MORALITY TAKES A BACKSEAT
If life is a tragi-comedy, then no one knew it better than American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. She skilfully used satire to depict the soul’s struggle for redemption. One of her favourite themes was upending notions of right and wrong. Morality, in her world, was self-righteousness turned upside-down. A perfect example would be her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, which describes the encounter between a grandmother and a crook who calls himself ‘The Misfit’.
One of the grandmother’s favourite topics to soliloquise on is that of “conscience”. She dangles it over her family like the rod of perdition. Do this and you will face the wrath of God. Do that and your soul will rot in hell. Even the way she dresses while going for a car ride―in a navy blue dress with a small white polka dots and a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim―was so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady”. In stark contrast, the Misfit, whom the family encounters when they meet with an accident, did not have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on a pair of blue jeans that was too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun. He spoke with a cockney accent and, unlike the grandmother, had no illusions about his own goodness.
“You could be honest too, if you’d only try,” the grandmother tells him in a desperate attempt to convert him. “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.”
If we were to be true to ourselves, there is a little bit of the grandmother in most of us―in the rigidity with which we hold to our convictions and the way in which we believe we are right in what we do. And that is what the young women of today are rebelling against. If O’Connor’s story were to be a parable for our times, these women would identify more with the Misfit than with the grandmother. They are rejecting a strict definition of morality, at least in the way that society tries to impose it on them.
“From my childhood, I was taught to do things a particular way,” says Ambika Rani, 25, an IT professional from Jaipur. “I have fought against this my entire life. If my relatives told me to serve the guests, I would rebel. Why can’t my brother carry the tray, I would ask. That is why I am stubborn about my career and my future. I have seen my mother struggle in her marriage, yet she tells me that I must ‘adjust’. I don’t want to adjust. I don’t want to make sacrifices. I don’t think there is anything wrong with living with your partner before getting married. This way you will be able to judge better whether you are right for each other. And I don’t believe that marriage is a life-time commitment. If it does not work, you should leave your husband and find someone else.”
Sexuality coach and TEDx speaker Pallavi Barnwal says that women are also becoming more open about their own sexual well-being and about expressing their desires. Barnwal started the community Yoniverse on Coto―a social app for women to have conversations about everything from health and finance to beauty and fashion. “Women today have an expectation that pleasure matters,” she says. “They tell men what they want in sex. I don’t know if our mothers could ever tell that to our fathers. So much so that they are ready to leave a marriage if they are not sexually satisfied. Many women come to me and ask whether it is ok to have an extramarital affair. I am dying to have sex, they tell me.”
Dr Chandni Tugnait, life coach and Tinder's relationship expert, says that women today demand and exercise more choice and control over their life's decisions that any of the previous generations. Especially in relationships and their personal lives, they seek more equality, autonomy and flexibility. “This is especially true for women who have conventionally faced stronger barriers to having control over their life choices,” she says. “Societal factors like increasing gender equality, access to more educational resources and technology, increasing mobility and financial independence have contributed to this change. Gender norms are changing as society becomes more progressive and recognises the value of women assuming roles that are typically held by men.”
According to a new study by the dating app Bumble, conducted with a sample size of 2,000 single adults, 81 per cent of the women surveyed in India claimed they were more comfortable being single and on their own. Sixty-three per cent of respondents were unwilling to compromise on their choices, desires and needs when dating someone. Thirty-nine per cent of people on Bumble have ended a marriage or serious relationship in the last two years.
“I do want to remain single for the foreseeable future,” says Meena (name changed), a 23-year-old college student. “I think it stems from women not wanting to be tied down while they embark on a journey of self-discovery in their personal and professional lives. Relationships today are super complex…. I have tried it, and the time and patience required are never enough. The endless pool of choices makes you think, ‘What if there is someone better out there?’ Play this game with each other, and you will be on the rockiest journey of love.”
SILENT NO MORE
In 1994, a shocking sex scandal rocked Maharashtra. In the small town of Jalgaon, hundreds of women were blackmailed into having sex with powerful men. The women were often sedated and photographed in compromising positions. These photographs were later used to lure them into sex and slavery. According to newspaper reports, the Jalgaon sex scandal involved over 500 victims. The police had seized more than 189 prints and negatives involving some of the top businessmen and politicians of the region. Apparently, the racket had been going on for over a decade, with women being picked up from college campuses, ice-cream parlours, hospitals, and bus terminals.
When Dr Sameena Dalwai’s grandmother read of the case, she had one question: “Why didn’t any of those women go to their families instead of suffering abuse for so many years?” Dalwai, a professor at the Jindal Global Law School who specialises in gender, sexuality and law, offers an explanation―that the women were raised to bear the burden of honour in their families, so much so that they would rather silently endure abuse than expose their families to shame. Girls are taught to protect themselves from predation to the extent that if they are raped, they have no one to blame but themselves.
In one sense, things have changed. Women today are more vocal about abuse, thanks largely to social media which has not only provided them with an outlet to express their grievances, but has also connected them with other women worldwide who might be going through similar experiences. “Why should I, as a feminist, bring women to the streets and perform a morcha, when I can garner as much support or do as much damage from my laptop sitting in my room?” asks Eysha Marysha, one of Dalwai’s students.
In a forthcoming paper, Dalwai and Marysha discuss everything from the nuances of consent and campus rape to feminism and society’s good girl/ bad girl trope. Marysha cites several cases of women successfully calling out men on social media. On May 3, 2020, for example, an Instagram chat-room called ‘Bois Locker Room’, where south Delhi teenage boys allegedly shared lewd and objectionable content regarding minor girls, was exposed on social media. The next day, the Delhi Commission issued a notice to Instagram and the Delhi Police and an FIR was lodged. On May 5, a juvenile was arrested and other members identified. On May 6, the admin of the group was arrested. “Because of the public coverage that social media provided about the incident, the system, which is otherwise extremely arduous, had no option but to work promptly,” writes Marysha.
Feminist writer Meena Kandasamy, 38, agrees. “When I had a #MeToo experience, I was afraid to speak about it, for fear that people would think that I was an attention seeker and they would not take my work seriously,” she says. “Today’s young women are unafraid. They would immediately tweet about it. In my time I was so concerned about being taken seriously―politically and intellectually―that I swallowed my pride even if I was treated as a second-class citizen along the way. I am not going to waste my time creating a problem, I told myself. Instead, I wanted to draw attention to the things I was saying. But women today will not tolerate any sh*t. They would take it up fearlessly and boldly.”
IDEOLOGY IS BACK
In an episode of the American show FRIENDS, titled ‘The One with the Male Nanny’, Rachel and Ross hire a nanny (played by Freddie Prinze Jr) for their baby daughter. His name is Sandy, he has got a degree in early child education and worked for his last family for three years. When he comes to be interviewed for the job, Ross is disillusioned. “Are you gay?” he asks him outrightly. Sandy replies that he is straight and is engaged to a woman named Delia. “So, you are just a guy who is a nanny?” asks Ross, his voice heavy with sarcasm. Rachel loves Sandy, but Ross is hesitant. “He is smart, he is qualified. Give me one reason we should not try him out?” she asks Ross. “Because it is weird,” replies Ross. “What kind of a job is that for a man? It’s like a woman wanted to be… king?”
Many 1990s kids found the exchange funny. But we missed its casual sexism. We did not find anything wrong with the way in which Monica was fat-shamed, the way in which Ross hated his son playing with a doll or the way in which Joey obsessed over a lesbian exchange between Rachel and Monica. Whether it was the ideals of beauty we learnt from Disney, or the subtle ways in which we endorsed the slut-shaming of women like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, or the way in which we let Sex and the City bamboozle us into believing that a woman’s ultimate purpose in life was to win a trophy husband―1990s pop culture was rife with bubble-gum misogyny.
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- 'We cannot call ourselves animal lovers if we ignore their suffering': Priyanka Mehar
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- 'We are spoiling the planet just for sake of convenience': Media professional Sonika Bhasin
- 'Majority of dalit women are survivors or victims of sexual abuse': Christina Dhanaraj
Today, however, such subliminal messaging would not find mainstream acceptance. FRIENDS would not be able to get away with many of its punchlines. “Women have more voice today,” says relationship counsellor Ruchi Ruuh. “Now, they see things as more black-and-white. They know what they want. They are more aware, and they will staunchly stand by what they believe.”
The 1990s was also a time when ideology took a backseat. There was a rejection of seriousness, sentimentality and sincerity. As Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian, if a magazine ran a piece on the “10 hottest academicians” and stuck in pictures of physicists in fishnets, you could not really raise a feminist objection. “There was a lot to love about the 1990s,” she writes. “They were puckish, they were skittish. A lot of the jokes were actually funny. Politically, though, it was more like a phase we had to go through to get somewhere more meaningful.”
Today, ideology is back in fashion. Everyone has a stance on something. Issues like climate change, gender and mental health are important to the Gen Z. According to Tinder’s ‘Year in Swipe’ report of 2022, 75 per cent of singles were looking for a match who was respectful of or invested in social issues. In fact, so many Indian Tinder members mentioned LGBTQ, the environment, mental health, Ukraine and feminism in their bios last year that they all ranked in the top five local issues.
“How you envision your future is going to be greatly influenced by issues like the climate crisis,” says Dattavi Jariwala, 22. “I believe that having a partner who shares your beliefs and values regarding social and political issues that affect the world has a positive impact. This is preferable to someone who has no knowledge of these issues.”
GUILTED AND SHAMED, STILL
When award-winning journalist and author Nilanjana Bhowmick was in college in the UK, she experienced a culture shock when all her friends went out drinking. Distressed, she called her father. “They are all drinking,” she told him. “What do I do?”
“Do they have brandy?” he asked her. When she replied in the affirmative, he told her, “Well, brandy’s not alcohol. You can have it.”
“For many years, I only had brandy because I thought it was not alcohol,” she says, reiterating how much her father―who was loving towards her while cruel towards her mother―had influenced her decisions. If earlier, patriarchy took the form of violence and subjugation of women, today it is much subtler, at least among the middle-class. “Its hold is so strong, it takes the guise of love,” she says.
Without realising it, families tend to guilt women into thinking they owe them a debt of gratitude. Even while women are taking bold decisions to sever these bonds and chart their own path in the world, they feel weighed down by this burden of love. “Sexuality, marriage and parenthood were key themes we differed on,” says Sneha (name changed), a 33-year-old group account manager from Mumbai. “My parents, initially at least, were influenced by my biological and societal clock than what I wanted in a partner.” She recounts the time when a “perfect” marriage proposal was brought for her and she was pressured by her family to accept. “One aunt joked about how she would teach me to make the best tea for when the groom came to see me,” she says. “I laughingly told her that I hoped the groom’s aunt would be teaching him to make good tea for me as well.”
As per the Bumble study, two in five daters in India claimed that their families pressured them into traditional matchmaking during the wedding season. “The need for family validation will always be there till we are fully liberated,” says Ruuh. “You might fall in love at 25 and be terrified of how your family will take it. Alternatively, you might be single and happy at 40, and still be made to feel bad about what society thinks. Our situations might change, but we will always be guilted and shamed.”
In the end of O’Connor’s short story, the grandmother tries to bridge the gulf between her and the Misfit. “Why, you’re one of my babies,” she tells him. “You’re one of my own children.” She reaches out and touches him on the shoulder, trying to build a connection. The Misfit springs back as if a snake had bitten him and shoots her three times through the chest.
“She was a talker, wasn’t she,” says Bobby Lee, one of the Misfit’s accomplices.
“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit tells him, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
“Some fun,” says Bobby Lee.
“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” says the Misfit. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
Much like the grandmother, we might be burdening our young women with our conviction that we know what is best for them. If we are not careful, they will turn that conviction right back at us. And pull the trigger.