We Indians are extremely family oriented. The whole world knows that!
For those who cannot figure it out, we must show them a few of our exclusive family soaps on television. An ideal ‘bahu’ is always lit up like a Christmas tree, clad in heavy sarees, jewellary and bridal makeup which cannot be removed even while sleeping at night. With a cast of hundreds, everybody is related to everybody else, and everybody is out to get everybody else. These daily soaps are like a detailed ‘Handy-book for Future Wives‘ in India. .
Elders scoff at the way the West deals with the issue. Family has little meaning there, they claim. Kids “leave” home for college and along with it, their parents to fend for themselves. All westerners love to party and get into drugs and girls wear short clothes. Namely, that Western women are immoral and easy while our women are incarnations of goddesses themselves. So, one would think that the society that prides on their women would keep them on pedestal and treat them with utmost respect. Is this the case? Hah! A female foetus is not safe even in a mother’s womb and here we are discussing the plight of women who are ‘allowed to live’.
I once accompanied my elderly aunt to an acquaintance’s house to exchange Diwali greetings. The house was absolutely gorgeous as well as spotless and was also adorned with stunning artwork all over. Kids’ room was particularly wonderful, done in bright colors and decorated with hand-made murals of their favorite cartoon characters. “It has all been done by our daughter-in-law.” the proud mother-in-law announced to us. When she went inside to fetch tea and snacks for us, my aunt, with a theatrical whisper well-suited to the security forces, said into my ear-
“Its a bit TOO clean and shiny, no? Seems like a hotel to me. Superficial. Where’s the warmth? the love? Bahu Service karti hai na (daughter-in-law is a working woman) It’s not the same as when a traditional housewife lovingly takes care of the house and kids. This one must have hired servants to do her duties, I am sure.”
Then there was that time when I got into a heated row with a family friend who inspite of never having lived (or even traveled) overseas, claimed with full confidence that families in the west have absolutely no emotional bonding and India is the only place where a thing called ‘Sanskar’ existed. From the junky eating habits to the relaxed work ethic, this gentleman had a strong opinion about everything that was non-Indian. When I wouldn’t give in and insisted that it is unfair to generalize the whole nation based on one’s own limited knowledge on the subject, he ended the conversation with the remark- “Why to argue with you when you are one of them now? Non reliable Indian”
We’ve all come across people in our lives who don’t blink twice before putting a label on unfamiliar people and cultures. People who just see the world in stereotypes and refuse to understand, appreciate and tolerate those dissimilar to them. The habit of independent thinking and questioning is rarely encouraged. The right to discuss and dissent is objected to. A stereotype and even a prejudice (which refers to beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that someone holds about a group) are both prejudgments, often originating outside of actual experience. They are generalizations that refuse to take individual differences into account.
Most of us are victims of a one-dimensional version of our own Indian society. Atheism is taboo. Superstitions cannot be questioned. Miracles cannot be exposed as fake. People above fifty are expected to embrace celibacy if they are single. If a girl is an extrovert and likes to have a nice time, she is deemed characterless. If parents choose not to live with their children due to some reason, surely the kids have gone rogue and have no emotions towards them. A working woman just cannot be as good a homemaker as a housewife. So much of the prejudiced polarization taking place is because of incorrect and inadequate knowledge, often willfully and politically motivated.
We are not born judgemental. In fact, new prejudices or stereotypes are rarely created. Rather, we learn it from the people around us. There is much discrimination in Indian society, with age-old prejudices of caste, religion & gender co-existing with newly coined ones born of education, wealth, power & privilege, all of it being expressed in openly aggressive new ways. People can be and are prejudiced against people they have never even met. Giving names or labels gives us a sense of control, appeases our inner selves and tick marks the socially acceptable list of society. Sharing our pain with like-minded social media ‘friends’ is cathartic but ineffective. We are growing up in an era of political correctness gone wild.
Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation; almost any characteristic but gender stereotyping is the one which to me, seems to be the most dominant one driving our society even in this day and age of modern era.
Gender is an important part of our identity which gives us a sense of belonging and sets the course for the rest of our lives. In our culture, the ideal male is mostly seen as competent, stable, tough, confident, strong, accomplished, non-conforming, aggressive and is the leader. The ideal female is perhaps seen as warm, emotional, pretty, kind, polite, sensitive, friendly, fashionable, gentle, soft and is the follower. Thus, there is always a tendency to conform to the cultural notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
The most liberal of families openly indulge in gender stereotyping, with no sense of realization whatsoever. No matter how ‘progressive’ and ‘open-minded’ a family may be, when it comes to searching for alliances, intelligence takes a back seat and illogical demands take precedence.
In most cases, women are judged by a self proclaimed jury which is totally biased and set in its own stubborn ways. A girl may be either too fat, too thin, too dark, too old, too plain, too tall, too short or too qualified to fit the criteria of being an ideal match. Whether traditional or modern, a woman is always under constant scrutiny. Judgments are freely passed, totally apathetic about her feelings. It’s totally fine if men possess any or all of these characteristics, by the way. After marriage, even in the most affluent of the families, a daughter-in-law is hardly given the same treatment/place/benefit of doubt as the ‘Damadji’ of the family. Even the expectations from both the roles are vastly different. A female divorcee or a widow is better off not dating throughout life whereas it is okay for a man to remarry merely a few days after his wife dies. Sadly, we’re a country riddled with double-standards.
I strongly protest when my own mum, mum-in-law, grandma or grandpa treat my husband differently than me. “That’s how it has always been.” they insist. Husbands or sons or sons-in-law are knowingly or unknowingly put on a pedestal because that’s what our culture has always taught us. Our culture forbids women to visit temples when menstruating because it makes the holy place ‘impure’. Women are not allowed to go and pray in mosques or Shani temples ever. “Women marching ahead, in tandem with Men“-such comparisons and success parameters for women actually reveal the dark underbelly of patriarchy, wherein a woman has to reach the so called ‘enviable’ status of men in society. Most of our Indian festivals like ‘Karwachauth’ and ‘Rakhi’ are conveniently male-oriented. ‘Kanya-daan’ is another notion where a woman is “given away” by her father to her would-be husband during the nuptials. I am not against traditions. On the contrary, I follow many of traditions/rituals myself because they have been an integral part of my life while growing up and also, because they are fun. The thing I am worried about is whether or not we are aware of how these practices have influenced our mindset as a society in the long run.
This “culture” has become an old yarn to cover the prejudices, discrimination, oppression and violence that have, unfortunately, marked our history.Even after 70 years of independence, we have not managed to get free from the age old mentality where female, however successful, still remains the inferior sex.
The good news is that the progressive Indian man has adjusted and is thrilled that his “housewife” now looks beyond the next door neighbors’ affairs and is interested in world affairs. She’s someone he can talk to, drink with, depend on and who shares the financial load of the family equally. She has creative pursuits, she looks good through exercise and personal grooming, is fashionable and has friends to make her happy and keep her lively. Women now want marriages of equality, where whatever applies to the man is equally applicable to the woman – be it independence, social life or work.
We all get outraged when people belonging to other nationalities fit all Indians in age old molds of stereotypical images, mostly through characters in movies and television series. Constant references to India being a land of cows, snake-charmers, the elephant commutes, the great Indian rope trick, spicy curries et al gets on all of our nerves. It’s unfair when Donald Trump mocks us with his poor imitation of an Indian accent. If those stereotypes are deemed offensive and unfair, why should the generalization within any society be considered acceptable by any standard?
It is human nature to try to organize the world. Faced with a great deal of information, most people want to create order and simplify how they understand the world, often tipping the odds in their favor. We develop stereotypes when we are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information we need to make fair judgments about people or situations.
I am dorky and I walk around with my owlish glasses and untrimmed eyebrows, because I am too lazy to get them done regularly. I am a house-wife yet disorganised and erratic at most times. On the other hand, I have grown up around women who work 10 hours a day in offices and in schools yet they are excellent home-makers and mothers. My dad used to love cooking and people would visit our house especially to sample his amazing fish-fry. I have male cousins who make awesome ‘Aloo ke parathe’ and ‘Dal makhni’ and I have a female best friend who married on clear terms of being a full-time engineer who hates household work. I miss my homeland yet love living abroad and getting a taste of new cultures. I speak my mind and have never refrained from doing so just because I am a woman or a wife or a daughter or a daughter-in-law. I never will. Have the judgments stopped? No way, they have become more and more interesting.
The best way to challenge stereotypes is to have your own set of beliefs and to become informed. It is important to not blindly buy into generalizations we read about in books and magazines, see in movies or television, or hear from friends and family. Look at people as individuals, each with personal, unique values and characteristics. Give each one his/her own space. People ought to be accepted for who they are and not be forced into any boring, uncomfortable molds. Negative beliefs and attitudes about a group of people, left unchecked, will shape our treatment of the members of various groups. Stereotypes affect important aspects of people’s lives, from marriage to hiring to education. For this reason, it is important to get informed.
Imagine a world without labels. A world where everyone is born free, without an identity, without a gender, without any baggage. If this would be “kahaani ghar ghar ki“, trust me, every ‘kahaani’ will have a happy ending!