If you’re an Indian (though I’m sure many other Eastern Cultures will share the same experience), the word “Auntie” probably brings with it a dull irritation. “Aunties” are the middle-aged and older women in our intimate surroundings, usually relatives or neighbours, abreast of absolutely all the news and scandals, constantly prying and gossiping and, if you happen to be unfortunate enough to be a woman, constantly commenting on your clothes, body and complexion and asking you when you will get married.
On a darker note, the Auntie has also come to include a more harmful kind of woman: a controlling, even abusive female figure—the stifling mother, the ruthless mother-in-law, the gatekeepers of patriarchy and family “honour”. In short, the Auntie today has come to represent all that is wrong with traditional Indian society.
Like many people, I too once thought in line with this narrative: endless portrayals in television soaps and cinema, comics and satire, jokes and WhatsApp forwards ensured that the “Auntie” became ingrained in the Indian psyche as firmly linked to patriarchy, notions which pit the victims of misogyny against each other and shift accountability away from its perpetrators— “A woman is a woman’s worst enemy”.
The “Auntie” trope shifts narratives away from the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of patriarchy—men—and instead puts it upon a group of older women who, while admittedly upholding regressive structures of power, are also its victims. These women—angry mothers-in-law, meddling aunts, and society matrons—are enforcing laws that were made not by them, but by cishet Brahmin men several millennia ago, and not often by free will but because their already fragile position in society depends upon it.
In patriarchal societies such as India, women occupy the place of second-class citizens, always a stratum below men. As they grow older, women may witness an increase in respect, but this respect—and thus following, social regard—is solely dependent on her ability to safeguard patriarchal structures within domestic spheres. Age brings authority, and older women are expected to use theirs to perpetuate the oppression of womankind. The abusive mother-in-law rules over her daughters-in-law with an iron fist, not for her own ulterior motives, but in the interests of family honour, i.e., the patriarch’s honour. Not acting in the interests of this honour leaves these women subject to social ostracization and abuse from their husbands, sons and relatives.
With the rise in women’s rights activism and changes in social mores, the authority of these older women has come to be questioned. Younger women are beginning to break free from oppressive familial structures and find their own voices. But older women—mothers-in-law, aunts—have come to be demonized instead of being seen as women who have become mired in the functioning of oppressive systems to survive.
In vilifying gossipy aunts, we completely forget our friendly neighbourhood “uncles”—the men who are beating their wives and molesting their neighbours’ children and bringing up their sons to be another generation of perpetrators and beneficiaries of misogyny, while at the same time sharing my-wife-is-so-oppressive jokes on WhatsApp.
A woman is not a woman’s worst enemy—this is a narrative some men, finding themselves unable to deny the existence of patriarchy altogether, use to shift the blame entirely onto women: a deeply troubling pattern of shifting accountability that shows itself not only here, but also in other systems of oppression—for example, the entire narrative of homophobia being “gay”.
Calling homophobes “gay” is a common internet phenomenon which—though harmless in intention, aimed to irritate bigots—subtly spreads the notion that homophobic people are just closeted gay people, i.e., straight people are not homophobic, and gay people themselves are responsible for homophobia, thus shifting the accountability onto a marginalized group for their own oppression. Closeted queer people may exhibit homophobic views in order to conceal their own identity—i.e., for self-preservation—but shifting accountability for the centuries of misery inflicted upon queer people, women, and other marginalized groups, to those very groups, is a futile exercise in mental gymnastics.
Throughout history, certain individuals from marginalized communities have been complicit in oppression, and, mostly through a need for personal preservation, have upheld power hierarchies that suppress their own kind. That does not change the fact of who ultimately gains from these structures, and who loses, who is really oppressing, and who is oppressed, and in whose hands the control of this intricate machinery of discrimination really lies. Shifting accountability only perpetuates the very structures we are today trying to dismantle.
Featured Image: Detail from an Illustration by Devika Menon from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/pop-culture-villainizes-aunties