When Empowerment is an Illusion: Navigating Patriarchy at Home

Priya Ahluwalia

The world operates in a patriarchal system that believes in hierarchy of men over women. While this system has been there for centuries, it adapts itself to its time to ensure its continuity. These changes often occur as a response to any resistance from the oppressed (who in this case are women, transpeople, and nonbinary people). While the change allows for a slight concession to the needs of the oppressed, the overall system ensures that the disparity between men and women continues. One of the most common ways in which this system adapts is by providing an illusion of choice and progression in specific situations. In recent interactions with some of our clients, it has been observed that this illusion is a common thread among their narratives.

Gayatri (name changed) is the primary caregiver for a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. She comes from a family that believes that the women of their family should not interact with men, outside of their family. This belief has held Gayatri back from pursuing her dream of working and being financially independent. However, she has negotiated her way to work towards her dream by doing work like tailoring and sewing that could be completed from within her house but would also allow her to earn. Through this, Gayatri had been able to save some money, and this money was helpful in assisting her family during the financial difficulties they experienced during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown. Seeing the utility of her earring, Gayatri’s family has now modified their stance, and believes that Gayatri should work. However, the acceptable work options as defined by the family are limited to working as a house-help, or a cook or taking up a part-time job that does not interfere with her existing household responsibilities. Thus, Gayatri can work however her work should be within the approved choices as decided by the men in the family. Moreover, the money thus earned would no longer be for Gayatri’s financial independence but rather the property of her husband. So, while the system may have slightly progressed for Gayatri, it continues to let men control the resources and decisions of the women.

Parineeti (name changed) is a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. She was restored to her family in July 2020. Like Gayatri, Parineeti comes from a conservative family that believes men are the head of the household, responsible for carrying the legacy forward and ensuring the wellbeing of their parents in old age. Men in Parineeti’s family are the decision makers. They are also given more freedom to choose their life partners. Whereas, women in her family are rarely given the opportunity to voice their opinions and have to accept the decisions made for them by the men in the family.  When Parineeti expressed her desire to get married to someone of her choosing, her family did not approve of the same. Thus, it became a constant source of conflict within their family. For several months, the family remained resolute in their decision to marry Parineeti to a man of their choice. However, this suddenly changed in July 2020, when Parineeti’s only brother passed away. Parineeti’s brother was also the primary earner in the family and responsible for taking care of their father who is suffering from a serious heart condition. With her brother’s death, Parineeti had to shoulder these responsibilities. However, Parineeti’s father did not believe that a woman could take care of the family. Thus, they began to coerce her to immediately get married to her boyfriend. One of the conditions for the marriage was that the son in law will take Parineeti’s brother’s position and take care of the family’s finances as well as the father’s health. However, Parineeti opposed this condition. Subsequently she was given the ultimatum of either getting married now or not getting married at all. Thus, while it may seem that her family progressed by accepting her decision of getting married to a person she loved, there was no freedom of choice present for Parineeti in terms of when and how she wanted to get married. Moreover, the family changed not for Parineeti’s benefit but because it helped them to continue to uphold their orthodox beliefs. 

Thus, as stakeholders working with young women, it is important that we understand the system in which these young women are existing. Furthermore, if we do see smaller adjustments in the system, it is important to regularly assess them to see whether they really benefit our clients or are only operating under the guise of progression. Nevertheless, these adjustments may serve as openings for a larger resistance. As stakeholders working with young women, we must tread a thin line where we acknowledge these modifications, and use them to further stoke the fires of dissent. Women should be encouraged to raise questions and continue to resist against the system of oppression in any way possible. 

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