By Mayank Chawla & Ayesha Khan
As the sun sits above the horizon, my friend, Belal and I start walking along the bustling road of the Johri village in Western Uttar Pradesh, 84 kilometres from New Delhi. We have been here for more than three hours now, shooting for a documentary project. As we walk amidst the hustle and honking of trucks, an old man sitting at the tea stall on the pavement calls out to us to join him and a few other men in their discussions.
Belal introduces me to the old man, Mr. Yashpal Singh, who is immediately drawn towards my tied up long hair. “His thin face and long hair tied at the back are symbolic of femininity”, he makes a light-hearted comment about me in front of his friends. He later tells me that pulling back your hair in a knot centres your brain at the very position and the size of the knot is symbolic of the size of a woman’s brain.
This sexist comment coming from an elderly person surely paints the picture of the patriarchy entrenched in the village. Yashpal’s rigid definitions of masculinity gain support from the other men surrounding us, including the children who giggle along with him. However, one seven-year-old questions, “But what about Lord Ram? He never had any facial hair.” Singh is taken aback.
There has always been a difference in the way men and women are treated in Indian society. I believe that patriarchal ideas are not just limited to a remote village or the country, but they are a global issue, instilled even in the most educated people, who we often expect to have liberal and unprejudiced mindsets.
During the Olympics in 2016, American swimmer, Katie Ledecky broke her own world record, winning a gold medal in women’s 400-meter freestyle. However, newspapers referred to her as a ‘female Michael Phelps’ and even said that ‘she swims like a man’.
It’s not just Yashpal Singh’s comment, but every little thing in a typical village in India that suggests that patriarchy is far from gone. In the villages, there are separate floors for the men and women in the house. The men hold the ground floor, standing guard to the women of the house who are tucked away in the upper floors, away from everyone’s gaze. All the important conversations are mediated through men. The political, societal and welfare decisions are taken by the men at ‘baithaks’ (village meeting), rarely a woman in sight. Loitering is a privilege of the men in the village, as are smoking hookah and beedi while lounging on the charpai at street corners.
The presence of patriarchy and gender inequality have also deterred women from participating in the country’s workforce. Instances of mansplaining and the passing of sexist jokes have outrightly pointed to the presence of patriarchy in our subconscious which gets internalized over time.
According to the International Labour Organization, in the last 15 years, there has been a decline in the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India. This period witnessed strong economic growth for the country while the LFPR fell from 42.7% in 2004-05 to 31.2% in 2011-12. More recent data from the Labor Bureau indicates that women’s LFPR stood at just 31.1% in 2013-14, before falling to 27.4% in 2015-16.
Women continue their struggle to fight against patriarchal mindsets and voice their opinions not just in villages but also in cities. Despite gender sensitization drives being held at the educational level and committees for women protection being set up to counter sexism, harassment, eve teasing and promoting gender equality, the progress has been rather slow. We must, therefore, initiate gender sensitization drives and workshops at the school level itself and cover topics like good-touch, bad-touch, menstrual taboos, gender equality, among other things, as a part of the curriculum.
As the sun sets and our conversation stretches, Yashpal Singh continues sharing his thoughts and calls transgender people ‘teesri nasal wale’ (third gender); he further refers to them as a ‘mistake at the hands of God‘, condemning them for not being able to reproduce. During this conversation, it occurred to me that people in small villages are very detached from the urban population and a holistic approach is the need of the hour if we want to work towards changing regressive mindsets.