The most obvious double standard in a patriarchal marriage is that of the slap culture. Anubhav Sinha made an excellent movie – Thappad – about this entitlement Indian men enjoy over their female counterparts. Recently, I watched a prime-time-serial-wife get slapped by her ‘virtuous’ husband. Reason – disciplining her for her ‘evil’ actions. The serial then shifts into the time-tried trope of contrite wives being shamed into returning to their husbands, acknowledging the man’s ownership of the woman. Perhaps the most nauseating thing about this entire story is how horribly the aggrieved women are portrayed. Here’s what the slap culture in Malayalam TV promotes.
They are likened to children throwing tantrums. Their own parents are typical stereotypes – the good father who urges the daughter to go and live with an abusive husband because that’s how it is in society and the ‘evil’ mother, who tells her daughter that she need not tolerate the insult to her person. Now, you may ask, why does a small sub-story in a serial that no one openly likes infuriate me so much that I have to write about it?
While the Malayalam film industry is leagues ahead of most Indian entertainment in producing progressive films and displaying domestic violence disclaimers, Malayalam TV manages to lose us all those goodwill points. You can argue that Malayalam TV is not as important. However, they are watched by a very relevant section of Malayali society – the homemakers, who nurture the next generation of Malayalis and influence their thought process.
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Media is a powerful weapon and we all agree that media influences the way we think. Most of the time, the slaps that take place on mini-screens are shown as a good thing, as a corrective measure. Everyone cheers when evil villains get slapped by their husbands. The portrayal of domestic violence in such a positive manner reinforces the active belief of this patriarchal society that women are at best children whose opinions can readily be changed by a slap or two. Even if they pack up and leave, their own parents won’t support them and no one else has any right to interfere on the wife’s behalf because “what happens inside a marriage stays inside a marriage”, unless of course it is the wife’s mistake; then it can be cracked open and displayed to the immediate family by the macho slap. Domestic violence is much more than the so-called ‘corrective’ slap. It is often a cathartic mechanism for drunk men to relieve their rage. The slaps of Malayalam serials gloss over this ugly reality and seemingly encourage husbands to slap insubordinate wives.
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Like Thappad repeats over and over again, the issue is not just about the physical sting of the slap, but rather about what the simple action of a slap reveals about the position of women in this society.
Amrita, the main character of Thappad says, “Nahi maar sakta”. Then, what makes people believe that men have the right to slap or discipline women? I posed this question to an elderly person and the answer I got went like this.
“A man and a woman grow up in different circumstances. When they get married, it is the woman who ‘gets handed’ to the man and never otherwise. He has the responsibility to protect her, to provide for her, and hence, to discipline her. Of course, if the woman obliges his dominion lovingly, he would treat her ‘ponnupole’, as one would treat a child, so no occasion would arise for a slap. That happens only when women become ‘thantedi’ aka independent”.
How much does this reek of Manu’s infamous comment on women? This repression is evident even linguistically – the words used to describe a woman’s role either fits a child or some object, most often gold or fragile, lovely things like flowers. It is also implied in these words that a woman’s part in a decision should be as inconsequential as a child’s despite her being an adult who is probably as old as the male partner. Also, note that such a perspective completely forgets about the notion of equality in marriage. It seems that equality is as alien in a typical patriarchal marriage as it is in Malayalam serial stories.
What does a woman lack that puts her in this predicament? Perhaps, nothing. Women today have an education. Women are stronger and more aware than we were ever before. Movies like Thappad and The Great Indian Kitchen not only exist but are also widely praised. What stubbornly refuses to change, however, is a set of people’s clinginess towards old, impractical customs. Women are still raised to be dependent on men, no matter what kind of progressive setup they seem to be living in. An example is the Kerala high court’s recent observation on a live-in couple’s plea to get custody of the child the mother had given up for adoption. The mother had to give up her child when she broke up with her live-in partner. When they reconciled, they filed to get the child back. The court allowed it and said, “she thought without the support of a man, she cannot survive. If a woman feels she is nothing without the support of the man that is the failure of the system”.
Women, here, are not just trained to be dependent, they are also taught to shame anyone who even tries to break out of the mold. Women themselves facilitate a lot of this abuse as silent wives or abusive mothers (-in-law). The word ‘thantedi’ exists for the sole reason of shaming women who choose to be different. Thantedis are the cause of marital breakups. Their true rivals are the ideal females of the patriarchal society – the avatars of ‘sarvamsaha aya bhoomi’. They are less prickly, easier to manage, and altogether more virtuous than their louder counterparts.
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Our marital systems are still stuck in that age-old phase where women are supposed to be content in the provision of their husbands without any complaints and as a consequence without any valid opinion. It is very easy to notice this and I doubt that there are any young girls living in Kerala today who haven’t heard dreaded ‘advice’ like “bharthakanmarayal onn thalli enoke varum” or “oru anninte kaiyil chelatte, avan adiche odhikikolum”. The only difference today is that women have better jobs and all means to be independent. Yet, if they try to assert their independence, they become ‘thantedis’.
Perhaps it is the consequence of this lack of equality and the rise of awareness that marriages are becoming increasingly rough. Patriarchy has a different interpretation of this deterioration. And no, they don’t think it is because certain men refuse to acknowledge the increasing awareness and opinions women have. Women are supposed to have humility and the lack thereof is the sole cause of all problems. Humility is a wonderful quality to have, no doubt. The problem arises when women are the only ones told to be humble in an institution where men and women have equal commitment. Or like gender-based unequal pay, is it supposed to be an equal work-unequal rights sort of situation? Even Disney princesses who wait for ‘big strong men’ to solve their problems are rarely told to suffer abuse in silence.
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The trivialisation of the slap culture in our media reveals a lot of problems in our gender system. They include victim-blaming (women are blamed for not tolerating abuse), normalisation of abuse (“after all, it’s just one tiny slap”), and the blatant refusal to acknowledge that a mistake has been committed. The slap is no acid attack, true. But it is often the take-off point in a journey of oppression a woman is forced to go through if she wants to have a marital relationship. A slap may soon become many slaps and this cumulative abuse is enough to break a person’s spirit and mind. Perhaps that is not such a big problem in our society where mental health is a joke literally, but the world is changing.
Women need to learn how to resolve the issue of domestic abuse and men need to learn that women are not children or property. The slap culture is dangerous not only to women who are the victims of it. Children who grow up seeing abuse are traumatized and may eventually make the same mistakes later in life. In this case, society produces a group of people who simply cannot comprehend why there is no love in their marriage because all they are doing is what ‘worked’ for their parents before them. Tiktok trends where the male partner is glorified for being possessive and sometimes abusive are evidence of this.
Men are harmed too, Malayalam TV depicts any man who does not discipline his wife as a ‘pennan’ aka ‘feminine man’. And when society finally does condemn domestic violence, it is often because the woman is an ‘abala’, that is, weak. This is benevolent sexism at play, and do not forget that it is patriarchy that renders the image of women as fragile. Women must be respected because they are individual, contributing members of the society just like men and not only because they are physically weak.
Why can’t we just be individuals enjoying harmonious relationships? The ups and downs of gender roles only serve to drive up the rift between the sexes. Most of us agree that hereditary monarchy is unfair. We all condemn nepotism. We easily agree that authority must be earned and not bestowed. Why can’t we accept it in the institution of marriage? Men should deserve respect when they earn it, as should women. Respect should never become an entitlement that comes with birth as a man or woman. When it does, it breeds ego. Ego breeds repression and repression breeds hatred. Marriage should be a bond of love and mutual respect, not an enforcement of regulations that fit ill in a modern world.
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Why can’t we just be people who love and respect each other? I don’t know the answer, do you?