Humans: we can be strange. Take for instance, how much we enjoy labelling ourselves then stage-managing our lives to adhere to chosen monikers. Clever, stupid, left-brained, right-brained, hindu, muslim, christian, brahmin, conservative, liberal. These labels like magical mantras possess subliminal powers of suggestion over us. But maintaining the personae suggested by said labeling is hard work, sometimes involving complex ritual and even violence. The reality is that we are a mix of so many changing characteristics it’s hard to adopt any one label at any given time.
On Indian news television, extreme conservatism has burgeoned in recent years. This change over from genteel old-boy-network panel discussions to exaggerated extremists shouting polemics at each other has been a ratings magnet. This is also an indication that the idea of what is normal fluctuates in a society. The Indian conservative media at present has as its go-to fall guy the central figure of the vilified liberal. Televised, click-bait slanging matches involving extreme nationalists and liberals whip up the most sentiments alongside ratings. The liberal who does not toe the nation-state line attracting much of the allegorical antipathy. Recently, a conservative pro-establishment news anchor even called for a ban on liberals from rival channels.
Then not a long while ago, I met a liberal. At first, this person said all the usual things — sentiments that liberals in my country hold dear to their hearts. Suddenly a shouting match ensued with the liberal departing from their publicly-held views and sounding off in an unmistakably conservative fashion. As suddenly as it had started, there was a quick retreat. The liberal realised their words were a departure from the usual demonstrable liberal position. The argument petered out with the liberal reiterating through continual reference to their reading materials and travels abroad that they were indeed still liberal.
Some nights ago on an old youtube webcast, a favourite talk-show host took the Mickey out of the conservative Canadian establishment for its allergy to the religious head scarf worn by women in some countries. To the Canadian conservative who takes up the head scarf, the symbol of the head scarf is more important than the actual women wearing them. Conservative pundits in North America and Europe use symbols like flags and burkinis to whip up sentiments and points. On the other hand, perhaps in reaction to this, the progressive world has come to believe the donning of a head scarf is somehow pro-choice, with liberals uncannily echoing conservative voices. In this country, friends defend the unofficial ban on menstruating women entering sacred places as also pro-choice.
The friend described her female relations as being grateful for this menstrual time-off, a time during which they feel free from having to carry out their household and religious duties. This is true. But women’s bodily functions and their cover-all fashions in a feudal patriarchal order signal their subservience and second sex status as opposed to strength and divinity in a matriarchal tradition. No one should mistake programmed oppression for choice, but this is common now in liberal realms. And another thing about cover-all clothing no matter which culture prescribes it for women. This type of clothing is designed to reduce function and feedback to and from a person’s surroundings. In effect, it is clothing designed to either bind or cloister a woman from the outside world. Imagine the effect this must have on a person’s, a woman’s, overall cognition. With reduced stimuli and feedback from the environment, our brains will undergo a kind of incremental atrophy. What does this do over a lifetime and over generations of women? No wonder then that young women in unrestricted, freeing sports clothing can win Olympic medals and we are publicly claiming them now as India’s daughters. Even the sari is a little binding and restrictive, but I am scolded into silence and told that fluency of movement while sari-bound comes with practise and that my opinions offend tradition.
The modern Indian family is still essentially feudal and conservative in nature. It is a male-centric clan system with women forming the lower strata. Given a choice many women will support tyrannies of all kinds minor and major due to familial obligation. Some of us are so conditioned that our cultural programming is all we have for a way of life. The only way to beat the patriarchal hierarchy is to be either privileged or a financially sound woman. That is why in many Indian families, married women with jobs face moderate to extreme hostility. When you raise your voice, one side-effect is the loss of family support. In such circumstances, a woman needs to be able to support herself. Speaking up brings censure and isolation, especially when it is pointed out that other women seem happy to follow along in the existing system. Whether it’s head scarves, colourful saris or feudal clans, when women are treated with compassion many will choose to not just go along, but also defend the system that contains them. Women find ways to cope within their indentured lives, to express themselves through their various subliminal bindings. The only time they are allowed to come up for air in this arrangement is as mentioned earlier if they enjoy privilege or when they graduate to the role of commandant mother-in-law. The cycle repeats itself with older women tyrannising younger women on behalf of the clan.
Resisting societal and family oppression often doesn’t bring light at the end of the tunnel. If resistance goes on for a long time and the system only makes room for cosmetic change, but not the real thing, then woe betide those resisting. They would have lost both liberal and conservative backing. From this, it is clear that liberalism and conservatism have blurry boundaries. The people who take on these labels sometimes make utterances that seem blatantly counter-intuitive, making the listener wonder if they heard right. Perhaps these labels are not intuitive in nature, but identities taken on to suit intellectual agendas that exist for the sole purpose of sounding superlative in a particular peer group. The browbeating news anchor, who overtly espouses women’s issues but hectors other anchors calling for their ban, seems larger-than-life. If they exhibit no doubt at all in all issues, which is necessary in questioning minds and seem to speak from rote or go along with the latest new normals, these are shared proclivities with liberals who don’t question enough, while making allowances for new-normal oppression symbols from extreme religion. If these personae seem unreal, it is because the personae are masks. Something else is going on behind the guise. Maybe not alien bugs on the brain like in the new television series BrainDead, but just maybe something as tortuous: an agenda.