Rukhmabai Raut,1864-1955, was the first woman to practice medicine in British India. She was also the first woman to oppose the institution of child marriage, herself having been married off to a nineteen-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji at the age of eleven. When taken to court, Rautdeclared that she preferred to stay in jail for six months rather than staying with Bhikaji, confined to a marriage she had no say in.
Only after two years of legal battles did Raut win back the right to control her own life. This grant of freedom, however, was perceived by many as disregarding Hindu customs: a patriarchal view on the matter. Another point of view might be to question whether Bhikaji really did feel the disempowered by the loss of his right over Raut, or was he simply a pawn within patriarchal norms?
To analyse this, we must first try to understand the patriarchy’s ability to control society as a whole. In the essayMasculinity and its Role in Gender-based Violence in Public Spaces, Sanjay Srivastava observes that the patriarchy ‘makes’ men superior to women, and thus masculinity is the process of ‘producing’ men with a sense of superiority.
Hence, men like Bhikaji were born into a custom that created, by defining their role, their behaviour and ultimately, their masculinity. In this context, the notion of the ‘disempowerment of men’ stems from a misunderstanding of what their empowerment actually ever consisted in. They themselves were also subjugated under patriarchal norms, and not given a chance to find their own identity; instead, they were also molded to take on their role in society, and thus perpetuate the patriarchy.
The true meaning of women’s empowerment on the other hand, refers to the fight for equality. As such, it supports the empowerment of both men and women, allowing them each to gain freedom from the patriarchal norms and establish their own identities. It is hence ultimately fighting against patriarchy and towards freedom.
O’Hanlan rightfully argues that we must also ‘look at men as gendered beings’ and uncover the confines of ‘masculinity’. For instance, traditional custom expects men to be the sole providers of the family. However, in the modern world, where the idea of nuclear families is now widespread, that means that men have to face the burden of supporting their family alone. The empowerment of women in this context means that men have beneficial support system, with both parents working alongside each other, taking care of financial as well as domestic issues. Furthermore, it allows men to follow their own true passions without having to make income their primary focus. Thus, women’s empowerment empowers men to take back control their own lives, and step outside the confines of patriarchal society.
Srivastava also comments on the ‘novels, films, advertisements
and folk-advice,’which can be considered as ‘discourses of ‘proper’ masculine behaviour.’ Bollywood movies increasingly face scrutiny for stereotyping the roles of women in society and confining them to this identity. Literature such as Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy point out that the male identity is defined: for men, crying is a sign of weakness, and young boys are taught to ‘never complain’ others will ‘look down on you.’ This mentality – that a male must always be strong and face even unjust abuse – is a way of enforcing stringent ideas of patriarchy.
Srivastava’s makes the useful argument that if masculinity really was men’s true nature, rather than how they have been conditioned, then there would be no need for it to be ‘consistently reinforced’ through such discourses. Men would be ‘naturally endowed’with these characteristics and would not need the reminders.
To conclude, gender norms are imposed on men and women both; thus gender norms disempower both. The only difference is that men nonetheless gain something from it, since the patriarchy ‘is fundamentally organised around the idea of men superiority to women.’ Hence, a man like Bhikaji, who may be acting only on the ‘embodied ways of being male,’ is still the one with the power. Within the patriarchal system, men will always benefit from some of the ‘privileges attached to being a man.’ They will be the ones asked to dominate, subjugate and take control. Women following the same traditional customs will have no privileges, and will always be questioned, contained and suppressed.
Herein lies the ultimate reason why the fight for women’s empowerment today focuses mostly on the subjugation that women continue to face in society. Women were always far from receiving any benefits or privileges, and now they seek the ability to speak and act for themselves: something that seems like a privilege after years of suppression, but in fact was always their birthright.
Out of this struggle comes the point of view that women’s empowerment is starting to threaten male dominance, and is a way for women to take control of men. Yet the holders of such views could not be more wrong. Women’s empowerment is a way for women to grow into themselves, and that therefore does indeed mean questioning male dominance, and disempowering those who support patriarchy. It also, in the end, liberates everyone – men and women – from the confines of gender stereotypes.
Which side Bhikaji was on will remain unknown but, what is known is that no gender should be trying to overtake or control another. Working together, learning from each other and co-existing can never disempower anyone from their basic rights; on the contrary, it empowers everybody.