On Reading Nivedita Menon’s ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’ in a Patriarchal Home

During lockdown, I started reading non-fiction again and happened to pick up Nivedita Menon’s book Seeing Like a Feminist.

I was back from university, and could by no means unsee the very day-to-day gender-based discrimination at home while reading the book – which reminded and retold me that none of it is natural. The parochial hierarchies within families is not natural, the gender-based division of labour and designated roles is not natural, the virilocal system of marriages is not natural and most importantly the entire zest of families to prevent and preserve the social order is not natural – and moreover an obnoxious and frivolous lie.

Menon very eloquently writes:

…the maintaining of social order is like no makeup, makeup look. It requires faithful performance of prescribed rituals over and over again throughout one’s lifetime. Complex networks of cultural reproduction are dedicated to this purpose. But the ultimate goal is to produce the effect of untouched naturalness.

As I was being sent from one house to another (relatives) during the pandemic, until I could finally reach home, I was taken aback by how little agency I had. What startled me more was the regressive outrage of my ‘modern family’ at whatever little resistance I could put up while asserting my own choices. They could not have been possibly more convinced that I had no reasons to demand otherwise.

Menon’s book retells the story of a Delhi high court judgement in 1984, which said that “the fundamental rights ensured to every Indian citizen by the constitution, were not applicable to the family: these rights have to stop at the door of the home. Letting fundamental rights into the family, said the judge would be ‘like letting a bull into a china shop’.”

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Menon adds that, “The judge was in fact, absolutely right. If you bring fundamental rights into family, and if every individual in the family is treated as free and equal citizen, that family will collapse. Because the family, is based on clearly established hierarchies of gender and age, with gender trumping age; that is, an adult male is generally more powerful than an older female”.

With Menon’s book in my hand, and family in my sight, the days spent reading those pages were a complete nightmare. I then realised that this is how the rest of my life is going to be from now, now that my eyes had been opened.

I couldn’t really tell which of the two was more disturbing – the book or reality?

But as I think about it more and more, I can comprehend the root cause of the injustices and why it is believed to be normal. In Menon’s words, it is the three interlinked features of Indian families: patriarchy – power distributed along gender and age hierarchies, but the adult men trumping over older women; patriliny – property and name passing from forefather to son; and virilocality – a wife moving to husbands’ home.

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Thus, for me it was “the virilocal patrilineal forms of marriage” – in which a family is defined a group constituting a man, his wife and children as the only accepted constructs of society. The book explains how this form of marriage was made popular in India during British rule when north Indian upper caste customs reigned supreme. However, even at that time, many tribes and traditions had different family compositions and forms of marriage, writes Menon.

This simple knowledge has since made my life terrible; the very imagination of having a social construct beyond the normalised patriarchal families makes me believe to my core that I have been toxically parented so far – just like all of us, in some way or other. I resonated with every alphabet of it, when Menon writes, “in whichever ways women are different… their difference is considered to be an inferior difference, not just a difference, or not a superior difference.”

How do I go back to the society, where I came from, where I am at, with the imagination of a society that Menon made me visualise? How do I succumb to any injustices, over which I never saw any problem before? How do I make my loved one’s look at the fault lines, and still love them if they don’t?

Probably this emotion is very well gauged in her acknowledgement, in which she says, “Here’s to feminist of every gender, everywhere, anywhere. And those who seriously engage with feminism to push us, kicking and screaming, in unexpected directions. And to those who’ll become feminist at some stage. Our lives are meaningful because of one another”.

No matter how shaken I feel reading this book, I could not possibly be more grateful to Menon for writing this book and for giving new meaning to my life.

Soumya Thakur is a 21-year-old poet, YouTuber and law student, who also works with Youth For Swaraj in Chandigarh.