• The Gender Security Project

Patriarchy as Cigarette Smoke: Tackling the Toxicity

By Raakhee Suryaprakash



Image: OXFAM India


A book I proofread over a decade ago compared children used to bad parenting to smokers in a smoke-filled room. It is only when they step out of the room or a nonsmoker enters it that the toxic smoke enveloping them is even detected. It’s the same with us and patriarchy. We live with this cancerous atmosphere and have internalized the toxicity so much that it is the rare that we recognize it. There are many lakshman rekhas we don’t question because challenging the status quo is exhausting. When we are all fighting on multiple fronts in this rat race of a life, we are reluctant to take on the additional burden. Fatigue is the norm!

Just because women have the ability to deal with the equivalent pain of birth doesn't mean they have to. I was recently outraged when I came across an incident where a woman patient apologized to her health worker/caregiver for her low pain threshold! A lot of medical malpractice continues unchecked when concerns of women patients are dismissed as complaints of a “hysterical female hypochondriac” or an “anxious woman.” Misdiagnosis is rampant because medical professionals, especially males, don’t listen or take women patients listing of symptoms seriously. Rarer forms of cancer such as leukemia and lymphoma are often left undiagnosed until it is almost too late because the subtle symptoms are dismissed as hysteria or hypochondria. Common complaints like gallstones and appendicitis are allowed to develop into potentially lethal states such as toxemia and perforated appendix before a woman’s pain in taken seriously. Often dismissed and misdiagnosed as ulcers or period pains (menstrual/premenstrual/postmenstrual cramps) until the woman actually collapses and is brought to Emergency! Even during labor women are not taken seriously. The Women’s Web article’s title summarizes the malaise succinctly “An invisible epidemic of obstetric violence is stripping Indian women of their dignity during child birth”


As another international women’s day approaches these toxic status quos are highlighted. The celebration of the achievements of women leaders and sheroes, few and far between, taken to be wins against patriarchy making glass-ceilings i obsolete. It’s like Black Lives Matter being trumped by “all lives matter” what-about-ry! It’s companies celebrating Men’s Day with the same gusto as women’s day despite a poor showing in the “diversity and inclusion” (D&I) front! Horrifying news of violence against women and girls again show up the rape culture and the deep-rooted patriarchy that virulently resist any progress toward true gender equality.


As Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee puts it, “It is time for women to stop being politely angry.” The Indian stand-up comedy sensation Sumukhi Suresh in her Indian Wednesday Addams avatar “Behti Naak” sketches on the show Son of Abish is particularly devastating in her sketch “Behti Naak on Marriage.” Especially the throwaway line, a daughter is an honor killing awaiting OTP. The short film by Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran, Oor Iravu in the Tamil anthology Netflix film Paava Kadhaigal shows this horrific manifestation of the intersection of gender, caste, class, and rural-urban divide in a powerful manner. All parts of this film anthology abound with scarily accurate manifestations of patriarchy as well as its intersections with other social evils. No section of society is safe. Opportunities and choices for women are the first causalities. And in its extreme form their lives are snuffed out to rekindle the spluttering patriarchy.


The cycles repeat endlessly. The patriarchy and rape culture are harshly reflected in news, fiction, TV soaps and movies yet left almost unchecked despite shock and momentary outrage. Whether the rest of society is taking note of the research that educating girls and empowering women with choices enables a society to develop, terrorists and insurgents are taking note. Be it the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Boko Haram and similar outfits in Nigeria, attacking educational centers and medical centers is a repeated trend. School girls are kidnapped, children are abducted in masses from schools and the buildings are burned or bombed. That’s the backlash to any strides taken to check the symptoms of patriarchy. Khap panchayats – “ruling groups of old Indian village men” – lay down the law regarding the movement of girls and women and their access to education, mobiles, internet and technology rather than checking the toxic masculinity and caste pride of the younger generations. Sonia Faleiro’s in-depth analysis of the events in Badaun in her bookThe Good Girls highlights the condition: “deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes that exist in rural India—such as the invisible women mostly staying at home, cooking for the men, eating after them and sitting lower than them. Unmarried women are forbidden from using phones, and most girls are pulled out of school after the eighth standard when education is no longer free or compulsory. They are then married off—for their own safety.”


Whether Badaun in 2014 or Katra in 2021, it is young girls who are lynched for the patriarchal cause.


The gender gap in medicine, engineering and scientific research has a lethal trickledown effect. Multiple-award winning book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini articulates this best. Recent research even found that women are more at risk in cars because the female crash test dummy weighs just 110 pounds! How many women actually weigh under 60 kilos? Yet these examples in of themselves have a solution to the problem of patriarchy. The solution is having more true feminists and feminist allies in positions of power. Providing safe and conducive work environments in all fields but especially in STEM, industry and politics. Research in D&I practices has repeatedly shown that a workplace geared toward women and with more women in leadership and mentorship roles is more successful, resilient and profitable. Feminist urbanism shows that cities geared toward making women feel safer and comfortable are more sustainable. The pandemic we are living with has showcased women heads of states as more responsive to such threats to human security.


So, the solution? To dream and work toward a brave new world – a more inclusive world – a utopian gender equal world with genuine gender parity. Strides have been made, but the moves have to be sustained “As the year begins, there are more top female leaders than ever before. In the U.S., about a quarter of the legislature is female. Kamala Harris just became the first woman Vice President. Half of the Biden-Harris administration’s cabinet is female — another first. Women leaders are making gains in business as well. For the first time in history, all S&P 500 firms have at least one female board member. The number of women CEOs in the S&P 500 hit an all-time high (though still only 7.8%) at the end of 2020.”

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