When I discuss the dynamics of Indian patriarchy with fellow Desis, I receive a variety of responses: concurrence, confusion and, more often than not, denial. Denial, because the Indian elders I know—both men and women—are proud of our culture, and understandably so.
But, when I discuss how our culture includes the oppression of women, I am quickly silenced with the reminder of how much Indian culture adores women.
Yes, Indian culture adores women.
Our culture dresses them in gold jewelry and fine silk and depicts them in temples as goddesses. Indian culture adores lovely daughters, who possess traditional Indian values and can please their families.
But Indian culture is dominated by men, not women, and these values are placed on women by men.
Indian women are superficially placed above men, as objects to be ogled or admired, but rarely respected as intellectual leaders. They are held up in one hand while being crushed by the other.
When a baby girl is born she is supposed to do what her parents expect of her until she marries and then she does what her husband expects of her until he dies.
Indian wives are, as my father once said, “obedient”— and as a divorced man, this held a positive connotation. Ideal Indian women obey the ideals Indian culture sets forth, which is that Indian women are meant to exist as complementary accessories to Indian men.
But when Indian women do not do comply with the status quo, they are viciously torn down from their pedestals.
What about an Indian woman who goes out at night? A Desi woman who cuts her hair short? A brown woman with a career? What about the thousands of Indian women who are protesting against Indian rape culture?
What about the Indian women who do not obey this ideal, a patriarchal idea, dreamed up by men and enforced by both men and women?
I know that the patriarchy in our culture has changed, both in India and abroad. But I still grew up suffering from Indian patriarchy and contradictory cultural values. Countless Indian women continue to suffer, both in India and abroad.
We know Jyoti’s story, but thousands of Indian women have been sexually assaulted and abused by men who lust for the idea of the perfect Indian woman, yet reject the humanity of women.
We can be proud of Indian culture, but this pride often blinds us from seeing our flaws. No society is perfect, and by believing that we perfectly embody our cultural ideals results in a lack of introspection and we cannot see our internal contradictions.
Though our ideals are high, our patriarchy does not correlate with Indian notions of equality. We cannot say how noble women are and then diminish their worth when they do not endlessly entertain male desires.