He wants her to establish her career quickly so that he can marry her off soon. He is not against her ambitions but wants her to align them to the needs of the family, just as he did.
The patriarch encourages but restricts; supports but controls. He sets free but the strings are tied firmly to his fingers. The entire notion of a girl’s independence thus seems illusory. Her choices are seldom free. Time and again, she is reminded of her obligations towards her family. She does not have the freedom to decide her own life partner because the honour of the family is at stake and the norms of caste endogamy are to be taken care of. She must not delay her marriage too much or the best ones (read the richest) might be gone. Her Ph. D. or job can obviously continue after marriage also, at least for the sake of persuasion.
The patriarch, now tired of running the family since decades, longs to retire from his responsibilities at the earliest. The biggest liability to be done away with is naturally an unmarried daughter. He wants her to finish her studies early so that she can start contributing towards the family income. In the process, she can also pool some money for her own marriage and the education of her younger siblings.
The role of the mother is now reduced to that of a mediator. She has no say in any decisions in the family. She is stationed between the patriarch and his daughter who are both adamant. She is the one who negotiates, but her role ends at that. The father, now assuming the role of the patriarch is now distanced from his daughter. They no longer share the loving relationship they did when she was younger. The onus is upon the mother to convey his diktats to her daughter and convince her to acquiesce. She is often placed in an awkward situation when she has to inform the patriarch of their daughter’s resolve to stay firm on her decisions. She is the worst affected in the tussle. She can neither side with one nor abandon the other. She must remain loyal to her husband because he feeds her. On the other hand, she does not want her daughter to lead a captivated life as she did.
As the daughter overcomes one hurdle after the other, she feels victorious to have challenged the stereotypes of the society. She considers herself to be a rebel and wants to set an example for other girls to emulate. But the fact remains that she is able to wage a war against the society but not against her own family. She is confined by the family values she herself clung to since childhood. She is torn between her dreams and the expectations of her family which are actually those of the patriarch.
The victims of patriarchy are never women alone. The mother is helpless and cannot let her daughter lead the life of her dreams no matter how much she wishes. The daughter obviously is subjected to restrictions and control since forever, none being slackened even after she grows old enough to decide for herself. Amidst this, the patriarch also suffers as he constantly swings to and fro from this role to that of the father. Even if he wants his daughter to be happy, he is also tied to his authoritarian position. He cannot grant her any more agency over her own life than to live it as per his rules; rather those set by the society. He must reinforce his supremacy by regularly exerting power and control, even if it implies throttling the dreams and aspirations of his daughter.
Patriarchy finds its way from religion to society and finally to the family. It has ruined more careers than poor results or other unforeseen circumstances have. When we dismiss allegations of gender discrimination by casual remarks like “Things have changed now, we have daughters and we have given them freedom to study and choose their career.” the sexism is quite apparent. Why does freedom need to be ‘given’ to daughters when sons enjoy it as a birth right? Can their choices be free if they are always forced to put their family before themselves? Patriarchy fails to answer these questions. Empowerment is possible only when women acquire complete agency over their lives. Gender equality must be fostered in the family before it can become the norm of the society; it has to begin from the home. Nevertheless, the minds of men ought to be decolonized from the tyrannical regime of patriarchy for gender equality to become a reality.