Politics of the Male-Gaze in Indian Households: A Legacy of Subliminal Oppression

For centuries, men have dictated women’s lives in Indian households and forced them to conform to their notions of the ideal female body. Broad-chested patriarchs have prided themselves in shaping both literally and metaphorically the space that ‘their’ women take up in the household. These systems of subliminal oppression have a profound effect on the power dynamics of the family and in subjugating the Indian woman in the larger sphere of society. 

In her iconic feminist essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf writes about how every woman needs her own room: a space to think in and write in, referring not only to a literal space but also using it as a metaphor for a larger voice and independence that had been denied to women for centuries before her.

Although this essay was written almost a century back, this space is still denied to women in several parts of the world including most of India, where their opinions are controlled by male authorities and their bodies judged by the male gaze even in the intimacy of their own homes.

Women are Subjugated in the Most Intimate Spaces and Relationships in One’s Life

This notion of oppression in the intimate space of the household is not isolated, it is part of a much larger conversation: the idea that the personal is political, that oppression is intimate. Women are subjugated in the most intimate spaces and relationships in their life, be it marriages, with a partner or in the household, both subliminally and overtly. How people act in these intimate situations needs to be scrutinised to grapple with the larger societal issues of inequality and patriarchy, for women to even begin to reclaim these spaces. And a lot of things starts from a reevaluation of the words used to describe them.

We talk about the representation of Indian women in the media- tall, fair and skinny with long hair down to the waist; we talk about the twisted beauty campaigns which sell creams with bleach in them to young girls who wish to conform to this idea of beauty, but we never talk about the systemic and suffocating body shaming in every Indian household, the comments on skin colour and weight and the length of our hair. We never talk about the familial pressure for women to look a certain way- dictated either by men or by older women who either knowingly or unknowingly become gatekeepers of the patriarchy that was forced on them when they were younger.

There is a funny story in my family that I’ve always found rather strange. It’s the story of how a senior male family member called two little girls “bhoot”, the Bengali word for “ghost” when he saw them, commenting on how they would not get married, despite them being not more than seven or eight years old at the time. These two children are now my mother and my aunt, who laugh heartily every time someone brings it up- both strong feminist women who discount the comment as light-hearted fun. Except it isn’t.

It’s just one of the countless times they were shamed for being the darker-skinned daughters of a fair skinner mother, one of the countless times the idea of skin colour and a marriageable appearance was choked down their throats tens of years before they got married, the same way it is choked down girls’ throats today. Absolutely nothing has changed in the way appearance in perceived in the Indian context, either in the media or in common discourse.

Stop Normalising Comments on a Woman’s Appearance!

Every girl, sister, mother and wife in India has been a victim in the familial space of the toxic masculine energy that tells women that they are fat or chubby and that it’s unhealthy to look that way even when it isn’t because we have normalized a culture of commenting on a girl’s weight the moment you see her as if nothing else matters apart from the size of her waist. And young girls lap it up, internalising this ingrained misogyny from the youngest possible age, suffering from eating disorders and lowered self-esteem with this leaving lasting scars on the girl’s relationship with food and her body.

But the bigger picture here is about how men decide which bodies are attractive and which ones aren’t. Men subliminally keep telling women that they need to be smaller and take up lesser space, that they need to be fairer or taller to be married off faster and they use this to hold power over the women in the house: the power that they will never have to conform to the same standard or be judged based on their appearance alone. 

The women of India have shrunk themselves smaller and smaller in their homes for generations, conditioned themselves to believe that the ideas of femininity and beauty that men have imposed on them are a natural truth.

Urban women even in the generation directly before mine have lived their entire lives in the shadow of their husbands, learning to keep their voices down and their opinions to themselves even at home- something they learned from their grandmothers, who learned it from their grandmothers.

Toxic Masculinity, Colourism and the Arranged Marriage System Treats Women Like Cattle

The oppression of women is so rooted in global cultural history that it hides from collective memory an experience of not being subjugated by men or inferior in any way. This conversation is more than just power dynamics in households, it is intertwined with toxic masculinity and colourism and the arranged marriage system that treats women like cattle.

We have certainly come a long way from how women were treated in the 19th century, when women of lower castes were given the surname “dasi” after marriage, directly translating to “slave”; we have come a long way from women being immolated at their husband’s funeral pyre and ousted societally for being widowed at the age of thirty. But these experiences are far from forgotten and they have paved the way for imbalances and power inequity in modern 21st-century households.

Nowadays, although my mother discounts her own experiences of familial body-shaming, dismissing them as either “well-intended comments about her health” or “harmless jokes”, she stands up for me whenever somebody in our family comments on my body. At first, she used to tell me not to think about what other people said- that it is a normal part of growing up in India.

I Try to Remind Myself That if I am a Victim of Patriarchy, Then So is She

But she speaks up for me, telling everyone who comments on my weight when they see me after years that I am now in an excellent college studying my dream course, that I read and sing and am so much more than my body- and I love her all the more for it, even if the fact that she never stands up for herself the same way pains me. I try to remind myself that if I am a victim of the patriarchy, then so is she. And when there is so much silence, one voice becomes a lot more powerful than you’d expect.

Read also: https://www.shethepeople.tv/news/the-politics-of-body-shaming/ 

Feature Image Credits:http://respectwomen.co.in/

Riddhi Mukherjee