S O C I E T Y – G E N D E R
Adwiteeya Rupantee Paul
If misogyny goes missing, would you miss it?
Ask women what they’d like to get rid of and wouldn’t ever miss, and misogyny will appear to be one of the topmost replies. If not, the most common answer. From minor things like NCTB books suggesting women what to wear to protect themselves from stares, or daughters receiving surnames from their fathers to brutal incidents of rape and domestic violence — misogyny still stays the most prevalent form of violence of all times, at least in our subcontinent.
To much surprise, the most common crimes are similar in every country, with almost crime-free Japan and India’s crimes against women being the exceptions.
One might argue that there are other forms of violence that are equally old and widespread, e.g., racism, religious communalism, etc. But even when talking about brutality towards racial minorities, we still find women to be major victims compared to their male counterparts.
“While it is true that human rights violations are committed against men as well as women, their impact clearly differs depending on the sex of the victim. Studies of the subject indicate that all acts of aggression against women exhibit some characteristic or other that provides a basis for their classification as gender-based violence.”
One of the basic differences between other forms of brutality and misogyny is that it starts right from the family and close community, something that is mostly missing in other forms of oppression. Even though children from a minor community might face discriminations in educational institutions, or the adults might go through major hassle in getting jobs just because of their racial or religious identity; at least, when in their own family, they feel safe.
However, in the case of women, discrimination might start right from the family, be it a family belonging to a minor community or the majority. A female child sees parents assuming different roles in the family based on their sex.
For example, the father is expected to be the one to provide monetary support to the family — not just by paying the rents and bills, but also by arranging trips for the family, and taking the family out for a dinner. The father is also considered to be the decision-maker in the family. On the other hand, the mother is mostly only expected to perform household chores and look after the children’s health.
“While all workers are likely to experience time conflicts, working mothers are especially hard hit because, in addition to their paid labour, they take on the majority of unpaid household and care work.”
Children assigned female at birth are also the ones provided with multiple forms of restrictions by the family while their brothers move free. The restrictions include, but are not limited to, forcing them to drop out of school, not letting them go out to play or to be engaged in sports, restrictions on clothing, etc.
There are also legal restrictions in some countries on the movement of women, where they require permission from their husband beforehand. These undoubtedly affect the psyche of the children.
Being restricted from childhood, women also tend to view basic human rights as signs of moral degradation.
“Some societal norms mean that women doing paid work are ostracised and stigmatised as sexually available or promiscuous. Inevitably, this will deter other women from attempting to pursue their own economic empowerment.”
Speaking of violence starting right from the family, domestic violence towards women might be portrayed as the biggest example of it all.
Globally, as many as 38% murders of women are committed by intimate partners.
Misogyny in the subcontinent
Our subcontinent has its golden examples of domestic violence towards women; starting from forcing women of one’s own family to perform the Satidah ritual to trafficking the widows of a family to the Kashi/Benares, where they’d spend the rest of their lives working as sex slaves, despite being told that they were being sent there for performing spiritual activities.
However, there are various families, various parents who chose to challenge the society’s imposition on women even when times were tough and succeeded in their endeavours, raising extraordinarily bold women that the subsequent generations would recount in order to feel less embarrassed about their history of gender-based violence. Even after all these years, parents of this age have a lot to learn from them.
We’ve heard the stories of Begum Rokeya, the pioneer of female education for the Muslim population of Bengal, and also the stories of Kadambini Ganguly, the first female doctor of Bengal. Let’s read a different story now.
Born around 100 years before Gen Z, in 1903, the support Radha, the renowned Indian poet and mother of writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, received to break through the chains of patriarchy from her parent is still unimaginable in our country, which is home to 38 million child brides. And by her parent, we imply her mother-in-law, who had far more contribution in her life as compared to that of her birth parents.
Radha’s father was a magistrate and they had a big library at home, for all the thirteen children of the family. She started writing at the age of 10. She was passionate about poetry writing, playing with metaphors at the age of 12, and was also an extraordinarily good student at school. However, as most girls of that period were married off by the time they reached their teens, instructed to stay home after marriage till they had their first period and then sent to their in-laws’ house, Radha was no exception either.
The demise of her husband equivalent to the demise of her dreams?
Her husband died within months after their marriage, when Radha was still 13 and at her parents’ home. She was made to follow all those strict rules the Hindu widows were supposed to — chop her hair off, wear a plain white thaan, avoid all jewellery, walk barefoot, resort to a different diet that included observing fasts during Ekadashi — all to mourn the death of her nearly unknown husband for the whole of her lifetime. Her mother made sure she didn’t continue her studies, as all it seemed to do was bring bad luck.
“My diet became daal-rice and boiled vegetables. No fish, meat or eggs, of course, and not even the more nutritious lentils like masoor. Nor any vegetables or herbs that lent taste to food, like onion, ginger of garlic. On the Ekadasi days of fasting without water, Pishima was sent in to oversee my bath, to make sure I didn’t cheat by drinking drops of water,” Radha wrote.
The real mother to Radha, breaking religious superstitions
When she was sent to her in-laws’ home, her mother-in-law Sushilabala was shocked to see a 13-year-old being made to follow all these rules for the demise of her son. She herself made arrangements so that Radha could shift back to colourful sarees and jewellery and served fish-curry to her daughter-in-law, which was absolutely unimaginable during that time.
However, when Radha told about how she didn’t want to break her vows about not wearing coloured clothing and eating non-veg, Sushila still gifted her pearl necklaces, gold chains, white silk sarees with black borders, and fed her chhanar dal, which became her absolute favourite. Radha would go on afternoon rides with the other kids of the family, enjoy the whiff of the Ganges.
Sushila, a Hindu religious woman in the 1920s, broke the religious rules assigned to widows for the wife of her own deceased son and allowed her to wear whatever she wished to without caring about what the society had to say. However, even today, girls are told — not just by NCTB home science books or so-called religious preachers, but also by parents — to follow certain types of clothing while going out, so that it ”saves” them from inappropriate stares and sexual harassment.
Rebirth of Radha’s dreams
Radha’s mother had thrown all her books to the kitchen fire, whereas Sushila took time to learn about her interests. When she learnt that Radha loved maths, she engaged her in keeping account of the money chest.
Radha’s mother had even wanted to damage her poetry notebook, calling it a ‘drivel’ book, which Radha still managed to save in the end. When Sushila found the notebook, Radha blurted out, ”Please don’t throw it away!” thinking that even she’d stop her from practising literature.
However, Sushila not only gifted her new notebooks to write poetry and encouraged her to go on with her passions, but also told her to teach the other children of the family. Radha had a wonderful time reciting her own poems to the children and answering their questions.
Radha kept on writing. She pursued what her mother had considered being unlucky. She pursued her dreams.
Radha’s clashes with contemporary litterateurs
Radharani grew up as a bold feminist. She wrote poetry and stories, and also articles that focused on smashing the patriarchy. Two of her most notable works include পুরুষ (Purush) and the other সতীত্ব মনুষ্যত্বের সঙ্কোচক না প্রসারক (Shottito Manusher Shongkoch Na Prosharok). She wrote under the pen name ‘Aparajita’ and was appreciated by many writers of that time. She was even asked to join the Ravivasar, an organisation of writers named after Rabindranath, but was stopped by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay, who didn’t wish women to be included in the Sabha. Even Rabindranath agreed with Sharatchandra on this. This resulted in a dispute, despite the fact that Radharani considered Sharatchandra to be a brother of hers. Later, when given the duty to arrange a get-together for Ravivasar, Radha, even after completing the arrangement, suddenly went home instead of attending the meeting, leaving a message for Sharatchandra through his driver, ”Let him know, that women are not allowed to join the meetings of Ravivasar.”
After this, Sharatchandra came to Radharani’s home with a variety of dishes to console her. Although Radha was slightly embarrassed at this act of her ‘Borda’, she later remarked that she had never managed to join the association.
Radharani also engaged in a dispute with Promotho Chowdhury, who had remarked that women failed to establish individuality through their writings, (sounds similar to “women can’t physics”, doesn’t it?) at which Radha had responded, “Artists have both feminine and masculine identities.”
Radha on Divorce
Radha even engaged in debates like ‘whether women should have the right to divorce’, where she delivered extremely constructive speeches in favour of divorce. Whereas Bangladeshi Hindu women, even in 2021, still don’t have the right to divorce their husbands.
Doing her own Sampradan, a bold act
Radha fell in love with another poet, Narendra Dev. She was initially hesitant to remarry but was encouraged by both Rabindranath and Sharatchandra to follow her heart.
Many Hindu wedding rituals still in practice are misogynistic, including the ritual where the groom tells his mother before marriage, “I’m about to get you a servant.” There are many other rituals that are heavily patriarchic, if not misogynistic. For example, when the groom announces that he is the one who’d be taking the responsibility of the food and clothing of the bride for the next seven lives; and also the sampradan ritual, where the bride is handed over to the groom by the father.
As Radharani’s daughter, Nabaneeta Dev Sen later said, “Unlike what we see in traditional marriage, where a bride’s father gives his daughter away, Radharani did her own sampradan. In other words, she gave herself away in marriage. She felt she belonged to nobody. My parents’ marriage was widely reported in the newspapers at that time.”
Most Hindu women of our time are still following these rituals. Even if they’re themselves eager to break the cycle of these misogynistic rituals, they’re forced to follow them to ensure their fortune. Yet, Radha, who had always been encouraged to challenge the religious rules set specifically for women, did her own sampradan. This was even published in newspapers the following day which raised enough discussions.
Radharani Devi won many awards for her literary contribution, including the Tagore Prize at the age of 82. She and Narendra Dev had a daughter together, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, which brings us to the next part of the story.
Nabaneeta Dev Sen, a continuation of the legacy
Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the renowned Bangali author known for her transgressive and subversive writings covering immigrants’ experiences, homosexuality, AIDS, old age, and other social issues — was the only child of the poet-couple and was named by Rabindranath Tagore.
Radharani Devi had a major role in shaping the career of her daughter. Nabaneeta grew up listening to Rabindrasangeet from her mother. While Radha’s mother had thrown all her books to the fire, Radha was the first one to gift her daughter a notebook to write poetry on, when she noticed her daughter’s interest in poems, just the way Sushila had done for her. Radha helped Nabaneeta in improving her poems. The first poem Nabaneeta wrote was called “Cholochitto” whose name was also suggested by Radha.
“Nabaneeta-di started breaking gender norms from a very early age. Not many people know she was a keen sportswoman in school. She did gymnastics, she was a swimmer, played basketball, and took part in inter-school events,” says Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, a writer, scholar, and activist based in Kolkata.
Nabaneeta reported every lesson she learnt while majoring in ‘Comparative Literature’ at Jadavpur University to her mother. As she recounted later, she said that it was not just her mother’s way to ensure that she concentrated enough in her studies, but also to develop her own knowledge about the global literature. Radha sent her daughter abroad to study at the age of 21 to do her Masters at Harvard University.
When Nabaneeta fell in love with Amartya Sen, who later on became the first Nobel Laureate in Economics from India, Radha encouraged her to bring him home. She was a star debater and he was the president of the debating society at Jadavpur University. Later, Nabaneeta and Amartya got engaged in Cambridge. Radha would send short telegrams to her daughter when they’d go on trips together, which Nabaneeta later recounted to have found funny. Once Amartya found a telegram addressed to him by his mother-in-law in Trinity College, which said, ”Enjoy yourselves. Don’t send postcards!'”
Later when Nabaneeta and her mother lived in the same house, Nabaneeta on the second floor and Radha on the first floor, Radha regularly sent short notes to her daughter’s room, stating weird things like “Your idea about life is incorrect.”
The friendship between Radharani and her daughter was best described by Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay:
This, then, was Nabaneeta Dev Sen. She loved her mother Radharani Debi deeply, and probably thought of her constantly, a worthy daughter of a worthy mother. Both of them will remain revered figures when it comes to women’s rights in Bengal.
Pursuing their passion together
Later, as Nabaneeta grew up, her mother was a great critic of her writings.
Nabaneeta states, “I had a very important relationship with her as a writer. She was my first reader and she was a heartless critic, which was such a wonderful thing for me. She was a very conscientious reader — everything I wrote she read. My mother had very beautiful handwriting so she was also my copyist! She copied out my writing, she criticised my writing — I miss her very much. When I write something, I want to show it to her. It was a wonderful thing. You know, in India, we don’t have editors — she was my editor, she was very good. She was a proper editor.”
Despite being a critic of her works, Nabaneeta’s mother usually never interfered or prevented her from doing anything. She respected her personal boundaries, something parents of this age still struggle with.
“My mother never prevented me from doing what I wanted to do in life,” says Nabaneeta.
When asked in an interview about her mother’s thoughts on particular literary works of hers, Nabaneeta said, “She enjoyed it, she admired it — she didn’t interfere, never…’’
Nabaneeta also says that her mother had her own ideas of what is respectable and what is not, for which she often couldn’t express herself in her writings as much as she wanted, because Radha’s face would appear in her mind every time she wanted to write something Radha might not have wanted. Well, parents’ ideologies often leave distinct marks on childrens’ thought process.
Every rose has its thorns, definitely, but…
Does every rose have its thorns, or does every cloud have a silver lining?
Parents of privileged children — after reading this article may tell kids to grow up appreciating roses and focusing less on the thorns — because apparently their lives are far less hard than the times of Radharani. However, just because the extremes may have reduced for the greater population, the meagre privileges we do receive still seem far from a silver lining among all the other wrong things going on in society.
And, although the extremes may seem to have reduced, violence towards women exist in changed, yet still severe forms. Satidah does not exist anymore, but we have acid violence. Women aren’t sent to Benares, but we hear regular accounts of trafficked women returning from the Middle East telling how they were forced to do sex work in the name of lucrative jobs. Hindu widows do not necessarily follow those strict rules, yet have to worry about their security when there’s no man supporting them.
A major part of the female population of this country still struggle to make personal choices, starting from what to wear to sticking to their academic passions or choosing their jobs. It is high time parents stepped back from preventing their daughters to make their own choices, rather encourage them to be bold enough to fight against the negativity spread around the society, by being their own personal heroes.
Choose to challenge yourself first, if you wish to make it easier for your children.
Adwiteeya is a random kid who gets super soft if someone spells her name right — ’cause it’s a rarity, as you can tell.