-santosh kumar


Patriarchy exists all around us in different forms. We often define patriarchy as a structure of oppression mostly targeted against women but actually patriarchy is a structure under which all of us irrespective of our gender identity (which anyways is a social construct) are oppressed. In this structure, we are the oppressor and we are the oppressed as well. But patriarchy is not a tangible entity whose presence can always be seen or felt. Many a times, patriarchy exists in so many different forms that we don’t even realize the inherent patriarchy in it. And that situation is even more dangerous because it makes us a participant in our own oppression. Our everyday actions, our ideas, perceptions, festivals and rituals etc all reflect this structure. Here, mythology, folk tales, anecdotes, allegories etc plays a very important role. These stories through metaphors and symbolic meaning not only convey stories but also moral statements. They are carriers of moral values and social norms in such a way that they make way to our culture, to our subconscious mind and become part of our existence. In long run, these cultural norms make us look patriarchy as a natural and everlasting institution. Another thing, most of the scriptures was written over a period of time and reflects the tensions and dynamics of that era. Most of these texts like Manusmriti, or Dharma-shastras, Niti-shastras and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are actually prescriptive texts, that is, they tell us what ought to be and not what was. Thus, they represent an ideal that was not always followed or not followed as strictly as presumed. But when these texts reappear (and are actually glorified by the revivalists) they are exalted in their status and their teachings are taken literally which makes patriarchy appear more rigid and narrow downs the scope of dynamics in the practice.

Another big problem is our own ignorance. We in our day to day life follow many customs, rituals etc without even knowing the symbolic meaning of these rituals. How, in a very subtle way patriarchy enters our mindset, our lifestyle that we don’t even realize that consciously or unconsciously we are following patriarchy. Once, during a religious ceremony, the priest was singing hymns from Ramacharitmanas, and people including women were following him. Finally he sang the couplet-

“Dhol ganwar shudra pashu nari

Sakal tadna ke adhikari”[1]

(Drum, illiterate, shudras, animal and women deserve a good beating)

Now this highly casteist and misogynist couplet was neither omitted by the priest (a typical local priest who doesn’t cares about the meaning conveyed by the hymns and couplets etc and never ever bother to explain them) and sang by these women as well. We can give equal rights to women, give them equal opportunity etc but can we actually ensure equality of sexes when the whole basis of our society, our religion, our culture is patriarchal. We live in gendered way, we speak a gendered language, and we dress “according to our gender”. We can never know the origins of patriarchy, the reasons of patriarchy, and the carriers of patriarchy until and unless we don’t introspect our own cultures, our own religions, traditions, mythology.

But not just religion, there are other non religious forms of unconscious gendered behavior. How boys are expected to be technically sound and well versed in dealing with gadgets, how for girls laughing too loud or swinging their legs is “obscene” behavior. Why from childhood, we are fed up with this idea that cars are meant for boys and dolls for girls (even some brands like kinder joy endorse such disgustingly patriarchal views), why rape is considered a “loss of honor” (izzat lut jana in Hindi) for girls. Aren’t we too much obsessed with the idea of sexuality? Aren’t our social behavior, our language, and our rituals all cater to this cult of sexuality that we glorify at one place and suppress at the other? As Nivedita menon points out, these cultural norms and values are made to look natural and inevitable through the implementation of rituals rigorously and continuously the whole purpose of which was to make the process look inert and everlasting[2].  Anything and everything that deviated from the heterosexual normative ideal of a family is seen as blasphemous and is resisted, often through violent means.

A very potent and visible expression of this is found in popular art and modes of entertainment be it painting, photos, TV, films etc. these forms of popular culture sometimes breaks and many a times reinforces these patriarchal norms. Our movies don’t just sell images and visuals they also sell the ideas and the socio-cultural contexts of those images. We just don’t see those images, we consume them, and we inherit them. Popular culture is influenced by the society it stems from and conversely it influences the society in its own subtle way. Not just movies or TV shows, even the ads smartly sell their products using gendered stereotypes. And unfortunately, even children are receptors of these generalizations both through popular media but also through our pedagogical system which through subconsciously inserts in a child’s mind the gender differences which they retain for life.

Thus it becomes very important to study these invisible processes of formation of a patriarchal structure, to make visible the invisible hand of patriarchy.


 Popular media- images, cinema and patriarchal values

Have you ever seen the image of lord Vishnu in the Sheshnaga? Vishnu is lying on the serpent surrounded by the milky ocean. But what is Lakshmi doing in this imagery- pressing Vishnu’s feet! Not to mention that this imagery is found in almost every Hindu household. But patriarchal imagery is not bound by religion and our day to day life is somehow based on this structure. Another commonly found but often overlooked image is that found in pedagogy. Have you ever seen the Varnamala (Hindi alphabet) chart? Often the alphabet is accompanied by an image for illustration. But this is worth analysis how the tools of education use that imagery for convenience that unconsciously reflects the values of a patriarchal system. Now look at some of these charts-

(source:google images)

Look at the 1st Hindi Varnamala chart. How we subconsciously follow a patriarchal system is clearly evident here. There is nothing offensive or misogynist but still the structure of patriarchy is very much there. In all the charts, a Rishi is a ‘male’ ascetic, a ‘Kshatriya’ is a male masculine warrior and mother is a typical Indian ‘motherly’ figure wrapped in sari and looking traditional. The second image takes this forward- a lawyer; a woodcutter and a speaker are all male. How easily we have gendered the occupations and how conveniently we fed into young minds the “inner/outer” or “private/public” divide[3]. And this is not restricted to just Hindi for that matter; these imageries encompass these boundaries of languages. See the Marathi Varnamala for example; here aayi (mother) is again a traditional Indian figure carrying a child in her arms. These pedagogical tools actually serve the purpose of patriarchy by creating ideal boundaries for men and women. How all the working people are unapologetically male and the only way a women enters the scene is as a ‘mother’ and a ‘traditional’ women. As Nivedita menon points out There is nothing ‘natural’ about the sexual division of labor. The fact that men and women perform different kinds of work, both within the family and outside, has little to do with biology. Only the actual process of pregnancy is biological, all the other work within the home that women must do-cooking, cleaning, looking after children, and so on (the whole range of work which we ‘may call ‘domestic labor’)-can equally well be done by men. But this work is considered to be ‘women’s work’. This sexual division of labor extends even to the ‘public’ arena of paid work and, again, this has nothing to do with ‘sex’ (biology) and everything to do with ‘gender’ (culture). Certain kinds of work are considered to be ‘women’s work’, and other kinds, men’s; but more important is the fact that whatever work women do, gets lower wages and is less valued. The fact is that it is not a ‘natural’ biological difference that lies behind the sexual division of labor, but certain ideological assumptions.

As described earlier too, the religious imagery often follows these patriarchal conventions. Thus, a goddess is worshiped in the form of a ‘mother’ and the goddess is dressed and stylized as a “married women” thus creating an ideal type of imagery of women. These images according to Christopher pinny and Tapti guha Thakurta are for mass consumption and are consumed and internalized through its circulations in calendar and other form of print art. Since 19th century these mytho images (as they were called) created modern meanings of mythological stories thus reinforcing the selective patriarchal values through metaphors and allegories most important being raja Ravi Verma[4]. These artists have their own social backgrounds and their own prejudices. Thus artists like Banwaridas Girdharilal Sharma created images that defied and glorified sati system in 1950s[5]. And patriarchal images continue to surface even now, most visibly during karwachauth the images of “pativrata” women are not widely circulated as also are those of sati savitri during vat savitri vrata. These images don’t only immerse itself into the culture of the masses; people are encouraged and inspired to follow them. Most of times, these images are based on and are accompanied by texts but even these images create a symbolic connection to the ideals reflected in these texts. Thus images and text complement each other in creating moral norms.

Cinema and other visual media are one of the strongest modes of expressions giving such variety of content and ideas hitherto not possible through other sources with such efficacy. Here, we must mention that there have been attempts to challenge the patriarchal notions and we see different perspectives being circulated through them but still most of them, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously cater to the patriarchal setup. Not only women, men, LGBT community are objectified and stereotyped. In most of the typical Indian “masala” cinema women are seen as “objects” literally. Flirting and stalking are seen as “fun”, misogynous garbed under being cool. But as we said, while women are stereotyped as “sex objects” with absolutely no agency of her own, men are similarly stereotyped as “masculine”, “warrior” etc. so in Bollywood, which is the best way to impress a girl- rescue her from goons!! Men are revered for their martial skill. We live in a society where women are defined by their sexuality (ironically, we are both threatened and awed by sexuality of women) and men through their physical prowess. Thus, a woman is dependent on her lover/husband for her security. There are some pathetic Hindi movies where a female police officer (that too of high rank) is overpowered by male goons only to be rescued by a street smart man. The message it conveys is very dangerous- women, even if strong, is not strong enough to face the world without assistance of male. And maleness is defined through martial quality. If you can’t save a girl from other men you are not masculine enough. In the movie saajan, sanjay dutt goes through same crisis where he backs off from girl’s life after failing to save the girl due to his physical disability. We need to question, why we give so much importance to the cult of violence. And this trend does get reflected in our society as well. Any act of bravery or valor is taken as a symbol of maleness. True that, our cinema is inspired by our society and conversely our cinema inspires a whole lot of people. So if our movies take cue from the long warrior tradition in India where men fight and die for their territory and honor by sword, women show their valor by committing jauhar (self immolation) in order to save her honor. So while the honor of a man lies in his physical strength the honor of a woman lies in her sexuality. But at the same time there are attempts by the patriarchal society to control the sexuality of women in order  to maintain the purity of their lineage which becomes even more important than the lives of those who preserving it. Coming back to cinema, this warrior tradition gets reflected in cinema and further taken by the society. The craze for bulging muscles and six or eight pack abs nowadays trying to ape actors with well toned bodies, especially among men is a concrete example of this. The question arises- why do we need muscles and abs. the simple answer is- the bulging muscles and abs are the physical proof of your called “masculinity”. It is a very visible form of maleness that doesn’t need martial skills. But that doesn’t mean that the cult of violence has by any means receded. It exists very much, and is showcased both in real and reel life as and when required. On a very extreme level, all forms of violence- men against men, men against women, against LGBT, whether it is physical, mental or sexual, works on the same concept of aggression- of the perceived superior physical strength of the aggressors (irrespective of its gender) and perceived inferiority of the oppressed to resist. It’s not that women don’t show aggression or they are not violent but we are linguistically handicapped to express aggression, martial skill and warrior tradition in gender neutral terms. In India female warriors are often called “mardani” which is actually the feminized form of a masculine term “mard”. Our visual media, even while showing a strong woman uses the patriarchal linguistic expression which actually makes the gender differences even more apparent. For e.g.- a famous car’s advertisement goes like this- a boy after losing a cricket match to his sister is complaining to his father, when his sister stops him saying- “ladkiyon ki tarah kyun ro raha hai? (Why are you crying like a girl)? Now this advertisement tells us why despite trying to show a strong female character they end up depicting patriarchy wherein crying or complaining is a feminine trait and being a ‘boy’ he should not cry. Secondly it also means that women are generally weak and if a strong women crop up it is an exceptional case and not the norm and when a woman is a strong, she elevates herself from the position of other women. Another advertisement of a mobile phone that used to air some time ago show a women as the boss of a male employee who also happens to be her husband! So while she dictates him a lot of work during her office time as soon as she reaches home she takes the role of a faithful wife who cooks delicious food for her husband who is working overtime to finish the work she gave him. This advertisement can also be seen as an expression of the dichotomy that exists between public and private sphere.

But this is not to say that only men are stereotyped. One advertisement shows a man cooking delicious food with the help of the product and the tagline is – “now even men can cook!!” another advertisement of a beauty product for male has this tagline- “because even men hate pimples”. The very use of the word “even” makes it obvious the hidden statement that we all can read between the lines.

Another common imagery projected through this visual media is the perceived threat from modernity to the ideal of family and traditional women. Thus, western looking modern women in our popular cinema are hardly seen in good light. Either they are shown as having “loose character” or “sexually promiscuous” or “manipulative and ambitious” qualities that are against the typical women’s qualities of simplicity and submissiveness. In our TV shows modern women are almost always vamps who try to put obstacle in the life of our ‘goddess like typical Indian daughter in law’. The institution of marriage is considered so sacred that even if you are married to a person whom you don’t like or with whom you are married forcefully or under unavoidable circumstances, a woman is expected to carry forward the marriage because no matter how much you hate your husband and vice-versa, the institution of marriage is too sacred to be disturbed. According to Nivedita menon, it represents the anxiety around maintaining and protecting the institution of marriage. That is, of ‘actually existing’ marriage-the patriarchal, heterosexual kind. A whole lot of movies and serials are made on the topic of how mismatched couples ‘adapt’ themselves and by the end of the show or film, they manage to fall in love and carry forward their relation. Indian TV shows hardly ever depict a working women and even when such rare miracle occurs the story is woven around how she has to pursue her dreams while fulfilling her traditional family duties, and many shows actually sacrifice the agency of a women to give way to kitchen politics. While movies give selective agency to women sometimes, there are hardly any TV shows which don’t play out and actually reinforces the orthodox Indian family and its values. Men similarly hardly play any role in the “private sphere” of household where much of the action of our TV shows plays out. Men are in a sense marginalized in Indian TV shows but that hardly contributes by any means to give active agency to women rather it actually strengthens patriarchy by putting words into the mouth of women that are not willfully their own. Even in most of movies, when there is a question of choice between traditional Indian women and modern women, the obvious choice is the traditional women over the western women (see the movie cocktail for example). At other times, a girl transforms herself from modern independent women to suit the demands of the family of the guy. Its ironical, a guy transforms himself by working outside and earn so that he can marry the girl whereas a girl transforms her by limiting to the sphere of domestic walls! As menon points out, ‘Motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a sociological fiction.’ It is this knowledge that creates permanent anxiety for patriarchy, an anxiety that requires women’s sexuality to be strictly policed.

A very good example of this struggle between modernity and traditionalism is seen in the movie “wo 7 din” where naseeruddin shah represents the husband whose wife loves someone else before marriage (anil kapoor) and is forcefully married off. Being a progressive rational mature person naseeruddin shah decides to unite his wife with her lover. The final scene of the movie depicts a debate between naseer and anil over whether a woman should leave her husband and unite with her lover or should she stay with her husband. The scene maintains a logical and rational stand until they reach the point of final confrontation where anil kapoor wins the debate (though we still root with naseer) and points out that a woman should live with her husband and marriage is a divine institution. He points out the sanctity of the mangalsutra. Interestingly, the women herself is never asked for her opinion and the men debate among themselves about the prospect of woman. Historically, even the 19th century reform movements represent such a point where women’s body became the site for debate and discussions and even though women were the subject of the debate they themselves never took part in the debate.

Not to miss the songs that keep on circulating, are heard, shared much more times than movies. These songs, whether folk, movie songs or devotional songs through the choice of words, the metaphors and the theme of songs articulate particular meanings which can themselves be read as text. Some examples of direct articulation of patriarchal values are songs like “tumhi mere mandir tumhi meri pooja tumhi devta ho” (referring to her husband you are my shrine, you are my worship you are my deity ), “ganga maiya me jab tak ki paani rahe mere sajna teri zindagani rahe” (my husband live as long as there is water in the Ganges river)  or even ridiculously misogynist “bhala hai bura hai jaisa bhi hai mera pati mera devta hai” (he may be good, he may be bad, my husband is still my deity). These songs not only exalts husband to an exalted unquestionable status that a woman need to revere irrespective of how he is, or what he does. Apart from these direct references, there are numerous songs on the theme of “boys vs. girls”, sometimes boys win at the end sometimes girls but these songs generalize certain characteristics as “essentially male” or “essentially female”. Thus, girls are more caring, emotional and conversely very demanding and physically weak. Boys are physically strong but careless and flirt in nature. But mainly what it does is defining male and female through some set of characteristics (which are ambiguous in nature and differ from person to person), and also provide them separate spheres. Thus we hear lines like “ye ladki kyun, na jane kyun, ladko si nahi hoti” (why these girls are not like boys).

Not to forget that even our popular culture hardly gives center stage to the other sexual orientations, which are often sidelined and seen with contempt. Queer identity is often seen as the symbol of abnormality even when someone is seeing it sympathetically they see it ‘outside the purview of normal sexual behavior’. Often in our films etc, cross dressers and queers are used for cheap comic effect. Though there have been some attempts to see them as ‘equals’, still we haven’t given them acceptance, we just give them tolerance. So such an identity can exist only till society is “sympathetic” to them (such an irony, we give sympathies or respect to them as if they belong to some alien world. It creates a feeling of alienation rather than togetherness) but as soon as the society start seeing them as a threat to the ‘normal’ heterosexual behavior there are attempts to curb such identities. To most of us, a gay is defined physically- through their weird dressing, “effeminate” handshakes, “girly features” and this is the stereotype that is used for comic effect. Humor is actually very effective way to tell the perception of the society. Not only jokes are made on them, they themselves appear to many as a source of amusement. And through the physical judgment of the queerness of the person not only objectify persons and curb down the attempts for a normal existence of queers, we also make a rigid parameter for defining masculinity and maleness. Thus, many a people come to be identified as gay or transgender just because the society finds them “not male enough”. This also reflects our anxiety towards sexuality. We should ask this question- why do we even need these categories like male, female, queer etc. this reflects nothing more than your sexual orientation which ideally does not play any role in defining or influencing our social, economic, professional life but the basis of the social formation has somehow structured in gendered terms where your sexuality defines your identity and also your prospects and decisions in life. All the actions, reactions and repercussions are all played out just to maintain this patriarchal structure and to make it look natural. Thus we need to study the origin, need and relevance of structures that defines us in a particular way and question whether one’s sexual orientation is the only way a person defines himself or herself.

But this gender dichotomy doesn’t just exist in high art but it seeps into folk culture as much as subconsciously. In our analysis of William darlymple’s nine lives[6] we got to know certain interesting observations. barring the cases where the person interviewed is a female (and in no case is she a household women) in all other cases where the person is interviewed even within a family, we don’t get to know the perception of the women of the household, even though she also played a part in the ritual and traditions. Like in the case of bard Mohan Bhopa, where his wife accompanied him for singing the folklore doesn’t feature at all in the interview except serving food! This we can see as an example of hierarchy, even within the household tales or folk stories, which pass on to from generation to generation. The public visibility of these women folklorists seems to get reduced if the audience or the listener is not one of their kinsmen. The perception about the foreign interviewer also depends upon the background of the interviewee. Like while in the case of devdasis, the author mentions that he was misunderstood by the local people as one of her “clients”. Conversely, while interviewing the Jaina monk prasenmati mataji, the author was not allowed to enter her dining room as “he was not bathed and he may have eaten meat”.  But in other places folk culture can also be a medium to create alternative cultural meaning that sometimes alters, modifies and even oppose the hegemonic brahmanical and patriarchal structure through their folk tales and culture. For example A.K. Ramanujan points out that Like bhakti, folktales present a counter-system, in which classical theories  have limited currency and in which the chaste of epic and classical drama play more complex and active roles, genres are gendered’. Women’s tales were themselves context-sensitive, told from a woman’s perspective, meriting on a woman’s place in Hindu India

[1] Ramacharitmanas- geeta press gorakhpur

[2] Nivedita menon- “seeing like a feminist”

[3] The expression “inner/outer” for “private/public” divide originally used by partha chaterjee in “the nation and its fragments”

[4] Tapti guha  Thakurta- Women as ‘Calendar Art’ icons Emergence of Pictorial Stereotype in colonial India

[5] Christopher pinny- “photographs of gods”

[6] William darlymple- nine lives: in search of sacred in modern India