Patriarchy on the Dinner Table, and a Woman Who Woke Up

Whether benign or downright dangerous, patriarchy continues to exist in myriad forms in Indian homes.

By Varsha Khandelwal

It had been a long and tiring day. I was looking forward to eating a nice hot meal and calling it a day. As I sat famished, waiting for my roti, I saw that as always it follows its order of being served. The men first, the women later. I stayed quiet and waited patiently for my turn as the roti did its rounds.

My toddler turned three recently and as any mother would know, the terrible twos bring a lot of tantrums, stubbornness and misbehaviour. But when my son threw a fit at not getting his way, the blame for his behaviour was placed squarely on my tired shoulders.

Why is it that it’s always the mother who is the target for the child’s misdeeds and no one else – even in a joint family where everyone is bringing up the child together – partakes in taking responsibility?

Let me add at this point that I have a very loving and respectful family. It has been almost eight years of marriage and there are no complaints. I was brought up to believe girls and boys are equal and I am privileged compared with most Indian women.

But as most households go, it is almost ingrained for the men to hold primary power in the house: their choice of food, big life decisions, ultimate authority over children’s lives, or sometimes even misplacing anger or frustration without any hesitation.

The sadder truth of the situation is that it is not only the men who play a part in this. “You need to learn good cooking if you want to keep your man happy!” – we have all heard this from other women too many times than we care for. Women have been conditioned into subconsciously believing that our timely sacrifices and daily adjustments are needed to keep the house running. And a lot of us find it easier to comply than to defy.

Varsha Khandelwal

Let me share the story of my friend, Rohini (name changed), who was my batch-mate in Symbiosis College, Pune, where we spent five years of “full on masti” and academics. After college, Rohini worked in a NGO for four years. Then her parents found a suitable educated, handsome groom for her and Rohini migrated to Canada with him.

We kept in touch as Rohini settled into her role as a housewife. Her husband’s travelling job gave her two weeks in a month to her own, which she spent painting, cooking new recipes and making friends. However, the empty space soon started turning into loneliness. A whole year passed and the fangs of his alcoholism began to create cracks in the marriage.

It began with a small shove, a hard pinch and verbal putdowns. A confused Rohini was unsure of what was happening. She tried to improve herself, and became more submissive in order to keep him happy and be a better wife.

Soon, to her delight, she became pregnant but the news was not met with the same excitement. His travelling job and long drinking binges gave way to bitter fights between the two. Everything came crumbling down one terrible day when he beat her up badly and forced her to have an abortion.

It is difficult to say which is worse, the physical pain or the shame – the shame that stopped her from sharing the terrible truth with her friends and family. I only found out when she left him and shifted out. My heart broke to see my educated, confident, outgoing friend turn into a woman with such low self-esteem that she kept on justifying his actions and refused to see what was right in front of her. Tragically, she went back to him.

This time around, things were much worse.

Years later, Rohini eventually woke up to the truth and walked out of the marriage. Today, she is an independent woman, holding a good job and living life with self-respect and dignity. Free from family pressures that women all are too familiar with, she is confidence and happiness personified.

While Rohini managed to break out, it is sad that hers is not an uncommon experience for many lakhs of women hailing from different backgrounds and strata of society. Some have it worse than others, and most don’t make it out safe, healthy and alive.

The problem can only be addressed if we first admit that we all see traces of patriarchy in our homes – whether benign or dangerous. While progress has most definitely been made with new waves of feminism, we all need to make more changes within our homes if we want to see a ripple effect in society. As the wise man said, “Be the change that you want to see.”

Varsha Khandelwal, 33, is a Delhi-based lawyer, world-traveller and former state-level badminton player. She looks forward to her toddlers growing up and then diving back into her work.

Lead photo: Outcast India / Unsplash

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