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Disguised Chauvinism: Looking for ‘the ideal woman’ in the 21st century India

Shruti Jhanwar (LLM Graduate, NYU School of Law, Class of 2020)


You did not kill her in the womb, you did not discard her upon birth, you educated her at par with boys, you let her work outside home, but did you do enough? Gender equality is about equal right to live, equal right to education and equal right to work, but that’s not where it ends. My country India has come a long way when it comes to superficial treatment of women and girls at par with men, but it has largely failed in engendering a perception of “equality” in the mindset of masses.

Equality attains its true meaning when clubbed with the notion of liberty. The problem with India is that the most brilliant of its girls and women, however educated, confident or financially independent they might have become, are considered “socially deviant” if they have an independent thought process, independent opinions, and most importantly, if they have the guts to express themselves candidly.

“Girls being real, girls being themselves” does not fit the Indian social setting, because they are never perceived as independent individuals. Rather, they are perceived as dependent entities, and by that I do not mean financially dependent, but dependent in terms of other people’s perception of who they are. It means, if her brother says she is a good sister, if her father says she is a good daughter, if her husband says she is a good wife and if her in-laws think she is good, then only she is ‘the ideal woman’. The rule for every girl is, either she becomes ‘the ideal woman’ or she will be considered a complete failure.

The conception of “ideal woman”, I believe, is nasty, because it takes away the freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, and the freedom of expression of most modern-day girls. How? Because as ‘a good girl’, you should only say things that others want to hear, and you should only express opinions which align with the opinions of family. And if you have an opinion or thought that would not match others, either change it or keep it to yourself. But how long do you hold things unto yourself? All this would have made some sense to me if the similar rules were imposed on modern-day boys, but that is not the case. Boys can think the way they like and they can say what they like, and they do not have to care about pleasing anyone.

And look at the hypocrisy of society, which claims that no one actually snatches away liberty but these “ideal women” themselves renounce it because they are more evolved souls. I agree, most Indian girls compromise their liberty of expression for greater acceptance from society, but do they have a choice? After all, who likes to be called a failure each day? And then there are exceptions, who do not take the ordeal of keeping quiet or staying diplomatic all life, and these women are demonized, yes, literally demonized and socially excluded by others.

I see the tradition of brides going to ‘sasural’ as the root cause of all this mess. The term ‘sasural’ is a Hindi word meaning “in-law’s home”. So the typical post-marriage rule in India culture is that it is always the bride who settles down in the groom’s house, and since traditionally we have had a joint family system in India, the groom’s house also includes the groom’s family. The bride is expected to adapt herself according to the ways of life of the new home and win everyone’s heart. And the practice of pleasing everyone starts early in her parent’s home, just to make sure she would be able to do justice to her role as a “daughter-in-law” in future. A girl, thus, and later a woman, spends most of her life trying to please others.

The treatment of Indian girls is invariably linked to the idea of an Indian marriage. If patriarchy has to change, then the concept of “sasural going” has to change with it. And the same is true for many other things like the concept of arranged marriage and the concept of “no dating before marriage”. Arranged marriage is based on the idea that even if the girl does not know the groom and his family, their temperament, their likes, dislikes, she would still adjust very well with them because of her capacity to adjust and make sacrifices. When girls are pursuing the freedom to study and work, we cannot degrade their status as individuals just to save her social image and make her marriage last. Really, is this why there are so few divorces in India compared to the rest of the world? At the cost of liberty for a lifetime? Not done, not done at all! This has to change for true gender equality and balance to be restored in modern Indian life.

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