Patriarchy represents a natural order for a society defined by it. A social system that places men, women and other genders in hierarchies learns to perceive the plurality of genders as unnatural and views women with suspicion. Since people have only been socialised to see this hierarchy as natural, they remain attuned to the possibility of it crumbling any moment and fear any potential sign of anarchy. Lack of control over women’s sexuality is an example of such anarchy that concerns not only the women’s so-called guardians but the society at large. Recent political campaigns geared towards restricting intimate relationships across communities, even as a fictional plot for jewellery advertisements, reveal how deep the fear of women’s choices runs. The dominant sections, in particular, believe that societies — as they know it — will collapse if women don’t stay in their pre-designated place and if the plurality of gender and sexual expressions somehow finds representation in popular culture.
Patriarchal societies seem to perpetually find themselves in a precarious position, where the line between order and disorder is dangerously blurred. Dominant sections believe they are almost always under threat these days, especially after they have stressed their supremacy on a given issue. The removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, the amendment to the citizenship law and the inauguration of the Ram temple have been followed by bitter laments on how vulnerable they actually are.
This is primarily a consequence of structural changes the BJP government has introduced in the recent past. Demonetisation, GST and the farm laws all bring with them more uncertainties and reinforce our inability to make sense of the world and our place in it. The status quo, including the so-called natural order, has been disrupted by a government which has not shared its vision for the future, if one exists at all.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan predicted, back in 2014, that this lack of vision or coherent policy will eventually become a matter of huge concern. In a newspaper article in 2014 he asserted: “The electoral Hinduism of the BJP might placate a majority but does not solve the question of democratic polity. It hides the dullness of thought in a machismo of fronts.” He expressed the belief that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not be able to cling to “yesterday’s news” as he and his supporters step into the future. And yet, this is precisely what has happened — a majoritarian polity constantly finds refuge in “outdated history”, as Visvanathan put it, and hides its presumable lack of vision with an over-the-top machismo.
For Modi’s supporters in the majority community, the disorder introduced by the government must have been more difficult to process than it is for marginalised communities. The chaos of the last few years, the constant churn, if not outright precarity, and the decline in standards of living, especially post-lockdown, has found expression in old fears and existential threats. If the dominant order in Indian society, represented by the male upper-caste Hindu, today finds itself threatened, women and marginalised communities must somehow be the culprits.
The very success of the Modi government lies in overturning the seemingly obvious assumption many held that he would not be able to keep people hooked to the past even as his policies wreak havoc in the present. His governance machinery, that today includes the erstwhile autonomous institutions, as well as the media, have successfully redirected anger to old civilisational fears, especially those surrounding the potential anarchy fuelled by women and their sexuality.
In the early 1950s, when the Special Marriage Bill was being debated in the Indian Parliament, similar civilisational fears had surfaced amongst our early lawmakers. The fears were predominately represented in the discussions on age of consent and divorce with comments ranging from the mildly apprehensive — Kishen Chand’s claim that women between 18 and 22 are emotional and “high-strung” (Rajya Sabha Debates 1954, September 22, pg 3046) and Tajamul Husain’s contention that older parents would be better capable of reproducing strong and brave Indians “who can defend the country in times of need” (Council of States Debates, 1954, May 5, pg 5209) — to those of outright contempt — S Mahanty’s allegation that the women in Parliament “have lowered marriage to the morass of sex” under the pretext of equality of rights and status (Council of States Debates 1954, April 29, pg 4,616).
Even those who passionately advocated for women’s equality were not able to shed their unease about sexual freedoms. The then law minister, CC Biswas, argued: “Suppose two young persons have made up their minds to marry and you place all these obstacles in their way. Certain very undesirable consequences may follow (Council of States Debates, 1954, April 29, pg 4565).” Women’s sexuality, according to the early parliamentarians, carried both the responsibility to reproduce the race and the power to bring civilisations down if their reproductive abilities are left ungoverned. As American family therapist, Terence Hill, wrote: “Psychological patriarchy is a dance of contempt, a perverse form of connection that replaces true intimacy with complex, covert layers of dominance and submission, collusion and manipulation.”
Those pushing forward ordinances that aim to overturn the rights guaranteed by the Special Marriage Act carry the patriarchal baggage borne by the lawmakers. But their moves also reflect a lack of courage to work against one’s own patriarchal impulses for the sake of a better future — a courage shown by the lawmakers in the 1950s. Instead, society looks back to its past or at who women choose to marry or kiss for the source of its problems when, in reality, these are engendered by large-scale structural transformations introduced by the current government.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2020 under the title ‘Who’s afraid of women?’. Srinivasan is a Marie Curie postdoctoral Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and author of Courting Desire: Litigating for Love in North India