Boys at the table, girls at the sink.
To my fellow Indian's, make yourself uncomfortable. I dare you.
I don't think that there is a better phrase than this title to summarise the dynamics of patriarchy and misogyny in Indian culture. Boys at the table, girls at the sink is a succinctly tangible concept of a dynamic, constructed for the specific purpose of keeping people in check, keeping them penned to maintain a patriarchal equilibrium, (an ironic use of the word I admit). More so, this phrase incorporates the primary ingredients of Indian culture - heteronormative gender roles, food, the household and repressed women. I'm certain any Indian woman reading this right now would be able to exemplify all of these elements in childhood memories or their day to day lives. And most Indian men can't because they actively choose to ignore it - and that's not naivety, that's fear of it changing. To paraphrase the saying, men in Indian culture very much have their sabji*, and eat it too.
In our culture, it is absent-mindedly accepted that women cook and clean to take care of the household and the men in it. Women and girls make the roti*, the men sit down to eat, are served and fed by the women, the men then leave to go elsewhere and then finally, the women eat and clean up. Like it or not, that is tradition, 'the way of the world', as it were. What is so stunning to me is how much credibility this holds as a decades old, undisputed cultural norm. Naturally, very few men have thought to actually debate or challenge these norms because as always, why would any man want to challenge a patriarchy that values, serves and actually fucking praises them. So much for being the head of the household, where one would assume leading by example is pretty integral. But then again, it's hard to examine many world cultures in which patriarchy hasn't been taught, generationally. What does this communicate to the children growing up in these environments? That this is normal and it's wrong for women to eat alongside the men, as equals (god forbid). And all of this is confirmed and validated by the venerated phrase: 'respect your elders', a sacramental thread sewn into our centuries old culture.
As a British Indian woman in 2021, I promise you, this thread is starting to fray.
Bursting at the seams.
'Respect your elders' is a phrase that, for me, only goes so far. I straddle two cultures, two worlds, two mindsets that constantly clash. In this context, it clashes with my modern belief of equality, to respect myself and expect that in return from those I do respect. It's nothing complex, it's basic reciprocation all decent people have the right to expect. But this phrase, this narrative that's been spun, leaves out the reciprocation part. It leaves out this idea that we could ever expect respect back from those older than us and it becomes a generational ticket for disrespect and rudeness. So much so, that when you become an 'elder' this phrase can be used as a form of payback for how you were treated when you were younger. Thus it becomes a toxic mentality, a poisonous cycle that affects every generation. It creates bitterness between them and coldness in a culture that already does not express themselves. Patriarchy suppresses the emotions of all people and represses women so therefore, the concept of reciprocation is not in an environment to survive. Phrases like these are a control tactic to maintaining a culture that causes the acceptance of child brides, rape culture and abuse and violence against women - to name a few. Women are still expected to stay under the thumb of their culture when the world is offering them hope for independence and equality. It's a game of cat and mouse and I'm not here to entertain you.
This is the thought process of a second generational female immigrant.
This is the product of two people who raised daughters as human beings, not well kept house maids.
The change in the game.
As with any children, the story of how your parents met is one you grow up asking about again and again. You want to know all the details, what was said, by who and you want to immerse yourself in this niche, formative memory, one that was imperative to your very existence. And to this day, the story of how our parents met is not only lovely and funny, but crucial to our upbringing and indicative of how they would go on to raise their 3 daughters. I'm not going to explain the whole story because actually, despite how expansively I share my life, some things, like this, are to be kept for us. At the crux though, was a first meeting between our parents. They were both unsure, both hesitant and didn't interact that much. This meeting was more for each other's families than the two who were joining them together.
However, the interaction they did have was our father offering to help our mother with the dishes and clean up.
Now, I understand this might seem like an irrelevant detail but I promise you, it was actually pretty ground breaking. For what first generation, Indian male, one that is the eldest of his generation and head of his family no less, offers to help a woman with housework. 'Housework', says Culture, 'is beneath a man but enough for a woman.' And in this seemingly minute detail, culture was rejected by the very kind of man it was built for. The educated, eldest Indian male decided to rebel, not comply for the sake of upholding a patriarchal culture. And by the way he raised his daughters, this appears to absolutely be our father's thought process towards parts of his culture, throughout his life. In doing so, our mother was shocked beyond belief because what other man had done this or interacted with her in this way before? This was abnormal, this was growth - this was rebellion. Up until that point, she was unsure, not too bothered by him, but that action was the change in the game. And it was a sign of what was to come. Metaphorically, our father brought himself to the sink and with our mother, carved out a place for her at the table.
As daughters, our parents did not raise us how they had been raised, to follow behind men and tidy up after them in the process. They created an environment in which we could actually thrive in a culture that only wanted us to stay down. They gave us freedom and broke a generational burden. And that's not to say it's totally vanished, it is still very much there outside of our family and home, that in fact is the reason I know how lucky me and my sisters are because I have something to compare my reality to. I couldn't be more thankful to be the child of two people who genuinely believe in equality, two feminists, two humans who don't see the world as male and female. Our father cleaned, cooked and was as much a part of the home and house as our mother was. Despite this, as women, exposed and subjected to this misogynistic culture, especially our mother, 'respect your elders' is a narrative never forgotten, the imprint of it still effecting the way we work and think sometimes. But this is just yet another faction of immigrant realties in the West, finding a way to reject and reform your culture, whilst still holding onto what you can. It's a constant battle.
To the women of my culture, you have every right and capability within you to live your life the way you want to, not what's expected of you.
To the men of my culture, you have a responsibility to the women around you, the daughters you might have, to reciprocate the equality and respect you never think twice about. Do better.
Sabji = curry
Roti = flatbread but can be used to mean 'food' or 'meal' as in this context