It was 1995, and I was in Class 3. I was at my grandparents’ house for the summer vacations. We had a bit of an everyday ritual, where after an early dinner by 7:30 PM, the entire family would sit down in the living room before the television, and watch a family drama unfold on screen. It was a bit of a no-disturb time, and on almost all days, we watched the show, uninterrupted, and then went about our work before retiring to bed. One day, the phone rang. My grandfather needed absolute silence when he spoke on the phone, and this was non-negotiable. For the first time that I can remember, I saw a hush descend on the room when he answered the phone. The volume was turned down to zero on our old Dyanora television set. Everyone sat quietly, swallowing words and whimpers. It was my aunt. My grandfather exchanged pleasantries, turned around, and told my grandmother, “Here. She wants to talk to you.” My grandmother took the phone and began to speak.
Almost immediately, my grandfather settled down before the television, cranked up the volume, and the silence that descended floated away like a cloud. In a few seconds, he turned his head around, annoyed, and looked at my grandmother. “Please take the phone out of this room into the verandah and speak there.” She followed.
I remembered asking my grandfather why we had to keep quiet when he spoke, but not when my grandmother did. He laughed and said, “Ladies don’t have anything important to talk about!” I looked at him earnestly and pointed out that my aunt was a lady too – and that if she spoke with him, did that mean that he did not speak about anything important? He hushed me and called me cunning and talkative.
That conversation pivoted me towards a state of vigilance. Or, perhaps I was just picking up on signals that up until then, didn’t reach my eye.
As I grew up, I looked around me and found that men claimed charge almost all the time. Whether it was in demanding what was cooked each day, or in how many children the family would have, or how much the daughters in the family could and would study, or even when and whom they would marry, men always had a say. The women seldom had a say. I’ve seen families where the men would buy groceries only because they needed to determine what the wife cooked. I’ve spoken to women who said that they were allowed to use only wood to cook, and not a gas stove because their husbands said so. I’ve known of women who were expected to give birth as many times as it took till she bore a son, and the daughters she birthed were given little to no value. I internalized these notions, and came to believe that my identity as a woman was inherently tied to the value ascribed to me from time to time by a man.
It made me realize that knocking the domino of gender equality can set most other inequities in order. If women were respected, given their due, and were free to enjoy the inherent sovereignty they own over their minds and bodies, no other inequities would hold water. Think about it. Whatever theory you choose to believe explains the origin of patriarchy, it is clear that patriarchy is dominance, and manifests as male “ownership” and dominance over the female body, mind and action. Dominance over a woman’s body is dominance over her sexual and reproductive health. When man assumes the right over a woman’s sexual and reproductive health, he assumes that he can impose such notions of religious, ethnic, racial, caste and linguistic purity – where the focus then becomes preserving the bloodlines by curbing the sexual freedom of a woman. Dominance over a woman’s mind and action keeps her from accessing quality education and economic opportunities – and in doing so, the focus is on masculinizing the workplace, and monopolizing resources. Women can’t access credit or energy resources, public health or even public spaces, with this dominance. Carefully presented as being religiously or traditionally or culturally taboo, the ways to assert this dominance and legitimize it becomes a matter of semantics and disguises.
This dominance over women creates an extended form of discrimination to the other genders, where their non-conformity with the “norm” is perceived as an anomaly. When the norm is that one dominates over the other, the perceived anomaly is automatically dominated over with as much force. However, the root of this manifestation of dominance hinges around discrimination to establish boundaries for the purported norm, rather than to own reproduction.
If we spent a moment and pulled out the gender inequality quotient from the equation, the entire rubric could change. If a woman is free to be sovereign over her mind, body and actions, the gender equality balance is restored.
So maybe, just maybe, if we knock the right domino…