Woman’s Day: Elimination of stereotypes

Biologically there may be the distinctive sexual differences, but in all other respects – in terms of emotions, feelings and thoughts – men and women share a continuum of characteristics

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

On International Women’s Day I saw an interesting news item on Indian TV: a man had been adjudged ‘World’s Best Mommy’. He was a 30-plus years old bachelor, and had adopted a 4-year old child who had Down’s syndrome, or mongolism as this condition is generally known in common parlance.

During his brief interview, he said he had to wait for one and a half years before he was finally granted adoption of the child, until he was deemed to be qualified to do so by the authorities. Since Avnish came into his life, he said, both of them have been transformed by the sheer love they share – and one could see and sense this on their smiling, joyful faces –, and his life is now dedicated to the care and upbringing of this child, for whom he wants the best.

Something that he said touched a chord: a mother may give birth to a child, but parenting has no gender. Besides working and providing for himself and the child as a father, he was doing everything else that a mother is supposed to do for a child – washing and bathing, feeding, dressing him properly, playing with him, overseeing his early education and inculcating values and manners, telling him bedtime stories and so on.

For the most part of human history, women and men fitted in the traditional roles – of the man going out to work and being the breadwinner, and the woman staying at home and doing all of the above in caring for their children (who used to be many) as well as doing the household chores and also attending to the husband’s needs. But then came the industrial age, when women began to go out to work in factories so as to supplement the family income. They too worked long, punishing hours, but the respective roles did not undergo any change: the woman still had the entire responsibility of the household.

Those of my generation of the 1940s – and the earlier decades too for that matter – remember, with more than a tug in our hearts, how our Mothers, Dadis and Nanis (I deliberately use the capitals to stress the respect and love that we owe them) heaved and toiled as housewives and the custodians of the household to keep all of us children and the menfolk (as at least three generations stayed under one roof) fed and clothed, managing to save for a rainy day too, and ensured that our other needs also were met. They were our intrepid procreators, sustainers and protectors to their last breath. They must have had their pains and sufferings, but that hardly showed. They accepted their role without complaining: their main mission was to keep their brood together, however limited the means were in those days. And we are the testimonies of their missions accomplished.

What I think could be called the ‘new’ industrial age emerged post the reconstruction that western countries especially in Europe underwent after the devastation wrought by World War II. Economies began to pick up, and advances in science and technology, health and medicine ushered in an era of relative prosperity that contrasted with the war-weary years of penury and hardship. The earlier League of Nations became the United Nations, which came up in the immediate aftermath of the war with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As the second half of the 20th century unfolded, women in larger numbers joined the workplace in all kinds of occupations, and with emancipation and education came the awareness and claim of their rights. In the West arose the feminist movement, epitomized by the Australian feminist Germaine Greer and bra-burning, in New York I think. It was inevitable that the traditional housewifely role would come into question and it did.

Apart from, justifiably, seeking dignity in the workplace, the basic issues were: would men participate in domestic chores, would they share in parenting? It’s a long, complex, and interesting story, but suffice it to say that in many cultures and countries these issues have found no clear-cut answers, and we are to this day far from speaking of them having been resolved.

Meanwhile, the feminist movement suffered criticisms from women themselves, and the pur and dur variety has lost a good bit of its steam. The glass ceiling for women still exists, and despite all the freedoms conferred, the recent explosion of sexual harassment cases – and in which some women were allegedly accomplices – should make us realise that, feminism or not, there’s still a long way to go to change attitudes.

To come back to the more mundane, but to me by far the more important aspects, I for one condemn those men who still believe in sticking to the traditional role of the man being a macho, that is domestic chores and parenting are solely the woman’s job.

No.

Not in our times when in almost all households both husband and wife are working. However, fortunately there is a silver lining. I know many men who willingly share household work and enjoy parenting, but I have also come across some diehards who won’t budge from the perceived macho image. They don’t know what they are missing is all I can say.

However, there are also women who fail to assume their role as they should, neglecting both household and children, and are lured by external attractions, even going wayward, like the men who get consumed by alcoholism. They are a blur on womankind, just as much as their male counterparts who shy away from helping out with chores and caring for children are a dishonour to men.

All this comes about because of a wrong perception about what being masculine and being feminine means. Biologically there may be the distinctive sexual differences, but in all other respects – in terms of emotions, feelings and thoughts – men and women share a continuum of characteristics. From this angle what distinguishes the feminine from the masculine is simply a matter of degree of expression of the characteristics. If they recognize this reality, they will realise that they are much more to each other than being merely the claimed ‘equal’: they enrich each other through being complementary to each other, and this is achieved by a mutual balancing of the characteristics that they possess.

In Hinduism, this perspective is at its very source, and is symbolized by the Union of Shiva and Shakti. This is explained nicely and simply by Aimee, an American lady who has been a yoga practitioner and trainer for nearly 21 years:

‘In union, Shiva and Shakti make up the half-woman lord known as Ardhanarishvara. The image of Shiva-Shakti in consort is a truly beautiful one to gaze upon. This androgynous figure shows the union of masculine and feminine aspects of our being, which brings about a mystical wholeness within.

Shiva is the yogi god with his naked torso and muscled legs, with dreadlocks and a snake around his neck. He carries a trident and has a peaceful face.

Shakti has long hair, large almond shaped eyes and delicate features. She wears a flowing silk cloth and one of her feet is raised in a dance.

The image conveys complete balance, joy, and presence. This is Shiva-Shakti — the union of sacred masculine and feminine consciousness that lies within us and throughout the Cosmos.’

‘Balance, joy, presence’ to keep the family, and therefore society, together, with whatever means are available: what more do we need?


* Published in print edition on 12 March 2020

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