As strange and counter-intuitive as it may sound, nothing can warp civil society and whittle away the rights of women like an extended family unit. Witness India. Here, big families rule. The most famous companies, and even Bollywood, are family-run enterprises. Civil society requires citizens to reserve some of their focus for the world outside, but this challenges the internal-focus instilled in a big family unit. Within families, we learn the value of being good little insiders. Institutions like caste, religion, race and even the state have co-opted the extended family paradigm to harness this loyalty to institution that comes with individuals, who, almost drone like, have their gaze turned inwards.
The me-first family paradigm creates a resistance to civil society, and we see this fundamental dichotomy playing out on the streets of our cities every day. Take the way we observe the rules of traffic for instance. The character of a city can often be found at its traffic lights. Here in the city of Pune, surrounded by the geologically ancient Western Ghats, so close to Bombay/Mumbai and yet so far, a strange history unravels at its traffic-signal islands. These are zones where a society tries to zipper order out of unzipped chaos. But in our city chaos reigns as vehicles outnumber police, and even when traffic policemen are present they are either hapless, overwhelmed, or worse ruthless. When the lights turn yellow, an insidious spirit of aggression sweeps through drivers speeding towards the yellow. The amber glow does not induce them to slow down in preparation for the red light to come, it only makes them want to rev past in an effort to beat the red and other drivers they regard with suspicious disdain.
The yellow will soon turn to red, then on cue drivers will start to make their way through the signal as if they haven’t seen it, and they will honk incessantly at anyone who dares to submit to the red light. People who have lived here a long time say this wasn’t the case a decade ago. Something changed in this city as migrants flowed in, the population mushroomed, apartment buildings of concrete replaced old neighbourhoods of trees and stone houses; and mercantilism bumped out neighbourliness. But is this relentless in-flow the figurative spanner in the works of a working city? Something else deep down is amiss.
There is an unwillngness in our family-oriented country-wide culture to obey the rules that will run a whole society and we will even show impunity towards simple protocols designed to keep us safe. If rules are followed, they are for home use and only for the benefit of the family inside. The roads are home to a mean streak targeted at perceived outsiders, and often it’s the affluent migrant, the perceived outsider, who packs his big family unit into small rooms of the new-ghetto apartment block, looking suspiciously at other perceived outsiders. When a whole culture is focused towards family, and insiders, such a culture will inexorably demarcate an outside world towards which they will direct their suspicion and any and all pent-up aggression/resentment. But the awful paradox is that this most-hated outside world (you often hear people blaming the outer chaos on `outsiders’) is civil society, the very thing that allows civilisation to work.
On the nightly panel debates on TV news, experts will blame society for the subjugation of women. But prisons of the mind begin inside family units, and sexist attitudes gained inside family is then propagated into the outside world. Government commercials depicting family units inevitably have subservient women standing or sitting vacuously beside always seated husbands. The seated husbands will be the one turning to the camera and dishing out the important message. The wives and mothers are mere conduits for patriarchal ideas to pass on to impressionable children. Recently, I was privy to a young mother of boys complaining about girls scoring higher marks in high school examinations. To her, girls getting high scores was a redundancy, as their parents would not let them find jobs afterwards, preferring instead to marry them off. Her sons who would need to find jobs after their studies were losing opportunities to high-scoring girls. More and more young educated women are getting into the workplace every day, but they find themselves out of sync with sexist workplaces and mothers-in-law at home.
The education system is supposed to act as a check on this inward-eye, train a child to be more outward looking and be concerned with the workings of civil society. But in our part of the world, we have found a way to thwart the power of a good education labelling it `the Western/anglicised education system’. Anything that challenges the ancient `inward-looking family eye’ is interpreted as a threat to culture, to the point where civil society itself is often distrusted as a foreign concept, which came out of text-books and not out of the family hearth. The school is essentially an extra-family social construct, the product of civil society, a place to send a child to learn more than its own family can teach it. But the school’s function in a family-oriented culture is often restricted; it is now just a place to send a boy child to acquire the training to later acquire a vocation.
By training the child’s (any child, boy or girl) outer eye, we would be helping it make sense of chaos. As a social animal, we look for safety and stability in the cocoon of family. The cocoon of family is often filled with curiously self-aggrandising but infantilised adults taught to be obsequious in the presence of elders/authority figures. An inward-focused culture has spawned a society of caterpillars reluctant to become butterflies. Thankfully, we are also a curious, thoughtful animal that possesses the instinct to explore outside the family’s safety net, simultaneously also a cage. If freed from this net, what awaits the yet unformed butterfly is something as simple and radical as transformation. It can assume its true adult form free to take wing.